Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Labels Matter

When a little boy asserts himself he is called a leader. Yet when a little girl does the same she risks being branded “bossy”.

Ban Bossy Campaign
Labels – they are all around us. I went to a girl’s school and college. I did not have teachers preferring boys who raised their hand over me. I did not grow up in a system that told me I needed to be a certain way to find acceptance. However, this opened me to a big shock when I went to professional business school later in life where there were 110 boys and 5 girls. I was banned by the batch because I dared to ask a boy to ‘be quiet’ in the heat of a severe debate on the grading system. Lo and behold I did not have any takers for team assignments. People would not look me in the eye and I was pretty much left to stew on my own. I was na├»ve enough to not understand what was happening to me until a helpful friend came and told me that his group really wanted me on their team but they were scared I would be too demanding and intimidating. That label has stuck with me through my working life. Demanding. Intimidating. The labels that are attached to women who speak up.

 Unfortunately the negative consequences of labelling is a common issue, especially for women in leadership. Here is a case in point. Anita Mathews has been a committed and loyal employee of a multinational Bank for the past 33 years. She joined the Bank as an Officer and throughout her career, she moved across retail, treasury, communications and compliance. She had fantastic experience of managing large, complex teams. By virtue of being mobile, she had gathered significant international and multi-cultural experience under her belt. Conceptual and highly strategic in her thinking, she was confident, outspoken, insightful and never backed away from calling a ’spade a spade’.  When I first met her, she had been waiting to be promoted to senior management for a few years. Every time her name came up in talent reviews, however, the words used to describe her were ‘aggressive’, ‘opinionated’, ‘difficult to please’. The result was obvious: managers were reluctant to put her into senior roles.  Managers who had worked closely with her agreed that she was a victim of perception. One of them even went to the extent of saying, “She would be an asset to the Bank if only she was less intimidating and more lady-like”.

A lot of our stereotyping around gender comes from how we are socialized around what are feminine traits and what are accepted masculine traits. In his path breaking book “Masculine and Feminine – The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche”, Garreth Hill posits that masculine and feminine patterns exist in all of our personalities. He talks about 4 basic patterns that are revealed in behaviour, motivation, dreams etc. They operate in family and social systems and underpin basic cultural patterns that we find around us. They are

1.       Static feminine: This patterns is bout nurturing and caring and providing stability to others with warmth and affection. It finds its central expression in the family or kinship situations. This pattern is the underpinning of matrivalent cultures.  eg: The Mother Goddess archetype

2.       Dynamic masculine: This pattern is about driving ambitious, goal oriented behaviour. It is about the initiative to dream big and achieve audacious goals eg: The Dragon Slayer archetype

3.       Static masculine: this is the tendency to create systems of order. It is expressed by laying out hierarchical social order and setting up systems and processes.  This pattern is the underpinning of patrivalent cultures. eg: Justice of the Supreme Court archetype

4.       Dynamic feminine: This pattern is about the playful movement towards the new and the untested. It is about being vital and responsive to change. Eg: The rebellious and mischievous trickster archetype

The critical point that Hill makes is that these patterns, while being termed as masculine or feminine, exist in varying degrees in all of us. The pre-dominance of any one pattern shapes a culture and socialises the people within the culture to find one pattern more acceptable in a gender than the other. A lot of our leadership archetypes are governed by the dynamic and static masculine. This is what gives rise to the ‘Think Leader Think Male’ conundrum. In an essentially patrivalent organization or culture,  women who lead using a dynamic or static masculine philosophy open themselves to being labelled and categorised as difficult, demanding and un-ladylike.  Similarly men who project a pre-dominance of the static or dynamic feminine patterns are deemed ‘unambitious’ and ‘unmanly’ and passed over from leadership roles.

In day to day interactions, we hold the stereotype that women are warm and personable individuals emerging from the static feminine pattern. Small unconscious day to day habits by both men and women attenuate the perception that women are less competent and less confident. For example research states that women are more likely to use ‘apologetic’ language – e.g. “Just…”, “Does this make sense?”, “Sorry” and are more likely to be interrupted compared to men.

In addition to this there is a commonly held belief that women must be ‘likeable’ to be influential. The need for this is not felt that much by men where in aggression is a much lauded trait as it feels congruent with the dynamic masculine archetype. Hence, when women speak more assertively or state their opinion in a non-apologetic manner like Anita, they are perceived as being angry, less agreeable and forceful. Also given that women are perceived to be the more emotional sex, anger in them is perceived to be a personality trait. Whereas similar behaviour in men is seen as having situational causes i.e, the situation warrants them to be angry.

 Anger is specifically an emotion that is thought to be more congruent with the male stereotype than female stereotype. This is again backed by research wherein women tend to receive more favourable evaluations when they exhibit behaviour that conveys referent power (relationship-dependent: warmth, agreeableness). When they exhibit anger, they show a threat to managerial resources (specifically personal resources – liking or approval). Hence, in spite of experience, competency and leadership traits backing her, what Anita experienced in her system were ‘Backlash effects”. Given that she defied the stereotypical traits related to women in the workplace, she was seen as being lower on leader effectiveness and hence perceived to have a lower status and leader competency than her more agreeable peers. It does not help that women are equally harsh, if not harsher, on other females who are ‘angry’ or present themselves any less warm or personable as they go against the feminine archetypes that women are socialised into aligning with.

As we start to grow more sophisticated in our understanding of what it takes to have successful women leaders in the world, the one thing that is spoken really less about is the power of labels and stereotypes and the impact they can have on the careers of women who want to be different from the expected norm. At YSC, we support female leaders in a number of ways. First, we provide executive coaching to women at mid and senior levels to help them understand both their own assumptions and mental models and those of the culture and context they are working. Second, given that all change needs to happen at the systemic level to be sustainable, we run female leadership development programs. These ensure that while women undergo their own development to reach leadership positions, we are also working with the eco system of the women by impacting sponsors, line managers and key stakeholders through unconscious bias awareness

Some critical coaching tips we provide to Anita and other women who face issues with labelling to help fight the inherent bias that may exist about women and agreeability are:

·         Building greater trust in relationships and with key stakeholders to buffer the negative effect of being assertive

·         Be aware of one’s interpersonal impact and use relationship inclusive language. For example instead of saying ”I think …..” reframe the statement by including the other person and their thoughts and start with “what do you think about …. And its impact on ….”

·         Be mindful of the tone and pitch of one’s voice, especially when one is angry about something. Women tend to use thin and high pitch voices when they are trying to project an opinion loudly which is the opposite of an authoritative voice.

·         Framing

o   Behavioural:  “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible”. This shows that that individuals are in control

o   Value: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand”. This justifies forcefulness, and makes it a virtue

o   Framing possible biases:  “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly”. This primes the observers to the possibility that they can be biased against her. This needs to be used carefully so that the woman is not perceived to be playing the gender card repeatedly


Women have conquered several bastions and proven themselves as worthy leaders, the climb is still uphill and the numbers are still not there. While many mechanisms are put in place to bring the numbers up, the one that is paid the least focus is assumptions and unspoken biases that exist about what is expected from men and women in the workplace. We need to understand that several organizations follow a patrivalent underpinning to their culture and it is critical to recognize the inherent biases about the feminine that can be prevalent in such cultures. We have heard many stories of leaders wanting to up the numbers of women but feeling uncomfortable when they encounter a women who is tough, outspoken and assertive. It is time we start thinking about the impact some of these deeply held beliefs on how men and women need to be in the workplace to be accepted by others and the role they play in selecting and developing leaders. Hence, certain things organizations can do to ensure there are not impacted by the insidious power of labels

·         Look at competency frames and leadership language in the organization and ensure they are gender neutral

·         Be aware and normalise unconscious biases in the system about acceptable leadership behaviour and plausible gender effects by talking about them openly

·         Work with Line Managers to help them understand their own unconscious leanings towards leaders - whether male or female with specific personality traits and how this impacts the talent that is being recruited and developed in the organization

·         Creating a psychologically safe environment in talent review sessions through neutral observers who can call out the use of stereotypes and labels while taking critical career decisions about people.

Equality in its truest sense can only be achieved if we are ready to be aware of what is unconscious within us and question the socializations that our cultures have put us through. It is through the questioning of this and through active dialogue and a mindful awareness of how stereotypes and biases are impacting the growth of leaders that organizations can truly evolve to be inclusive and use the power of diversity for the common good.