Women in Leadership: Appearance vs Track Record

13/11/2017
Women leaders are sometimes seen as trouble-makers because their leadership often involves challenging or disrupting the status quo and innovating beyond the traditional norms of a business, community or family. Research by Amanda Sinclair and Christine Nixon shows they are often judged by their appearance not their track record.
 
There are many examples – think Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton – that show women leaders are scrutinised and given advice on everything from their looks to their voice to the way they execute changes, devise strategy – and even how they make mistakes.

Because of these dynamics, many women come under enormous pressure to camouflage who they are. They may become guarded in what they wear and say, even turning themselves into honorary men, uncomfortable with who they need to be as a woman leader.
 

Under the microscope

Rather than being surprised by this scrutiny, it's important for women to have strategies to deal with being under the microscope.

Cognitive science has proved the link between being comfortable in our bodies and having confidence and presence in how we come across to others. Being encouraged to explore who we are, what we can do and how we can do it, is important for gaining confidence in the way we interact with the world.

Women leaders need encouragement not to mask their ambition to succeed in business. Some women are told that to be ambitious is taboo, which is a way of keeping them in check psychologically.
 

Dirty words

'Ambition' and 'power' are often seen as dirty words when attributed to women. It's important to understand how fear of these words can undermine your leadership. If you understand how others' actions or words can strip you of power in your office, home or social life, then you can make a choice about whether to listen, respond or ignore.

Julia Gillard said women need power to change things. Participation and gaining office is the start but what really counts is gaining power. As a woman in leadership, who has been in the thick of it, she knew that women had to use power ethically and in conjunction with followers to address future challenges.
 

Share and reflect

A good sign of an authentic leader is their ability to share their journey and reflect on it. If your followers know who you are, what's important to you and how you reach your goals, they understand why they should follow you.

A willingness to face the common challenges of what we can and can't aim for as women is immensely helpful for women leaders. Messages that dissuade us from making change can come from colleagues, friends or the office. Being aware of this negativity, and understanding it, helps to evaluate what obstacles are based on fears and stereotypes that have no place in leadership. Reflection helps us learn from mistakes but also trust in our track record and capabilities.

Without that awareness, you will become someone you're not and harm who you need to be as a woman in leadership. Instead, you need to lay your foundations by sending out confident signals that lead people to acknowledge your power and authority. Our recommendation from observing many effective women leaders is don't hold back and make clear that you will manage and behave as a woman in your role as a leader. This doesn't mean being soft but being clear on your values and what you stand for.
 

Forget the white horse

It's also important to debunk the classic notion of a leader, charging in on a white horse, with all the answers, on the way to glory. The antithesis of this is someone with a real strength of purpose, who knows who they are, sets expectations and shows how they will treat people to achieve their goals.

A big part of leading as a woman is setting the right environment for achieving your goals. This includes acknowledging that you might not be the smartest person in the room and might need help from allies to handle external and internal pressures when bringing about change.

Remember, women are more visible than men, making us easy targets. Finding allies is pivotal, and supporters are often in surprising places. Don't hesitate to seek them out. In any group, there will always be some who are cheering you on and interested in the changes you represent.
 

Fashion tips?

We heard a woman who trained other women give the following advice on how to dress: 'If you can see up it, down it or through it – don't wear it.' At one level, this sounds pragmatic. But even if well-intentioned, its generally not a good idea to give advice to women about their appearance. Commenting on women's dress perpetuates the cycle of judging women by their looks, something we rarely do for men.

A better path is to help women understand the context and be confident to make their own decisions. Women are different and they need to be supported to find their own paths.
 

Turning up the heat

Being a woman in leadership and instigating change will require you to turn up the heat on occasion. You may find yourself unpopular, which probably means you're doing your job.

How you manage these circumstances personally requires some inner work. By being a reflective leader, you are better attuned to when your ego is driving your agenda or when you're over-reacting to inevitable criticism. Reflection and seeking advice can help you step back and refocus on key overriding purposes.

Wisdom for women leaders is to know where you come from and what matters to you, draw support from your history, track record and allies, seek feedback from partners and friends who can help you keep perspective – and be resilient.

About the authors

Amanda Sinclair is an author, researcher, consultant and professorial fellow at Melbourne Business School. She is co-author with Christine Nixon of the book  Women Leading, published by Melbourne University Press.

Christine Nixon is deputy chancellor of Monash University and chairman of Monash College and Good Shepherd Microfi nance. She was Victorian chief police commissioner from 2001 to 2009. 

This article is based on Amanda Sinclair and Christine Nixon’s Melbourne Business School podcast Women in Leadership.

Reproduced with permission from the Australian Financial Review.