Women in Leadership and the “F” Words

Society, not yet comfortable with the concept of women as leaders, often attempts to discredit powerful women by branding them with negative stereotypes. As a result, females in high positions are inevitably labeled with the “F” words: they are either flawed or a fluke.

I considered this as I observed the media furor surrounding the recently released book, The Obama’s, which condemns First Lady Michelle Obama’s behaviour in its descriptions of her allegedly volatile relationships with White House staff.

Michelle Obama was first called an “angry black woman” during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Sensitive to this image, she softened her language and focused on fashion and good works to gain acceptance. But as a powerful woman, she cannot escape an F-word label. Because she is a graduate of Harvard Law, people do not consider her position to be a fluke; rather, she is viewed as flawed and angry.

Interestingly, when men show anger we usually admire their strong stance, regarding it as a leadership attribute. Conversely, when women show anger, they are inevitably viewed as unstable. To dismiss a woman leader, simply point to her and call her “emotional.” That word alone scares people.

Additionally, a woman’s attainment of power is often considered a fluke, no matter how stellar her qualifications. According to her naysayers, she must have plotted and schemed her way to the top – it could never have come from actual innate talent!

Or they will say that she is simply a “token,” and therefore should not be taken seriously. Her opinion should not count because she did not earn her place – it came by virtue of her gender.

In my experience, the situation is quite the opposite: every time there is a powerful single woman amongst a group of men, she is an overachiever. Her rise to the top came from talent and tenacity, which is no fluke.

Forbes contributor, Jenna Goudreau, cited some of these pervasive, limiting assessments of powerful women. After tracking down many of the world’s top leading women, she asked them to name their least favorite stereotypes. Amongst other things, these women have been referred to as “ice queens” (also known as unsympathetic, power-mongers) or “single and lonely” (because they had to make personal sacrifices to achieve their success). These women have also been labeled as weak for using their positions to try and reach consensus, a method that is often “misunderstood as a kind of weakness,” according to Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.

Regardless, society does not allow a female leader to be a multifaceted human being with a full, balanced life. She must be skewed. In fact, if all else fails, they will call her a lesbian. I remember speaking with a well-healed American couple during Hillary Clinton’s Democratic leadership bid. They swore that she was gay, adamantly listing many apparent witnesses and proof sources; it just seemed too much for them that a woman could be smart, capable, driven, and a mother besides. After verbally assaulting her with every hateful adjective they could muster, they gave her what they sadly considered to be the ultimate slur and called her a lesbian.

Labeling women in power with these “F” words is limiting for them and denies us good leaders. Society needs to find a new way of framing women. If not, maybe it is time for us to use some stronger “F” words toward the people keeping these stereotypes alive.