Let’s Have Leaders, Not “Female Leaders”

A couple of months ago I wrote a post in response to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, where she encouraged women to lean in.  My post, found here, was not so much a disagreement with her statements as much as the actual term, leaning in.  That term merely seems too non-committal; either do something all the way or don’t do it at all.  In my opinion there should be more jumping and less leaning.

In Sandberg’s book, she mentions that women have a tendency to hold back, if you will, because they have seen how other women become less liked when they find success in business.  She writes, “If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she’s considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women.”

She also says that, “Success and like-ability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”

“Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”

Do you agree that female accomplishments in the workplace come at a cost?  And why does it matter how much a successful woman is liked?  If her goal is to rise to the top, it is not likely that she recognizes that the rise comes from hard work, intelligence and competency rather than winning a popularity contest.  Do you think that women really put limits on themselves for fear of being disliked?  If so, there sure is a lot that we need to change if the next generation of girls is to have equal rights to leadership positions.

Yesterday I read this piece in the Harvard Business Review where researchers found that women are actually not disliked more when they rise to leadership roles in an organization.  Well, that really is a huge relief (I say sarcastically as I pretend to wipe sweat off my brow). Now we can surely tell girls not to worry because they will still be able to participate in that popularity contest even if they are successful in business.

Despite my personal feelings about the title of the book, it was written, in part, as a way to encourage girls and women to be more ambitious, and to create the conversations that can create a change for the better.  (We can start by socializing girls from a young age with strong female characters to look up to in books, movies and television. ) Though a few friends pointed out to me that from their perspective her book comes from a skewed socioeconomic perspective, I think it is a conversation worth having. 

After all, don’t we want young girls today to grow up thinking that they really can become anything they want?  Don’t we want them to live in a world where leaders are just leaders, and not female leaders?

teenager girl dressed as a businesswoman


  1. Great post – good insights! It has long been my thought, that we spend SO MUCH TIME talking about how we are all the same. . .but we NEVER miss a chance to differentiate . . .it was a Female Boss. . .women will never be men. . .we are different – it’s biology. And my feelings about how far we can go, and how successful our daughters can be changes on an almost daily basis. . .but NO ONE should EVER be dissuaded from trying their best. I say JUMP IN – don’t lean. . . =)


  2. Your post touched a subject close to my heart as I have been perceived as aggressive, not an entrepreneur like other man are. Love reading, will share with some friends!

  3. Well said! Although it’s slightly off topic, your post put me in mind of what I read about Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli, who was slammed and insulted and called all KINDS of horrible names for NOT being tall and beautiful: http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/post/54864863081/womens-wimbledon-champion-marion-bartoli-deemed. I cringed and couldn’t even finish the article. As I’m raising 2 daughters, I think about all this a lot. Women are just on SO much more than their skills, in every arena. As for me, I applaud all successful women – and yes, jump in! Sometimes though you need to do it with your ears closed to the insults that have nothing to do with your performance.

  4. Having a daughter myself, I agree that it is important to show young girls strong female roles from an early age. They need to know that they are strong, independent, and confident!

  5. I definitely think that double standards hold women back in the workplace both from how they are perceived and promoted to how they think of themselves. I see a lot of women sell themselves short – such as qualifying their accomplishments with a “Oh, it’s not a big deal” and not being as proud of them – because of the cultural beliefs they have been raised with.

  6. I was drawn in by the title of this post. As a black woman I spent many years being called “the black female attorney” and not “the attorney.” I am watching how the world changes and unfolds and will be interested to see what the world will look like when we are called just what we are without all the qualifiers.

  7. Great job!! You’re absolutely right, we want leaders, and not just female leaders.

    I have always told my girls that they can do anything, be anything, and if they work hard they will succeed. My hope is that they really believe me and do all that they can to rise to the top, ignoring the double standards as they go through life.

  8. Exactly! I don’t love that the term “female leaders” is usually used. Can’t we just place everyone on the same level to begin with?

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