Many talented and driven women are labeled as being too tactical and too assertive. How can we fix this?

By Wanda Wallace and Rob Kaiser

It’s easy to blame unconscious bias against women as leaders for keeping women out of the executive suite. Many people think the male establishment promotes this bias. Not only is this explanation overly simplistic, it’s actually wrong, according to our independent research.

We conducted a study that analyzed 360-degree assessments of 857 women and 857 men from upper-level management in six companies based in the United States, Western Europe and Australia. The women and men were matched in terms of age, experience, tenure, management level and functional area. We systematically studied the presence of bias using two well-accepted statistical procedures, and then we looked at real differences in behavior.

Firstly, not only were the ratings not biased against women, we actually discovered some bias in favor of them. Women who demonstrated lower levels of strategic thinking and empowerment weren’t penalized as much as the men who were lacking in these areas. It seems coworkers cut these women some slack, or perhaps were reluctant to link these shortcomings to a lower-level of effectiveness.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the analysis identified gender differences in leadership behavior that may better explain why so few women make it to the top: Women led with a more forceful and operational style, one associated with the tactical management of execution. Men, however, led with a more strategic and empowering style associated with organizational leadership. Essentially, we found that women are more likely to get bogged down in details and to push too hard for short-term results.

To the women who receive such feedback this can seem unfair and can be infuriating. Many women are told they are “too aggressive” and/or “not strategic enough.” And this is often interpreted as gender bias. But bear with us: We are highly supportive of helping more women reach the top. And we believe that taking the lack of statistical evidence of bias seriously reveals some promising strategies to achieve this goal.

Why would it be that more women are forceful operators than strategic leaders? In our experience coaching women and advising global corporations on diversity issues, we see a pattern we call, “the new double-bind.” Women often carve out a niche for themselves as the go-to person their bosses can count on to deliver. They are better at multitasking and with the details. So they dig in and bear down to get things done. And in positions of little formal authority, and with the best of intentions to achieve their bosses’ goals, they may can be intensely focused and push hard. These women get boxed in, seen as “reliable doers” instead of “strategic thinkers” who can bring others along.

Take high-potential Nadine, for example. She’s articulate, multilingual, and known for her laser-focus on results. Her previous bosses have loved her because she gets things done – even against impossible odds. Whatever is required, she seems to get it done. Sometimes she has been faulted for pushing too hard to accomplish things but has always had a boss who would step in and smooth things over, because he or she was grateful for her ability to get things done.

Now, she has moved into the communications function at global headquarters – a great opportunity for her. Her international awareness and ability to get things done make the role a natural fit.

What Nadine finds, however, is that she is charged with rolling out a single employer brand strategy across all regions but has no formal authority to require her colleagues in Spain, Hong Kong, Australia, and elsewhere to comply. She outlines the goals, sets deadlines, communicates, reminds people of deadlines and tries to get an alignment but isn’t getting anywhere. Endless conference calls are not getting her any closer to agreement on implementation and her frustration shows.

Nadine finds herself constantly at odds with colleagues in the disparate regions. Her intensity and impatience result in her being seen as “insensitive” and “poor influence skills”. Many feel she does not understand their business. Her direct communication style is making matters worse.

Nadine just wants to get things done. She wants to see the strategy succeed and she wants to spend time on things that matter – like the work that has to be done to implement the strategy – not on conversation after conversation where people just keep saying the same things.

Nadine would like to move to a more strategic function with P&L authority. Unfortunately, she finds key gatekeepers think she lacks peer support, isn’t strategic and isn’t a “leader.” She is seen as lacking fresh ideas – merely an implementer.

There are several things organizations and women can do to avoid this common trap:

Organizations must:

  • Ensure young, talented women are given the same opportunities as men to develop broad experiences associated with strategic leadership skills, like cross-functional, cross-cultural assignments with P&L responsibility. In most organizations, men get these assignments far more often than women. The pernicious gender bias that certainly does exist probably has a stronger compound effect here, where women miss out on critical developmental experiences.
  • Give clear about what being “strategic” means. It needs to be specified in concrete, observable and learnable terms if aspiring leaders, especially women, are to cultivate it.
  • Make sure women get great feedback so they can develop. They need to understand any deficiencies they might be demonstrating in the strategic and empowering areas. Likewise, let them know if they are being overly tactical or forceful. Many managers shy away from giving tough feedback to women because they don’t want to appear sexist. But these are precisely the things women are rated worse on but that are sought after when filling executive roles.

Women who aspire to senior leadership must:

  • Be proactive and intentional about a career path that will lead to senior leadership. Aggressively seek out the learning experiences that are associated with strategic leadership skills development.
  • Be wary of overplaying to strengths and taking on support roles associated with the implementation of someone else’s vision. Ask to be part of strategy sessions, and seek out mentors who have a knack for strategic thinking.
  • Seek feedback on the ability to bring people along. Ask for advice on how results can be accomplished with a different approach, and learn a diverse array of influence techniques.
  • Signal the capacity for strategic thinking by elevating comments beyond tactical concerns about implementation to also include market conditions, competitor moves, changes in technology and regulation, and the connection between initiatives and strategic priorities.

There are many reasons women are seen as forceful operators, and there are many actions companies and individuals can take to develop more women into strategic enablers. Based on our systematic study, women are not kept out of leadership because of simple bias. The problem is more likely due to gender differences in behavior.

We suspect a major reason more women aren’t in top jobs is because they get trapped in execution roles; the new double-bind is getting rewarded for being a reliable doer at the expense of becoming a strategic thinker. In other words, the smoking gun probably isn’t unconscious bias in the backroom where promotions get decided. More likely, the smoking gun can be found several years earlier when women were denied the cross-functional, cross-cultural, up-cycle/down-cycle, line jobs, and other diverse developmental assignments in their career paths.

The situation can be remedied through training, feedback and by taking deliberate steps to get young women into career paths where they can develop strategic-thinking skills and learn more effective forms of soft influence.

Wanda Wallace is president and CEO of Leadership Forum Inc. Robert B. Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions and author of “Fear Your Strengths.”

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