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Oli Kellett—Getty Images

How executive women avoid being called ‘the B-word’

Sep 16, 2015

“Women have to be all the things men are, minus the things we would judge women harshly for,” says an unnamed male executive early on in the forthcoming Breaking Through “Bitch”: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly. To get ahead, a female manager “must have the best qualities of being a woman, married with all the best qualities … of being a man.”

If that sounds difficult, well, it is—which of course is why women have reached the CEO suite in just 24 of the Fortune 500. Cultural expectations of how women are supposed to act—warm, nurturing, and self-effacing—clash with the forceful, authoritative traits we associate, consciously or not, with leadership.

So strong women get nicknames like “The Iron Lady,” in the case of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (a.k.a. “Attila the Hen”). More often, they just get “stuck behind the brick wall of ‘bitch,’” writes author Carol Vallone Mitchell, and fail to rise past it. “If you are a female demonstrating traits that are masculine (exercising power),” she adds, “it’s like nails on a blackboard.”

But hold on. Mitchell’s message, culled from more than 20 years of research and consulting for big companies, is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, she suggests that women with big ambitions use a kind of cultural ju jitsu to turn their uniquely “feminine” tendencies to their own advantage.

Breaking Through “Bitch” sets forth nine distinct ways that successful executive women make their way out from behind that brick wall. In studying the women’s careers, and interviewing them in detail, Mitchell found that “these are women being women: assertive, yes; driving, yes; in control, yes; but they have filed smooth the hard edges associated with stereotypical male leadership.”

There’s nothing particularly surprising about the nine traits, which include a passion for achievement, confidence, political savvy, and a knack for persuading and inspiring other people. Most successful men have those abilities, too. What’s interesting, though, is how the women in these pages draw on “feminine” traits, like a penchant for collaboration and consensus, to achieve big things without ruffling any male egos.

One female executive handled an essential deal, involving a long series of negotiations, by delegating it to a male subordinate, with the proviso that he brief her after each session, so that she could make “suggestions” (not, God forbid, give orders) along the way.

“She finessed the situation so that her right-hand man felt that he was controlling the [project], and that she was working collaboratively with him, so that they would both be successful,” writes Mitchell. This executive and others Mitchell describes “have figured out how to delegate and let go of control—in a very controlled way. Little is left to chance.”

Empathy, another traditionally “feminine” trait, comes in handy, too. One senior manager named Alice travels constantly, keeping tabs on overseas operations. “I’m the big boss arriving on the scene, so people will naturally feel a bit uptight. I am direct, but I massage it so they don’t clam up,” she tells Mitchell. “I watch my male colleagues … and they aren’t doing what I’m doing.”

In one instance, Alice recalls, “I went to India and they had really screwed something up and I’m like, ‘Really? What’s your plan to fix this? I want to see it and we’re going to have the follow-up conversation here.’ But I also acknowledged their embarrassment and regret that they had not gotten the job done. I wanted them to know that I understood how they felt…. It’s really about having strong emotional intelligence.”

Of course, emotional intelligence isn’t the exclusive province of women. Still (and “not surprisingly, given how we [women] were brought up and socialized”), Mitchell believes a generally high EQ gives female bosses a genuine advantage, if they know how to deploy it.

“Successful women leaders are ahead of men in this regard because they have learned to use their emotional intelligence to temper assertiveness and make others feel comfortable,” she writes. This allows a woman to “be a demanding leader without being labeled a—well, you know.” The dozens of examples in Breaking Through “Bitch” shed some much-needed light on exactly how.

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