MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Pascale Witz, EVP of global diabetes and cardiovascular at Sanofi.
There are many barriers to female leadership: gender inequality, lack of access to necessary education, issues with work-life balance, etc. Yet, throughout my career, I have seen women overcome these barriers. I know women who care for their large families while also leading successful businesses; women who have not had the chance to attend university but have still climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. I also know women who have had the courage to assert themselves and their ideas in male-dominated spaces. How did they do it? It was the strength of their opinions, courage, desire to achieve equality, ambitions, and so much more. So, what if at the end of the day the real barrier was… ourselves?
Recently, I’ve been teaching women that in order to become a leader, performance is critical. But there is more to it than that: in order to be a successful leader, you need to engage, provide direction, and show self-confidence. Unfortunately, research has shown that these leadership attributes are positively correlated with likeability for men and negativity for women. In other words, a man will likely come across as “decisive,” while a woman will be seen as “bossy”.
Sheryl Sandberg often asks large crowds of women “if you have ever been called ‘bossy’?” noting that most hands usually go up. I was in one of these rooms once and I remember the funny feeling of seeing almost all of our hands raised. Yet when a crowd of men is asked the same question, very few hands are raised. There is a conflict between what “leadership” requires and the traditional expectations of feminine behaviors; being warm, welcoming, and supportive are usually expected of women (often unconsciously) but these are not qualities that you readily associate with leadership.
But women shouldn’t get burdened by these stereotypes or be driven by other people’s expectations. Instead, be authentic, believe in yourself, and in what you do. We have to be strong enough to know what truly defines us — family, friends, a job we love — and let those things shape us as dynamic leaders.