Ingrained stereotypes need to be recognized in order to see progress.
By Leah Eichler (Contributing Writer, Femme-O-Nomics)

Close your eyes and quickly think of a visionary business leader. Is your example male or female?

At risk of annoying friends and acquaintances, this question serves to illustrate that despite our best intentions, many associate specific business traits with either men or women.

These generalized attributes may sound good at the onset. After all, being viewed as “collaborative” or “good at developing relationships” allows many of us to efficiently complete our tasks but they may not be the first characteristics that come to mind when imagining a business leader. Women and men alike often generalize about skills associated with specific genders but to what degree do these compliments hold women back from real positions of power?

“Stereotypes abound for both men and women,” observed Geeta Sheker, director of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management. Since unfounded perceptions and unconscious biases impact the leadership pipeline, it’s important to take a step back and examine the tendency, insisted Ms. Sheker.

On a positive note, many of the skills traditionally associated with women are increasingly seen as leadership material. Ms. Sheker lists emotional intelligence, strategic risk taking and consensus building as essential attributes in today’s business environment.

“Leadership is viewed differently today than it might have been 30 years ago: many of the attributes that we value in leaders come very naturally to many women and position them well to be outstanding leaders,” she observed.

Not only are women and men perceived to possess specific attributes, but also specific leadership roles get typecasted. Since men traditionally occupied a higher portion of these senior roles, they sometimes assume traditional male characteristics, such as courageous or commanding.

“I don’t seem men and women coming from stereotypical skill sets. I see the role having some stereotypes,“ observed Jim Muzyka, senior vice president and general manager of Xerox Global Services. Mr. Muzyka argues that one’s environment plays a role in reinforcing or extinguishing stereotypes.

That’s certainly the case at Xerox Corporation, which boasts a string of top female executives, including present Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ursula Burns, who succeeded Anne Mulcahy. Mandy Shapanksy is president and chief executive officer of Xerox Canada.

Asked to describe some of the leadership traits possessed by these women, Mr. Muzyka suggested they were inclusive, clearly communicated direction and showed courage, even without “clear and present danger.”

“These people weren’t given the job because they were great women but great leaders,” insisted Mr. Muzyka. “These women can go toe-to-toe with any corporate leader anywhere and frankly that’s what the shareholders of the company would expect,” he added.

Another issue with stereotyped roles arises when women believe they need to embrace those traditionally male attributes in order to succeed. In other words – act like men. Thankfully, Mr. Muzyka believes that the “command and control” model is on its way out as companies work at enticing millennials by focusing on results rather than hours spent at the office.

Kathy Caprino, formerly a vice-president of product management for a membership services firm, knows first-hand how assuming male characteristics in a role can be detrimental. She recounts being “assertive as all hell”, like her male counterparts, but hated for it. A trained psychotherapist, Ms. Caprino now works with many female clients as an executive coach and as president of ELLIA Communications, in Connecticut. She cautions that ingrained stereotypes need to be recognized in order to see progress.

In advance of a course Ms. Caprino will be teaching on managing inclusion and cultural diversity at New York University this Spring, she took an online test run by Harvard that analyses one’s implicit biases. Her test results showed a slightly bias toward associating men with careers over women with careers. My test ranked similarly. If both of us, who advocate on behalf of women in the workplace, subconsciously associate men with careers at a slightly higher rate than women with careers, how do we promote change among the general public?

Ms. Caprino believes that quickly getting more women in senior leadership roles will change our perceptions.

“Once we start seeing women doing more TED Talks and leading their company and hearing interviews about how women have taken their companies to the next level, that’s when we will start thinking of women (as visionaries),” observed Ms. Caprino.

This post was originally published at Femme-O-Nomics.

Photo credit: circa 1943: One American female worker drives rivets into an aircraft while another sits in the cockpit on the US home front during World War II. They wear aprons and their hair tucked into scarves. Women who went to work in industries to aid the war effort became known under the moniker ‘Rosie the Riveter’. (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images)
About the guest blogger: Leah Eichler is the Co-Founder of Femme-O-Nomics, a networking application and content portal for professional women. She is also a well-known columnist on issues surrounding women in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @femmeonomics.