Who's Afraid to Lead Like a Woman? Not Millennials

I’ve been in a bit of a quandary about young women. Do they understand the impact of gender in the workplace? Do they know that women need to behave differently than men to be successful leaders?

A couple of years ago, I spoke to a young publishing professional who was offended by my research that shows successful women leaders “balance assertiveness’ and blend some stereotypic feminine characteristics like empathy, inclusiveness and nurturing into their leadership style. She said it was a message that she wouldn’t want to put out there! Why? Because, “we (younger women) don’t see masculinity and femininity as “a thing.” It has no meaning anymore. Stereotypes don’t matter.” Really?

More recently, I had a thirty-something engineer tell me that her nature was to be aggressive, just like her male peers. The very idea that she could manage gender expectations by incorporating “feminine” attributes like warmth, openness and relate-ability into her leadership style was an affront. At the very least, it would mean she was not being her “true self.” She felt this way even though she received feedback that indicated her co-workers viewed her as emotionally disconnected from others, defensive and intimidating.

Talk stereotypes and young women get their backs up - or at least that’s what I thought.

I well remembered early in my career as a scientist trying to make myself “gender neutral” to “fit in” and be credible and professional. It meant having a tough exterior, thinking “logically” and not displaying emotion or vulnerability. Superficially, it meant not wearing anything that was remotely “feminine.” But that was 20 years ago! Have we not come further in accepting that bringing your feminine self to the table is not inconsistent with credibility, professionalism or power? Are we still shunning femininity, ignoring it, or pretending it doesn’t exist?

Well, maybe not femininity, but perhaps millennial women shun the concept of being required to meet some expectation placed on them by virtue of their gender. They certainly don’t want to be put in a box that was constructed by previous generations. This shunning was clearly evident during the throes of the presidential campaign. Young women didn’t want to hear that they should support a female candidate just because she's a woman. And so a whole re-examination of feminism – and the lack of millennials who identify themselves as feminists - hit the news pages. A Harvard Public Opinion Poll showed millenials’ lack of support for “feminism” despite their recognition that there are gender inequities.

The freedom to be “who you are,” whether or not that fits the norm of the culture, has been an issue for both women and men. Gender roles have evolved to some extent, though we still have firmly embedded beliefs about what qualities we expect from women. And for many women, straying too far from those expectations has stalled their professional advancement. Yet, my experience with many younger women led me to believe they wished to deny or brush this reality under the rug.

Then to my surprise, and delight, I encountered a different reaction from millennials at the Women in Business network of one of the top business schools in the country, where I led a discussion about leadership and the behaviors we think of when we think of a “great leader.” I went to the white board and asked for volunteers to share the characteristics that came to mind. Of course, there were some that come up all the time, like assertive, charismatic, decisive and confident. But what really surprised me were the ones I don’t often hear, like nurturing, kind, passionate and considerate. When I asked which of these characteristics are considered stereotypically feminine, the participants chose half of the traits on the list. I then asked, “how many of you are under 30?” Nearly the entire room of 75 women (and 3 men) raised their hands.

To this group, my research finding that successful women manage gender expectations by infusing stereotypically female-associated characteristics into their brand of leadership was not a surprise at all. They view them as traits of great leaders, whether those leaders are women or men. Perhaps to them it seemed that it was the men who have to adjust to “meet expectations” while women can just be themselves.

Here were our future business leaders, women attending a highly competitive, prestigious and rigorous institution that was preparing them to rise to the top. I was heartened to know that they would be exhibiting feminine- associated traits such as nurturing, kindness, and inclusiveness, on their way up to the c-suite and board room, and I am confident that they will succeed there.

Carol Vallone Mitchell, PH. D. is the author of the book Breaking Through “Bitch” - How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly and cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners.

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