Individuals who identify as women are given a lot of advice about presence, attitudes, and leadership styles in the workplace. With all the other hats worn, often it feels like women are donning a mask for the office, one that will be better accepted by those they work with. As women gain more leadership presence, the trending advice is to lead authentically. Usually, the first follow up question to that advice is “what does that mean?”
An explosion in authenticity training for leadership occurred in 2012 when Gallup recorded a huge drop in trust in business leadership (coinciding with engagement). According to the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2013, only 18% of people reported they trusted business leaders to tell the truth, and fewer than half trusted businesses to do the right thing. The answer was to encourage leaders to be their “true” selves, implying a return to morality and values.
Forbes defined authentic leadership, in-part, as leading from the heart, being genuine, and self-aware. HBR further explained that authenticity is when behavior matches intentions. In the last few years, researchers in organizational development have found that authentic leadership has been linked to increased engagement, higher job satisfaction, reduced turnover intention, and increased performance.
Leading with authenticity is accepted as a preferred style, but there are different expectations of presence and behavior placed on women.
It’s true that both men and women have different roles as they direct their careers, personal lives, and the lives of their children. However, the familial norm still leans towards women as the primary caregivers, and single mothers are more prevalent than single fathers. It is important to note that the expectations of women in the workplace are socialized, meaning that both men and women will carry those expectations and apply them, often in an unconscious way.
Authentic leadership is viewed as the gold standard of leadership, but women live in a multi-faceted world. How can women be their authentic selves when there are so many competing notions of how women are expected to behave? First impressions are one of those instances where presence will be categorized and judged by others. Research has shown that women are more likely to be judged negatively by their professional appearance than men. This judgement means there is an expectation for women to be dressed a certain way or have a certain look—to create a certain impression. This can vary by industry or profession, but overall, the standard holds.
The reality of women in leadership often becomes a paradox between authenticity and the consequences of nonconformity.
The truth of the work wardrobe is that professional presentation will always be integral to how women are perceived as an employee and especially as a leader. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that women’s business wardrobes were modeled after men’s professional attire. Styles have evolved, but the standard look still involves a suit or blazer. For women of color, the professional uniform goes much further. The expectation becomes more than adopting a masculine look—there’s the conformity to the implicit ideal of whiteness, which means straighter hair, specific speech patterns, dress styles, and more. Authenticity is also associated with a happy, upbeat work environment.
This directly conflicts with the ability to express emotion, especially anger, especially as women, in the workplace. If we’re truly being authentic, feelings are dynamic and changing, and not always full of rainbows and puppies. Women are more likely to experience significant backlash when expressing anger in the workplace, as women are more often expected to be the caretakers, the emotional touch stones, and the emotional problem solvers. When women are angry, it is easy to be stigmatized and dismissed. Even women who are passionate can be labeled as being over emotional and then discounted professionally.
For many, the definition of being your authentic self really means being your “best” self, or the “best version” of yourself. This definition is truly oppressive. The social norms of good/bad or ideal are created and maintained by the dominant culture, which means that bringing your “best” self isn’t really your authentic self. It means you should bring the ideal version of yourself that more closely aligns with the version that is most acceptable. The notion of the “best” self also discounts the truth of the multi-faceted, multi-cultural individual.
Authenticity can also create a hurdle when leaders are told to be “true to yourself”. This is great advice when “yourself” fulfills the expectations, values, and ideals of others, but not so much when “yourself” is in conflict—even when the conflict is needed to progress.
What’s the answer? Humorously, it is to lead as your authentic self. Truly be a leader as an individual. Be self-aware, open-minded, genuine, and lead from the heart. Push yourself, challenge your perceptions, and allow yourself to address conformity with a critical eye. Don’t fall into the trap of playing to the expectations, especially if you have the privilege to confront them.
“Our Biases Undermine Our Colleagues’ Attempts to Be Authentic” by Tina R. Opie and R. Edward Freeman
“How to Fake It When You’re Not Feeling Confident” by Rebecca Knight
“You Don’t Just Need One Leadership Voice — You Need Many” by Amy Jen Su