Being an ‘authentic’ CEO is a job in itself for women

Late last year I ended an almost six-year stint as a public- and policy-facing CEO in London to move to the countryside and work part-time. Prior to that, I’d spent three decades rising up the ranks in the media and university leadership. It has taken a clean break from the boardroom to clear the mental clutter. One bizarre realisation that has bubbled up is that I haven’t seen my natural hair colour in 40 years.

Like so many of my female contemporaries who began work in the 1970s and 80s, I found it necessary to conceal some personal characteristics and perform others to achieve seniority, then maintain it. This reminds me of a boss I once worked for and admired. On “dress down Fridays”, this powerful, experienced manager rocked up in an impeccable denim two-piece with shoulder pads and a silk business-dress shirt. In the same way, for decades I’ve masked parts of who I really am at work – how I look, sound and naturally act.

Listening to former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara’s testimony to the Covid inquiry in November further underlined just how much women leaders self-filter to maintain professional acceptability. This rang particularly true when hearing one particularly apologetic email to senior Downing Street officials in April 2020:

Just when you thought you were out of the woods on annoying emails from me…Has the PPE conversation picked up the fact that most PPE isn’t designed for female bodies…?

For MacNamara to reach that level of civil service seniority only to have to self-deprecate (while being referred to as a c*** by Dominic Cummings) is appalling. But it also exposes a huge gap in contemporary research.

From the glass ceiling to the glass cliff

There’s a plethora of cross-disciplinary literature on perceptions of women executives and their supposed gender-specific attributes. And of course, there have been advances in breaking the “glass ceiling” that stops women from rising to leadership positions.

But research continues to show how women that do reach senior positions are more likely to leave these roles much sooner than men. They fall off a “glass cliff” at the height of their careers. For example, when an organisation in crisis appoints a woman CEO and then dismisses her for failing to achieve a turnaround. As a result, women’s CEO tenures tend to be much shorter than men’s – lasting 5.2 years on average, compared to 8.1 years for men.

And, with a few notable exceptions, there is virtually nothing out there charting the conscious or unconscious practices of women to acquire or maintain success. My current research draws on psychological theories of the self alongside cultural studies and class to critically analyse the reflections of women. I’m finding that, even when women leaders are celebrated for their “authenticity”, all-too-often the definition of authenticity in that professional context is a gender-specific, institutionally-driven social construct.

Authenticity here denotes behaviour that’s in line with core values, or a person’s inner “truth”, rather than decisions made purely to please others. But research suggests that for leaders to be seen as authentic, they must “perform authenticity” in line with gender norms. For example, in demonstrating that authenticity is something that leaders do, rather than have or are, one study shows that authenticity is not a trait, but an embodied and embedded gender performance. In other words, authenticity is not measured in the same way for male and female leaders.

Working women’s ‘double bind’

Certainly, in my long experience of being on both sides of recruitment panels, women often face the double bind of needing to be seen as both competent and warm. Hair, clothing choice, tone of voice and non-verbal behaviour are all discussed as ways to achieve this in the accounts I have collected to date. Across industries from fashion to railways, women executives feel their appearance is scrutinised as a measure of their competence in ways men’s clothing and demeanour isn’t.

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara leaves Covid-19 Public Inquiry hearing after giving evidence, November 2023.
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Aside from hinting at the possible effort taken to craft and repeatedly edit emails before pressing “send”, MacNamara’s testimony also shows how women executives often strive to display expressions of “warmth” more than men do. A recent study of women MPs made similar findings. Such research indicates women leaders feel the need to show maternal, caring qualities towards colleagues while at the same time being strong, firm and decisive – traits seen as “authentically male”.

There are no fundamental biological differences that predispose men or women to be more effective leaders, it’s the socialisation we all experience that can alter cognitive development and impact our approach to leadership.

The world desperately needs authentic, ethical and compassionate leadership – by men and women – right now. Businesses and boards across all industries need to reflect very carefully on how to support female talent. Developing a deeper understanding of the sheer psychological effort many women devote to their roles would be a great place to start.

by : Sarah Niblock, Visiting Professor on the Doctoral Programme in Counselling Psychology, York St John University

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