Supporting Authentic, Female Leadership

As a woman in the working world, you have been implicitly conditioned to make other people feel comfortable, whether it’s by unwrapping the catering for a working lunch (since no one else seems to know how) or biting your tongue when you are repeatedly interrupted by male colleagues. In my work, I get to witness organizational dynamics across a range of industries and workplace cultures, and I am consistently disappointed that we haven’t been able to dismantle these ingrained gender biases.

Take Cathy (real person, fake name), a senior partner in a global consulting firm. She has deep subject-matter expertise, a sharp and strategic mind, and a lack of tolerance for mediocrity. Over the past decade, she has been repeatedly chastened by her male bosses for “making the team feel uncomfortable” and being “too emotional.” Meanwhile, she has witnessed male partners throw tantrums and actively demean others without being labeled “difficult.”

Cathy has two choices: 1) Lean into her strengths, consequences be damned, or 2) Put on a more pleasing professional mask. Neither is a great option. So how can we better support women in bringing their authentic strengths and personalities to the job of leadership?

Go first. Early in our careers, we don’t have the license to stray too far outside the norm if we want to achieve leadership roles. If you’ve attained a certain level of stature, however, you’ve earned the right (not that you should have to) to bring your authentic self to work. And when you do, you demonstrate to other women in the organization that you can be YOU and a leader at the same time.

Form alliances. The closer you are to the top of an organization, the fewer peer women you typically see. Because of that scarcity of opportunity, women leaders can sometimes find themselves unintentionally competing with one another. Cut those dynamics off at the pass by deliberately investing in relationships with your senior female colleagues.

Showcase your value. I was taught to believe that good work speaks for itself. That’s a lie. If you are a caring, compassionate leader whose attrition rates are meaningfully lower than that of other leaders, make sure it’s known. If your customer-centric strategy is yielding breakthrough results, call it out. And do the same for your female peers, whether it’s giving credit for their great ideas, complimenting their work to others, or just giving them a direct pat on the back. Sometimes, a little recognition goes a long way.

We’ve made strides, no doubt, but we're a far cry from where we should be. As you continue to do a fantastic job in whatever role you have, don’t forget to sing your own praises and lift up other women when you can. And please, leave the cellophane on the sandwiches.