Three Gender Biases Women Leaders Face

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire embraces female leadership. We are run by women. Women hold seven out of eight director-level positions, despite a male-dominated board. We're enlightened, we've leaned in, and there is no gender wage gap at our organization.

Being a woman in power has its advantages. Our inherent femininity makes us great communicators and we're able to use that to build stronger communities. We're often more approachable than our male counterparts, and women are often more efficient leaders. But that doesn't mean we don't fight gender bias on a daily basis.

The Likability Penalty

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has stated that as men become more successful, they become more likeable; women are inversely affected by the same success. The more successful we become, the more words like "bossy" and "shrill" get thrown around. Ambition is seen as a selfish trait in a woman, but an admirable one in a man. I know that my "ambition" has definitely been used to describe me in a negative context.

This forces us to be constantly aware of how others perceive us. We need to make sure that we have enough chutzpah to not get left behind, but are simultaneously the girl next door. It is quite a balancing act! Ultimately, it makes us second guess our decisions and undermines our authority. Learn to recognize this kind of talk, and put a stop to it whenever you can.

Getting Judged on Appearance

I know the importance of maintaining a professional appearance, but no one enjoys constantly being judged. The pressure on women to look their best isn't anything new, but it isn't changing either. Both men and women judge women leaders based on their appearance. In fact, I subconsciously find myself more conscious of my appearance when attending events dominated by women, rather than men.

It generally costs women a lot more, and takes a lot more time, to maintain an "acceptable" appearance than it does for men. Adult women spend approximately two weeks a year on their appearance. Avoid giving appearance-based compliments, and instead focus on achievements.

Undermining Our Achievements

Women are more likely to downplay their achievements by claiming they had a lucky break, or give credit to their team rather than to their leadership abilities. There's even a term for it: impostor syndrome. Defined by the constant fear someone will find out you're not as good as they think you are. It's also felt as a nagging suspicion that praise is given to make you feel better about your mediocre work.

How do you combat this? Take ownership of your achievements, and avoid talk that undermines your abilities. You got to where you are on your own merit, and you do your best everyday. Celebrate your efforts. Learn to recognize this kind of talk in others, so that you can instill confidence in other women, too.

This isn't meant to condemn society for being inherently sexist. We've come a long way in a short period of time. Being a leader, whether man or woman, is a difficult job that comes with many pitfalls and often leaves us feeling like we are on an island. But the rewards are well worth the risk.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, we foster leadership in youth through mentorship regardless of gender. To learn more about BBBS, go to

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