Women are often told to shy away from certain personality traits. It’s a catch-22—fight for what you want, but don’t be too aggressive. Stand up for yourself, but don’t get too emotional. Lead with assertion, but don’t be too bossy. This binding societal puppet play puts women in an impossible situation, and discourages us from leaning into traits that are actually really great when used tactfully.
Inept, indecisive, panicky, frivolous—while these traits are gender neutral by definition, they’re disproportionately used in a negative way when describing female leaders. And over time, we internalize negative messages about how we should and shouldn’t act, leading women to walk away from leadership positions.
It’s time to reclaim and lean into these five traits:
When working women are described as ambitious, it’s rarely meant in a positive way. A Columbia Business School professor highlighted the differing correlation between ambition and likeability in men and women in an experiment where he presented a case study about a real entrepreneur, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. Half the class read the case with Heidi’s name, and the other half read the case with Heidi’s first name replaced with “Howard.” Overall, the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, but agreed Heidi was less likeable, more selfish, and less worthy of being hired. The conclusion? When men are successful, they’re liked, but when women are successful, people are put off.
However, women should continue to lean into ambition since that confidence is usually interpreted as competence, and we need more female leaders to set the ambitious example to break the glass ceiling. Women have more obstacles and hoops to jump through to reach the C-suite, and fearless ambition is necessary to make it to the top.
No, you shouldn’t blow up at everyone who wrongs you. But when channeled properly, anger can be a productive catalyst for change. Instead of repressing anger, we need to express it by channeling it into motivation. We need to give women, especially moms, permission to be angry—to go to protests, fight for policy change, and voice different opinions.
The Double Shift podcast host Katherine Goldstein learned how to translate her guilt into “motivating anger” when she was frustrated with the lack of resources for working moms. Although society encourages women to be submissive and not speak up, Goldstein learned to channel her feeling of mom-guilt into anger, which motivated her to fight for systemic change to fix what was making her feel guilty in the first place. She now encourages other working women to come together as a community to get sh*t done—if you’re angry about a lack of change, channel your frustration into action.
Empathy and emotional intelligence are traits sought out in the best leaders, but oftentimes, empathetic female leaders are mistaken for being overly obliging and only seeking to please others. There is a misconception that because women are perceived as more kind and caring, those qualities will make them weaker leaders. This is not the case. Empathy allows leaders to manage and guide teams effectively, inspire new generations of leaders, and predict outcomes of certain decisions.
Operator Collective Founder Mallun Yen uses empathy like a super power when it comes to leading. Early on in her career, she learned that in order to lead authentically, she needed to ditch the idea of fitting a typical young executive image and embrace empathy at the core of her leadership approach. She believes the key is to encourage healthy debate and “create an environment that recognizes there’s no such thing as‘perfect’ and instead embraces creating a safe environment for risk-taking and making mistakes.” To practice empathy, try being a better listener, forming deeper personal bonds with employees, and seeing situations from different perspectives.
When female leaders employ humor in their messaging, they’re often criticized for coming off as unauthentic, trying too hard, or too weak when using self-deprecation as a humor tactic. Some boil it down to biology, some blame it on genetics, but regardless of the reasoning, there’s a deeply rooted notion in society that women just aren’t funny. According to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, when male and female leaders used the exact same jokes in their respective speeches, the male leaders were ranked higher in terms of status, performance evaluation, and leadership capability—whereas the female leaders ranked lower in all three categories.
Despite it being considered “risky,” women should lean into humor and dispel the stereotype because leading with humor and wit can lead to higher employee motivation. Humor shows humility, relieves tension, and builds team morale. Where would we be if leading comedians like Tina Fey, Leslie Jones, and Maya Rudolf held back on humor because of the risks? Absolutely nowhere.
Humility gets a bad rap when it comes to necessary leadership qualities. Humility is often confused with subservience and introversion, but it actually equates truthfulness, authenticity, and sincerity. Since society already encourages women to be accommodating and unassertive, humility can be a tricky trait for female leaders to fully embrace. We tend to be impressed by overconfident, assertive leaders. But these leaders are less likely to admit mistakes, accept constructive feedback, and credit others for their work.
According to a Catalyst study, humility is actually one of the most significant indicators of altruistic leadership. Angela Sebaly, CEO and cofounder of Personify Leadership, says, "humility is about minimizing the self and maximizing the bigger purpose you represent. When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the 'I' to 'We.' Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose." So, if female leaders lean into humility, the cohesiveness of teams is bound to improve.