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The niceness trap: Navigating the ‘rules’ for women leaders in the workplace

Female leaders have historically been forced to tread lightly in order to succeed in male-dominated industries. But as IT executive Hilary Walton writes, women don’t need to change – the system does.

Imagine for a minute you’re a female manager. You overexert yourself to be nice and likeable at work while still trying to balance all the other traits we expect of a leader, like being decisive and confident. Suddenly, you’re being framed for “mothering” a group because you’re either too nurturing or too assertive. Or instead, you decide to be honest and vulnerable and open yourself to abuse. We need only look to the #MeToo Movement to see documented examples of the devastating outcomes women face when they don’t feel they can assert their right to safety and respect at work.

As one of the few female leaders in New Zealand’s male-dominated IT industry, I’ve experienced first-hand the tightrope female leaders walk. I can recall a specific time in a previous role where I was the project lead and running a meeting with a group of men. The conversation got unruly, combative, and at times downright unprofessional. My harmonising approach to keep everyone on track wasn’t working. I played the likeability card and came up short on authority. So I changed tact and increased assertiveness, causing the meeting to end unproductively. It took management intervention for things to move forward. So how should female leaders behave? Well, it’s complicated.

Four years ago, European researchers conducting a study of a group of software development engineers made a discovery. Colleagues of the engineers’ evaluated them on competence and warmth – two universally accepted dimensions of how we judge others. The research was conducted on the hypothesis that people who are influential are more likely to be promoted to leadership roles and it looked at what traits in both men and woman contribute to their professional influence.

The study showed female engineers had to be likeable and warm along with competent in order to be influential at work. Men were seen as confident and influential whether they were warm or not. In other words, male leaders can be cold in the workplace but provided they perform well at their job they will be respected. Yet a woman’s professional achievement is evaluated along with with how “nice” she is.

The data also supported something many women intuitively already know. Women in the workplace find themselves in the “double-bind dilemma” where the traits we commonly associate with leadership – assertiveness, strength, control – aren’t seen as “nice girl” attributes. In other words, female leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Some men struggle to deal with the notion of sexual harassment in the workplace in a confident and practical matter. They either ignore the issue or go out of their way to avoid women lest they trip up and act inappropriately. I recall one male mentor early in my career who took me on as a mentee but would only meet with me one-to-one during the day and for coffee only – a rule he brought in for all his female mentees. What a relief it was when my current manager at Kordia happily had dinner with me on a recent overseas business trip. He treated me no differently than a male colleague, and I thought, this is great!

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New culture

For woman, the phrase “you catch more bees with honey then you do with vinegar” is universal. But what if rather than asking women to modify their behaviour to suit others, we implement a new management culture that favours both men and women? Can we teach more men that it’s okay to not know the answer every time, to be appreciative of others and to show more kindness in the workplace while assuring them that they won’t lose credibility as leaders?

Being liked at work shouldn’t be something just women have to strive for; it should be part of all organisations’ leadership cultures, in my opinion. If your leadership style is to rule by fear it will lead to conformity, causing creativity and ingenuity to suffer. You’re not going to get new thinking from fear. What’s wrong with being likeable? Whether you like it or not, warmth matters; in politics and business and in our personal and professional relationships. It also matters on social media, a medium that exposes and amplifies existing cultural norms.

There’s much written about the lack of women in the IT sector. In New Zealand a mere 20% of women make up the total workforce, and that number thins out further at management level. Unless women are intentionally included, they will be unintentionally excluded.

Combating bias

So what does this mean for men sitting in leadership positions? As a registered psychologist, I can confirm the tried and true way to combat bias and heuristics is to understand them, be aware of how they might affect performance, consciously bring them into the conversation, and put in place measures to avoid or reduce the chances of them occurring.

Something as simple as building diversity into the recruitment process to check biases aren’t at play can make a big difference. It’s important to have diverse selection panels to avoid a situation where male participants make all the decisions. One common psychological heuristic is that we tend to be attracted to those that are like ourselves. So for example, unless an all-male interview panel takes active measures to prevent biases, they have an increased chance of progressing a male applicant over a female as they “see themselves” in the male applicant. For women like me who are in management level roles in male-dominated sectors like tech and security, I can vouch first-hand how intimidating it can be to sit in front of a male interview panel even without the compounding fear of unconscious bias.

It’s important for all business leaders to actively review the language or intent of policies to ensure there are no more negative outcomes for one group or gender over another. I have battled on behalf of others with previous employers who had poor policies for diversity and inclusion for women returning to work after maternity leave, and while I have some scars from those encounters, I’ve been able to find a fair and reasonable way forward for both parties.

Maintaining your voice

For women, as difficult as it may be, it’s important to maintain your voice. While Kordia is very supportive, I am commonly the only female sitting around the table in meetings – be that workplace operations, leadership or board meetings. I kindly and respectfully advocate for others to understand the value of different points of view in recruitment processes, work on increasing gender friendly language in the workplace, and champion discussions on other diversity and inclusion related topics. I am careful to maintain my diverse voice in those circumstances to help those teams and groups reach better outcomes.

It can be tempting to be like others in your group to seem more “likeable” and to fit in. But what use am I as the diverse voice if I don’t bring it, if I dilute it and start sounding too much like others at the table?



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