The Devil Doesn’t Only Wear Prada

As originally published by SHRM’s “We Know Next,” found here.

We all know that powerful women face Catch-22s.  When Donald Trump exercises control, he is in control. When Martha Stewart exercises control, she is controlling.  Same behaviors; different labels.

A lot has been written about these Catch-22s.  Less has been written on how women with power can handle them.
Here are three of the many Catch-22s women with power face and my suggestions for how to navigate them.

1. Ice Queen

Women who maintain emotional control are sometimes described as Ice Queens.  Of course, those who demonstrate emotion may be equally criticized.

I once had a male client scream at me about how an emotional woman working for him was making him nuts.  I was glad he was not emotional.

It’s okay to show passion, compassion and emotion.  Just make sure that it’s in the framework of control.

Indeed, consider getting ahead of the curve. Whether you are male or female, educate your team on the importance of emotional intelligence.

And, don’t react to fears of being perceived as too emotional by being non-emotional.  That goes too far, unless you want your subordinates to wear winter coats in August.

Ice Kings and Queens are not likely to inspire passionate followers.  But subordinates tend to be tougher on the queens than the kings.

2. Tough

Women with power who are simply as tough as men are sometimes described as tough in either a disparaging way (“bitch”) or with surprise (“wow, is she tough”).  What were you expecting from the COO:  a shoulder to cry on?

Of course, if a woman is more collaborative, she may hear that she is not tough enough. Why can’t she make a decision on her own? Why does she need so much buy in?

Whether male or female, you need to be tough to lead.  And, regardless of gender, being strong is not inconsistent with being collaborative.

But, for women, this can be a more difficult balance in the eyes of the beholder.  Same behaviors may produce different responses.

People continue to tune in to hear The Donald say “You’re fired.”  People tuned out when The Martha said the same thing (in a less direct way).

Be strong.  And that doesn’t mean out-toughing Cro Magnon man.

Be collaborative. But be clear that you will make the decision (when it is your decision) and be decisive when you do.

3. Anger

When men are angry, they’re often seen as powerful.  Anger is a very powerful emotion if coming from a Y chromosome.  When women are angry, they are sometimes viewed as one step away from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

There are times when you should be angry.  But recognize the double standard and be careful that the anger be focused on what was done and less on how you feel about it.  Contrary to therapeutic advice, keep the focus on actions and not on feelings.

Related, when men complain, they push.  When women complain, they sometimes are labeled “whiners.”  Don’t get me wrong:  incessant whiners, regardless of gender, are irritating.

But women often are judged more harshly when they complain so be careful when and how.

Compare:  “I am so mad I was excluded from the meeting” with “Glad to be here.  I’m sure you simply forgot to include me.”

Of course, not all women face all (or even some) of these or other stereotypes.  And, where they exist, they tend to be subtle pastels rather than the fluorescent lines I have painted to make the point.

The devil does not only wear Prada.  How easy it would be if it were that simple.

Where these stereotypes exist, they are often the product of unconscious bias and sometimes hard to detect.  Women with power need to deal with them consciously.  But, they do not need to go it alone.

There are plenty of progressive (and secure) men who do not hold these stereotypes.  To suggest that a progressive (white) male is an oxymoron is also an unfair and untrue stereotype.