The Woman Power Problem

Posted on February 6, 2011 by


Can women be both powerful and likeable? Of course. But it may be more difficult for women than it is for men.

This week, Fortune editor Patricia Sellers sheds new light on the old question: why do people have trouble dealing with women in power?

She writes:

Stanford Graduate Business School Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist who has studied power and how it works in organizations, dissected the female leadership conundrum last week at eBay’s global women leaders conference in San Francisco. […] People who are viewed as powerful, Gruenfeld explained, tend to:

– Occupy maximum space.
– Lean back.
– Slow down.
– Use sweeping gestures.

The challenge for women — who still occupy only 14.4% of executive officer positions and 15.7% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst — is that guys tend to be better at using such body language. And compared to women, men are more socially accepted when they do.

Forbes‘ Meghan Casserly has a slightly different take on the issue. In her January 14th column, “The Bitching Point,” she writes:

We’ve been told that we need to fight harder than our male counterparts to get ahead, and that our supposed female attributes—helping, comforting, having emotions—are obstacles to overcome.

We’ve been told to be tough, act a little more like men, and to tone down the girly.

But have years of well-intentioned workplace rhetoric for success turned women into outright bitches?

[ . . . ]

“Women are expected to hold their own amongst the sea of men, but for some reason, the assertiveness can come out as aggression and it backfires,” says Allison Daniels, 28, who works in sports marketing in Connecticut and often sees women struggling to compete in the male-dominated field. “You know the type: once she’s stressed, you literally can’t talk to her. She snaps at you, she puts you in your place for asking a question she thinks you should know the answer to, or talks to you like you are a moron for coming to her with a problem.”

For advice on how to be powerful without being “bitchy,” Casserly consults Lee E. Miller, co-author of A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating.

[Miller’s] advice is to focus on tone. As in: when men take a tough position they employ a tough tone in order to be credible. When women take a tough position, it’s best to take a soft tone. This doesn’t mean an absence of strength or assertiveiness but rather “a quiet, firm confidence.” The minute a woman uses an aggressive tone, men will use it to marginalize you, to make you appear emotional—or, more importantly, to keep you from getting what you want.

Casserly’s colleague Caroline Howard talks about “The Bitching Point” and more in yesterday’s column, “If Women Have To Choose Between Being Powerful And Likable, Readers Say Truce.”