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Serena Williams’s Latest Commentary on Women in Leadership Is Spot On. Here’s What You Can Do About It

It’s about helping leaders realize their full potential even in the face of adversity

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BY Fiona Macaulay - 06 Mar 2019

serena williams on women in leadership

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"If we show emotion, we're called dramatic," narrates Serena Williams in a Nike commercial that first aired during the Oscars in February. "If we want to play against men, we're nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, we're delusional. When we stand for something, we're unhinged. When we're too good, there's something wrong with us. And if we get angry, we're hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy."

Women in leadership know what this feels like. It sometimes seems as though we are forced to walk an exceedingly narrow line.

Like it or not, there remain specific expectations of women in leadership roles and how we are expected to behave. For example, when men negotiate their salaries, they are permitted to be out for themselves. When a woman negotiates on behalf of herself, she needs to position her argument for the good of the organization. Otherwise, she risks backlash that includes being labeled "too aggressive" or "selfish." Such labels jeopardize our career advancement, never mind the chance for higher compensation.

So we wait. Carnegie Mellon University economics professor Linda Babcock once conducted a famous study of 78 masters degree students, and found that just 12.5 percent of women negotiated for their starting salary as opposed to 52 percent of men.

It doesn't have to be that way. Here's what you can do about it.

It's Definitely Personal

When women negotiate on behalf of someone else, we are as successful or more successful than our male counterparts. It's not that that women aren't successful negotiators; we are. It's that our society remains uncomfortable with women asserting themselves--when the benefits accrue to themselves.

Women have internalized this reality. Many women that I mentor and coach--from those in MBA programs to executives of leading companies--suffer from wanting to please others.

They want to be viewed as empathetic, helpful or loyal. They worry about what others say about them, making it difficult to hold others to account and to set boundaries for yourself.

So, my advice to you is to do approach your negotiation with clear talking points about the benefits to the organization and the person opposite you.

Women Carry An Extra Burden

Margaret Ann Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, taught me that leaders are judged on two axis: strength, comprised of traits such as persistence, determination and intelligence, and warmth, which encompasses traits such as honesty, reliability, and helpfulness. If you're a female leader there is a heightened "requirement" to convey warmth.

My experience leading a global development company that did business in 50 countries around the world was that an assertive leadership style often works for men, but doesn't work for women--even in your own company. I observed male employees on my management team be far more bossy than I without backlash. (Yes, I'm calling them bossy.)

This burden can also be seen as a benefit. Feeling and conveying empathy is a best practice of self-aware leaders and makes all leaders more effective. It makes you listen better and more likely to identify effective solutions.

A Nike representative told The Washington Post that the Dream Crazier commercial is "about helping athletes realize their full potential even in the face of adversity." My passion is helping women leaders do the same.

Williams's closing words in this commercial deeply resonated with me. She said, "So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do."

 

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