How to Get What You Want at Work Without Being Labeled 'Bossy'

What is the biggest mistake women make climbing the career ladder?

As a business professor, I’m frequently asked this question.

Research on women in business would lead you to believe there are many mistakes we make in our career: On the whole, women don’t negotiate enough, are too apt to give credit to others, don’t seek out highly influential sponsors, have less powerful networks, earn less money and do more than their share of housework and childcare. Looking at this daunting list is discouraging, and might make you think that we, as women, are sabotaging our careers! However, the truth is that we are constantly faced with difficult trade-offs, not all of our own making.

Solving each of the situations above (negotiating effectively, promoting one’s accomplishments, finding high-level sponsors and networks, advocating for equal pay and improving work-life balance) requires a woman to be strategic, proactive, forceful and decisive. The problem is that such behavior causes the woman to run right into the underlying problem: the double bind. The term “double bind” refers to situations in which unconscious biases (based on gender stereotypes) trap women between a rock and a hard place. Both women and men expect and prefer women to be “nice,” so when a businesswoman exerts strong and direct action without those niceties, she’s more likely than her male counterparts to be labeled as “difficult,” “bossy” or worse.

The double bind means that women have to tread the fine line between the need to be forceful (which can be seen as shrill and difficult) and the expectation that they be highly agreeable (which can be seen as a lack of power or gravitas). In environments where self-promotion is important, women who behave in the same way as men may be seen as boasting or bragging in an unseemly way. Women are also expected to be collaborative and team players, so requests for important solo assignments can be seen as selfish or standoffish.

What can you do about the double bind?

Start by realizing that we are all influenced by these unconscious biases so you may have internalized some gender-based expectations that are holding you back. Cultivate self-awareness, and learn all you can about the double bind. (A great place to start is the many excellent free publications found on the Catalyst site.) It is important to analyze your corporate culture to see where the double bind may be creating an invisible barrier to the advancement of you and other women.

Cultivate your emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ) so that you can navigate the tricky waters and anticipate when others might see you in violation of gender norms. Understanding yourself and others will go a long way towards untangling what you are experiencing and help you see the best way to succeed. EQ can help you distinguish when directly calling out behavior will be effective and when working behind the scenes makes more sense. It can help you find and enlist both male and female allies.

Tune up your negotiating skills. Getting comfortable with negotiations and finding a style that feels right can improve your ability to get the right assignments, get on the right team, find your way to pay equality and even improve the division of labor at home.

Additionally, if you are in a position of leadership, you may be able to influence the corporate culture to diminish the impact of the double bind. Educating the community about gender stereotypes and having an open dialogue about inclusivity can change a work environment. You can also analyze and improve policies to put women on an equal footing with men in terms of hiring, cultivation of talent and promotion.

Finally, I’d like to reframe the question. Asking “What is the biggest mistake women make climbing the career ladder?” implies that the failure of women to make it to the highest level of power is due to a shortcoming of the women themselves. Instead, perhaps the question should be: “What rungs of the ladder are missing for women as they climb their way to success?”

Dr. Deborah Streeter is an award-winning professor of entrepreneurship at the Dyson School in Cornell University’s College of Business. She recently authored Cornell’s new, all-online Women in Leadership certificate program, which gives professional women in every industry and function a personalized framework to break through barriers to career success.

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