3 Reasons Why Smart Women Get Workplace Backlash


If you are a smart, powerful woman leader who is taking on more strategic responsibility or rising to a new level in your organization, you may experience backlash tied to the very attributes that helped you get where you are, and in fact, ones you've been encouraged to hone.

It stings because you are driven to excel and you sincerely care about how others perceive you. You may feel blindsided then perplexed.

Just how can attributes like intelligence, a relentless work ethic, and speaking up for example, be perceived as an asset and a detriment? Let's look at three possibilities for why this is happening. They are not mutually exclusive.

  1. You are being held to a double standard.
  2. Your smarts outpace your people skills.
  3. You are not getting helpful, candid feedback

1. You Are Being Held to a Double Standard

You see examples of men engaging in the same behaviors (or more extreme ones) -- speaking up, sharing expertise and opinions, pushing others to meet high standards, refusing to be a people pleaser, etc... It's tolerated by others in the workplace. However, now here you are getting feedback that says your behavior is unacceptable.

You suspect a double standard.

Unless you are in one of the top countries for women's equality like those in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, I can tell you, "You are probably right." The workplace expectation that women be likable -- which can broaden to other gender-specific expectations -- is alive and well.

What's the solution if this double standard rankles your sense of fairness? Step back and look at the bigger picture. Think about your end goal. What's even more important to you? Tina Fey, comedian, television actor, writer and producer, said it best in her book Bossypants:

"When faced with sexism, ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: Is this person between me and what I want to do?"

If not, ignore it and move on, she advises.

2. Your Smarts Outpace Your People Skills

If you are one of the smartest people in the room, if you are driven and a woman, your smarts might be outpacing your people skills. You must learn to be smart in a different way. It is like going from speaking your native language to learning a new one. You must learn to help other stakeholders, employees or your team unleash their talents, and their intelligence.

Keep your native intellect, but develop your mentoring and coaching skills. A rich resource is to ask people whose leadership style you admire how they made the transition from being the expert to bringing out the capabilities and expertise in others.

3. You Aren't Getting Helpful, Candid Feedback

Most people are not great at giving helpful, candid feedback. There are a number of reasons. The simplest reason is that people are busy. Other times, they do not know how to tell you or they cannot articulate it well. They may be too polite, or they fear retribution, real or imagined.

You have to ask for it and make it easy for them to respond or not. You must be in listening mode and inquire to understand. Make sure you ask about what's working well and what could work better so you know what to keep doing and what to change. You also implement your own feedback practice: Choose regular intervals to ask for it from people whose opinion you value.

A mentor, your boss, trusted advisor, or an executive coach, can be of immense value in helping you discover blindspots -- yours, and the organization's -- and craft a path forward.

Strengths-based or appreciative 360-degree assessments are helpful. These focus on where you are at your best and on where you can improve. Check with your Human Resources director, Human Capital or Organizational Development manager, about getting access to one and confidential support to help you make sense of the data.

If the pain of the backlash is still fresh, hang in there. You're up to the task of navigating these challenges. It is not easy but it will be rewarding.

Beth Hand, CEO and Executive Coach, Leadership Hand LLC, helps mission-driven leaders in Fortune 500 to small and medium-sized enterprises worldwide have a bigger impact.