‘Think Manager, Think Male’: Breaking Down Old Gender Norms That Hem Women In

Is there an established moral, social and business case for having more women seated at decision-making tables? Yes.

So why are so few women seated there?

While there is no simple answer, there is at least a growing commitment by those who are to improving gender diversity at at every rung on the organizational ladder.  Yet, while “outside-in” initiatives play an important role at de-biasing the system, on their own, they are insufficient.

Women themselves have an active role to play to breaking down the traditional ‘think manager, think male’ gender norms that undermine how women perceive themselves as leaders and which contribute to the ‘gender confidence gap.’  Just as there is no easy way to eradicate gender bias (something women also have against their own gender), nor is there one ‘quick fix’ to dismantling well entrenched norms. The only way to doing so is by cultivating a greater awareness of how much these norms can unconsciously shape our thinking, stifle female ambition and fuel doubt in our ability to manage the pressures and politics of male dominated power structures.


Unlocking the full force of feminine leadership will require more women pushing back on old norms, challenging the established order and rethinking their own paradigms of what is possible.   This is no small order but it is all within our power. Here are seven ways we can do just that.

1. Own Your Value

Women sell themselves short when they second guess their value and don’t put themselves forward because they are waiting to be asked or just don’t see in themselves those traditional (i.e. more masculine) leadership traits they assume are a pre-requisite for leadership. It’s why women must not wait to be given permission or to be asked before they find the courage to step up, speak up, challenge old norms and be the change they wish to see.

Since all true leadership extends from the inside out, women must see themselves as leaders – change makers in their own right and in their own way.


2. Speak Powerfully, Apologize Less


Research has found that women are four times more likely to use “out-of-power” language that undermines how we are perceived as leaders.  This doesn’t imply that it’s better to be arrogant or insensitive to the ‘listening’ in the room.  Nor does it deny the double-bind women often face when speaking with the same assertiveness as men. Rather, it’s about owning the value your opinion holds and not letting fear keep you from saying what needs to be said – with candor and kindness.

So, enough of “Correct me if I’m wrong…” or saying nothing at all for fear of ruffling feathers.  A simple litmus test to help you discern when to speak up is to just ask yourself:

  1. Do I mean it?
  2. Can I defend it?
  3. Will it serve?

If it’s Yes, then say it. Research shows that simply showing the courage to speak up and challenge the consensus can earn you respect as a leader (regardless of your title.)  While your opinion may not always change the outcomes, the very act of expressing it can raise your visibility and leadership brand.


3. Be Willing To Take Career Risks 


“Whatever your career, you have to be willing to take risks,” says Kathy Calvin, president of the United Nations Foundation. For many women, this is far easier said than done given that we are both socialized and wired more for caution than men. It’s why we have to muster up the courage to just ‘dive in’ however vulnerable that may feel in the moment of taking the leap.  However what separates women who defy the odds is their willingness to ‘wing it’ from time to time (like men so often do); to take take a leap of faith in themselves and trust that they’ll figure it out as they go.

Does that mean you will nail it every time? Of course not. But you need to get real about the bigger risk you take if you opt to play it safe-  the missed opportunities to diversify your network, broaden your skill base, develop your leadership competencies, sharpen your judgment and expand your visibility for even bigger roles.

So be willing to take a risk and say yes even when you’re not sure what you’re doing. Men do it all the time.


4. Get On The Radar Of Decision-Makers

It’s not what you know that matters. Nor is it who you know. It’s who knows what you know (and what you can do and want to do in the future!)  If decision makers aren’t aware of your abilities and ambitions, you can miss out on opportunities that go to people who are more comfortable with self-promotion (which, unsurprisingly, are more likely to be male.)


So to women reading this:  Don’t assume people know what you want (benevolent sexism may work against you here!). Nor wait to be discovered.  If there’s a role you want, take responsibility for ensuring the decision makers know. Doing so doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it. But relying on people to read your mind is a surefire recipe for frustration and resentment. This is particularly true if you are starting a family which puts you at risk of benevolent sexism –  well-meaning people assuming you will not want any more on your plate.


5. Amplify Other Women’s Voices

A recent study at George Washington University found that women are more likely to be talked over in meetings than men. Which is why women (and, quite frankly, men) have to be proactive in amplifying the voices of other women – touting their wins (since we’re not particularly good at doing this for ourselves!), reinforcing their opinions and, when needed, calling out those who interrupt (“I’m sorry, could we just go back to what Jenny was saying before she was interrupted?”).


6. Tap The Sisterhood

In line with the above, we need more women to be supporting more women… taping the power of the sisterhood to elevate and embolden women the world over.  This requires operating from an abundance mindset; knowing that we don’t get left behind when we give other women a leg up but that we all rise together.

New recent research has found that an increase in women at the top of an organization has a spillover effect that elevates women further down. So undefined regardless of where you sit on the ladder, do your bit to ensure that more women support more women!


7. Own Your Femininity

Too often women buy into the belief that they have to act more like “the men” to get ahead. Not true. It’s well established that violating gender behavioral norms can have a backlash. However new research shows that women who don’t let their gender define them – particularly in male-dominated workplaces – and simply get on with the job at hand, are more effective and feel less discriminated against than women who focus on their gender.

Closing the gender gap and addressing the most the pressing challenges requires drawing on the full diversity of collective – male and female – strengths.  So don’t dial down your femininity to fit in or avoid standing out. We do not need women to be more like men; we need women to be their authentic selves.

Bring your whole self to work… your greatest value lays in what makes you different. Embrace it.


Margie Warrell is an international speaker, bestselling author & advocate for women in leadership. Connect on Linked In and Twitter.


Originally published at Forbes