Understanding how successful women navigate the numerous obstacles they face in order to advance to top leadership has always been my challenge. My view has been that these barriers are insidious, pervasive and societally-bound.
Then came an earthquake: the misogynistic 2016 political campaign and bragged-about sexual assault; followed by aftershocks: the sexual harassers of Fox News, Uber, and other Silicon Valley companies; then a tsunami hit, ushered in by revelations about Harvey Weinstein. The ensuing #MeToo movement has revealed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in every industry; from out-and-out rape, to grabbing “private lady parts,” to unwanted sexual advances, to sexual innuendos. What is the insidious goal of these humiliating words and actions? To “put a woman in her place?” To remove her power?
Women are not supposed to be powerful. If they are, or if they threaten to be, there is a stable of insecure men ready to find ways to subordinate them, discredit them, undermine them and yes, use sexual advances to overpower them. Why? Because these men feel an overwhelming need to convince everyone and themselves that they are powerful.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Maine found that women in authority are more likely to be harassed. They concluded that sexual harassment can serve as “an equalizer” against women in power, “motivated more by control and domination than by sexual desire.” Most women already know this; but for the decent gentlemen of the world who don’t know, repeat after me, this is not about flirting or romance gone off the rails.
Yet sex is by no means out of the equation. Men trying to live up to some idealized masculine stereotype has its fingerprints all over this. Take exaggerated expectations of what it is to be a “real man,” – including being financially, intellectually, or physically powerful – all three if possible, then add creepy psychotic jerks and stir. Now there’s a toxic cocktail.
Not all aspiring female leaders get “equalized” out of power. How did they avoid it?
Several years ago, I developed a behavioral road map based on the shared characteristics of successful senior executive women as a guide for getting around the blocks that hold women back. The behavioral roadmap did not take into specific account the obstacle of sexual harassment, but I’ve begun to wonder, could it help women thwart it? Reviewing my research, I see there are some characteristics in the roadmap that may well help women dodge the bullet. These are skills that allow women to acquire and wield power without inciting the competitive backlash of the men around them.
A clear behavioral theme of these successful women was their ability to be non-intimidating and relate-able despite their professional mastery, position of power and aggressive pursuit of goals. They made their audience feel smart with them, rather than feel intimidated by them. They assumed that people could keep up with them; and by doing so, they avoided an air of superiority. In essence, they down-played their position of power. This makes it less likely that men would feel that their power is threatened and act out inappropriately to try to take away hers.
Another behavior these women demonstrated is that they shared power with others, building a community of leadership. They distributed decision-making and delegated strategically important initiatives, maintaining control while being viewed as collaborative. By empowering others and showing confidence in their capability, they actually made people feel more powerful. This all makes it less likely that they would be targeted as a woman who needed to be “put in her place.”
One characteristic of the women in my study was that they confidently stood their ground, not letting others subordinate them, even when they were lower in the pecking order. One senior VP told me about going to a client’s board meeting as a junior consultant. She presented a portion of the presentation, which was well received. As they were leaving the meeting, her male colleague said for all to hear, “I’m the senior person here, you’re the junior one, so you have to carry out the box of binders.” Not inclined to accept insult, she said, “Sure, I work out. I’m in way better shape than you are.” She laughed and said to me, “You know, hit ‘em where it hurts.” She used humor to slap away his put down. Ironically, men often use humor to knock another man down a peg who is trying to take a dominant position over them. Women can play that game too.
Building Key Relationships
Perhaps the most important skill that these women demonstrated was their ability to build close platonic relationships with their colleagues and with a powerful mentor who was a strong advocate. Importantly, they built relationships with the right kind of people, those who were worthy of power and didn’t abuse it. One CEO told me that when she was a VP, one of her male colleagues was trying to intimidate her. Her mentor said, “If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to be a big dog.” He advised her on how to do just that, bolstering her confidence to make her male colleague stand down. He had her back, but he gave her the fire power and she used it. With a network of supporting relationships, and a senior advocate providing high-altitude coverage, it leaves little room for nefarious activity.
Building the Right Culture
Getting rid of sexual harassment really boils down to culture. It is NOT a problem for women to fix. It is the organization’s responsibility to eliminate the offenders no matter how “important” they are. Tolerance, looking the other way, is never acceptable. It profoundly harms women and creates a toxic culture.
Women’s collaborative, inclusive leadership behaviors create a culture in organizations where people connect rather than compete with one another, where there is trust, where people’s knowledge and ideas are solicited and valued, and they carry weight. Power games, of which sexual harassment is one, are not part of that culture.
Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph. D. is the author of “Breaking Through "Bitch" – How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly” and cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners