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The Feminine Leadership Mystique

NEW YORK – In a single week earlier this month, Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as Executive Editor of the New York Times, resigned under duress, and Natalie Nougayrède resigned as Editor-in-Chief of France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, complaining in an open letter of having been undermined. What, if anything, do these high-profile dismissals tell us about women in senior workplace positions?

The Times announced Abramson’s departure in a front-page story filled with barbs and swipes, the kind of piece that even the most ineffectual senior male editor never sees in print upon his dismissal from a job. Abramson fought back assertively in a brief battle for public perception, with someone having leaked details of an $80,000-plus gap between her salary and that of her male predecessor in the same role.

On both sides of the Atlantic, observers mused predictably over the women’s “management style.” Abramson was described as “pushy,” while Nougayrède was “authoritarian” and “Putin-like.” No one, incidentally, friend or foe, made the case that either woman failed in their business objectives during their tenures. Their style was the substance of the coverage – and thus of the backlash to that coverage.

It was bizarre to see Abramson, a top investigative reporter whose task was to help reporters get the story against many obstacles, be castigated as “peremptory,” aggressive, tough, and “sharp”-tempered. How was she to do her job without those attributes? Had she been otherwise, she would have been castigated as a weak, indecisive leader.

One would think that by now we had moved beyond a double standard in how men’s and women’s leadership styles are perceived. Unfortunately, for women in charge, a “management myth” – akin to the “beauty myth” or to Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” – persists. And, as long as there is a perceived problem with women’s leadership styles, no woman can lead a major organization so soothingly, diplomatically, and charmingly that epithets like “pushy,” “bossy,” and “Putin-like” will not follow her the minute someone wants to shove her out the door. The question is not about women’s leadership styles at all; it is simply about moving the goalposts.

So let us speak frankly, facing a taboo, about what it means to be a senior woman leading effectively: it means that one will occasionally contradict a man, however politely; overrule a man, however courteously; disregard a man’s strategic advice, no matter how gently the decision is put; and tell a junior man, however tactfully, that he is not performing well enough. These are the intolerable moments, the social red lines that female leaders must cross. And this is the problem with women’s leadership style: By definition, doing one’s job means angering certain kinds of men.

The truth is that there are not two kinds of women who lead in different ways, one magically soothing and impeccably feminine, and the other dictatorial and insufferable. Rather, there are two kinds of men: those who can handle the moments described above, and who can, through their own maturity, personal evolution, or fortunate family upbringing, manage to process those moments in a purely professional context, and those who, for whatever reason, simply cannot.

The problem with senior women’s management style lies with the second category of men at work. This is the untold secret of women’s struggle in the workplace: if you ask any senior woman off the record, she is likely to agree that most of her male colleagues have no problem with women’s authority, but that some simply cannot abide it, no matter how it is wielded.

So we should stop analyzing women’s management style as if there were some foolproof way to cross the minefield of power. Instead, we should start to analyze why most men have evolved to the point that they accept women’s authority, while others – like whoever commissioned that front-page annihilation of Abramson at a time when smearing her served no professional purpose – still cannot.

Interestingly, in fields where women hold many senior positions, like book publishing, it is rare to see analyses of women’s management styles. The same is true of academic administrators, whether they are presidents of women’s colleges or mixed-gender colleges and universities. Women lead on the micro level as well, as development projects like Grameen Bank have shown, and outperform men in comparable roles.

These publishers, presidents, and micro-entrepreneurs all have track records of accomplishment. Could their matter-of-fact achievement be due in part to the fact that their presence is taken for granted and that they are often allowed simply to get on with being effective?

What if all workplaces were like that? What if we dropped once and for all the impossible mirror that always distorts female leadership into something monstrous? Part of strong leadership is to trust your gut instincts. The cultural second-guessing surrounding the dismissal of Abramson and Nougayrède ensures that women leaders cannot do that without having their leadership instincts held up to constant inspection.