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Want More Women in Leadership Roles? Focus on Their Strategy and Not Their Smile Jennifer Riekert, M.B.A. Ali Jackson-Jolley, M.B.A.

Photo Credit: AFP

When playing the centuries-old game of economic strategy, business leaders have often clamored around a truth, best summarized by American economist Milton Friedman — the secret to capitalistic success is learning how to play within the rules of the game. A “game,” wherein the only norms (or “rules”) are engaging in “open and free competition without deception or fraud.” This may be the case for those at the top of America’s societal hierarchy— the wealthy, white men who reigned at boardrooms and political podiums alike, dominating the most powerful positions for most of America’s history. Yet for women, this is not, and has never been, completely true.

Rules of the Game As the COVID-19 pandemic began to squeeze women from the U.S. workforce, so too increased the news media’s scrutiny on the unequal playing field faced by women in the workforce—but long before the pandemic hit, women in the U.S. workforce faced a much more difficult path to the top. Women have long been engaged in a second game; a game quietly played beneath the surface, like a secret handshake to an underground society, wherein an invisible set of rules apply: Be effective yet not too assertive. Pleasant and agreeable without seeming too soft. Remember to be charming so people don’t feel threatened by your ideas or your intelligence. Don’t talk too loud—or too much. Dress in a way that is neither too feminine nor too masculine. Be empathetic but never emotional. And for a woman of color, these rules are even more arcane, and harder to discern. On one hand, a woman of color constantly swims against the widely preconceived notion that — either by dint of genetics or environment — her knowledge and abilities are less than. Yet her success also hinges on being pleasant, articulate, gregarious, and putting everyone at ease in her presence, lest be deemed angry or dispensable.

But above all else, regardless of race, one must always come to the boardroom or the podium wielding her best, most disarming smile. So deeply entrenched, we are in these rules, that we unwittingly become our own gatekeepers. Recently, one of us returned from a photoshoot for an award honoring trailblazing female leaders. The resulting photos showed a commanding businesswoman sitting at a boardroom table, flanked by two male colleagues, clearly and confidently assuming a leadership role. However, the photos engendered an overwhelming fear — “I don’t look warm or likeable enough.” The charming mask often worn by women to make ourselves appear less threatening had slipped and the resulting photos put on full display a powerful businesswoman. The fear of being rejected for overtly looking powerful is something a man would never consider. Even the strongest, most accomplished women leaders can’t escape these cultural expectations. While admired by many for her stoic strength, razor-sharp intellectualism, and unrelenting toughness, just hours into winning the spot as Joe Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris came under fierce fire. Specifically, news coverage was riddled with sexist attacks about Harris’ lack of “personal charm” and “warmth.”

Spanning Every Industry Unfortunately, Harris is just one of a litany of political casualties. Pummeled with sexist barbs due to perceived lack of likability and warmth, these women -Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Warren, to name a few -- became lost in the public court of opinion. Like a carnival game, this political stage is rigged against the contestant: a moving target they were never really meant to hit. For these women, striking the perfect balance of being assertive without being “bossy” has become more important than their intelligence, professional achievements -- even their policy. Across every arena, women at the top of their industry have found that to be successful in today’s America means being smart and extremely effective —but never so overtly as to bruise an ego. Just ask the likes of famously fierce former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, fashion mogul Victoria Beckham, and sports icon Serena Williams how often they have been found lacking in the media for their disturbing lack of a ladylike smile.

Dissolving the Game As we look to a near future, in which the COVID-19 pandemic will most assuredly continue to hit women in the workforce the hardest—there should be no doubt that now is the time to dissolve this game and strip ourselves of the subtle yet deeply ingrained rules that govern the game.