Check Your Internal Messages about Women Leaders

We choose every day if we’re going to respond to assumptions, or just be who we are.

What messages have you absorbed and internalized about women leaders, and how do they affect your leadership style? Pausing to reflect can help you assess how your subconscious view affect your expectations and behavior.

Early messages and socialization shape us, and can affect our interactions with other women. Unless we’re careful, they can hinder in forming alliances with women. Examining the beliefs that we hold can help us to create more effective collaborations with other women, as well as improve the status of women throughout higher education.

To explore these issues, Dr. Sharon Washington, interim director of faculty equity programs in the University of California’s office of the president, led a participatory workshop in San Francisco at the Northern California network meeting in the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education.


The session started with participants listing the expectations people have of women leaders. Responses were: decisive, fair, understanding, dynamic, hard workers, allies, better than men, able to speak their perspectives, isolated, juggling, exceptional or “one of the guys,” working harder but not smarter, insecure and therefore not generous, too worried about what other people think, collaborative, too generous and having political acumen.

Washington asked whether these were different than the expectations for men. People responded: men “multitask” while women “juggle,” men are better at managing up and women at managing down, men are not as worried about what other people think, men are not afraid to speak their perspectives, and women “own” their work in a different way—they personalize things.

The group broke into pairs to complete each sentence three times each: “Girls are _____” and “Girls should grow up to be _____.” They reconvened to discuss response themes. Most tended to make comparisons in terms of boys in the “girls are” responses: tough, resourceful, capable, strong, resilient, competent. Cultural stereotypes came up as they processed their thoughts, but they replaced them with positive anti-stereotypes.

Some felt that girls today are competitive and mean, as shown in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. The movie reflects social patterns among today’s adolescents, in which girls are “best friends” (“frenemies”) with their closest enemies—keeping their enemies closest. “The world is set up to have competition between us, so that we don’t compete with men,” a participant noted.

Responses to “Girls should grow up to be …” were all very idealistic and positive (themselves, independent), and reflect “how we were when we were young, versus how we are now.”

Although most participants claimed “today’s girls are different,” Washington has been doing this exercise since 1990—and she still gets the same responses. Each time, women don’t like the messages that come up at first, and they want to replace them with more positive ones.

Where do these messages come from? They start within the family. One woman’s messages growing up were how to diet, and “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Ironically, “The messages come from the people who love and care about us, who want the best for us,” said Washington. After the family, school and the media have major effects.

Even with good intentions, other outside forces can override even the best plans. One woman said that she wanted to raise her son as a feminist, but the process has been subverted by school, the media and his friends.

Washington shared her experiences with trying to maintain a level playing field. A self-described “radical activist” in college who took Women’s Studies classes, she thought her classroom was balanced and that she treated women and men students alike. She asked a colleague to observe her teaching style for gender equity. Although she knew she was being observed and called on women and men equally, she was shocked to learn that she had addressed the men by name but not the women.

One participant reported that when she taught at a co-ed school, she was very nurturing to female students, encouraging and reaching out to them. Now at a women’s college, she’s much more challenging and in their faces.

“You have to be vigilant, to know the messages we receive, in order do counteract them,” said Washington. “We internalize socialization, not only for other women but ourselves in terms of our leadership style.”


How do you respond to people’s assumptions about you? A woman of color sought advice on “pushback” she’s experiencing at her school. A colleague told her she’s seen as presenting things as already having been decided, with no room for negotiation.

She noted that if she were a white male, she’d be praised as decisive. She wondered if she should change her style, in response to “people who have interest but no knowledge about a situation.”

Session participants responded that men aren’t expected to have buy-in, and that the surest way to ensure that nothing will happen is to have committees about things. “But these people can bring you down,” the woman responded.

“You have to find a way to ‘faux incorporate’ them,” suggested another. “Tell the people you expect to resist, so they know what’s going on.”

“There are times to just get things done,” said Washington. “We choose every day if we’re going to respond to assumptions, or just be who we are.”

Though she was an “out there, radical activist” as an undergrad, as an associate professor she found herself exhibiting what she would have called “sellout behavior.” But at the time, she called it being pragmatic.

One of her best experiences was as provost at Spelman College GA, a historically black women’s college. She had made a personnel decision about a black professor; her female students responded by making an actual appointment to protest. They came to her office at the appointed time, half wearing suits, and presented signed petitions.

Told that her decision was final, the women asked if there was anything else they could do. Washington explained that having been at predominately white institutions, she knew there were other ways to protest. “You have to understand how you can be the most effective,” she told them.

Serving at Spelman gave her the chance to hone her management skills without race as a factor. “As a woman of color, you get scrutinized and watched, in ways that men do not,” she said. After 12 years in higher education, she found that Spelman was the first time in her life that race was off the table and she could make decisions without people saying that she favored blacks. “This gave me a sense of my management style that would have taken pain and suffering at a predominately white institution,” she said.

Women are forced to second-guess decisions in ways that men aren’t, said one session participant, noting that men don’t appear to lose sleep as much as women do over their decisions.

“Workplaces are no different than society,” said Washington. “As long as we have sexism, racism, etc., people will be viewed differently according to perceptions.” She noted that we won’t have parity until our government is filled with me-diocre women.

After a brutal meeting, one woman’s boss saw her crying at her desk and asked, “Why can’t you go throw up in the bathroom like a man?”

The complexity of simultaneity

Simultaneity refers to the experiences of women who are members of underrepresented minority groups, commonly called “two-fers.” Straddling both groups, they’re often forced to choose between identifying as a woman, or of a racial group. Choices can have repercussions.

“We all have multiple identities. Some are visible, and some aren’t. It’s not tidy or complex,” said Washington. “Sometimes we don’t want to look at the differences, but there’s a big price to pay for that. We’re asking women to leave something at the door.”

One participant noted that as a lesbian, she’s kept at the door because of her sexual orientation. Other women fear “guilt by association.” This makes lesbians feel that they need to wear a ring and act straight.

During the black power movement in the 1970s, leaders asked, “Sisters, work with us, but don’t bring up women’s issues, so that we can advance the cause.”

When Washington came out as a lesbian, her mother said, “You can either be black and in the closet, or out and white.” She’s since come around, even inviting Washington’s ex-girlfriend on a cruise, and introducing her as her daughter. “People do grow and change,” she said.

You never know what someone’s “multiple identity” might be. Washington knows she can “pass.” “I never have to confront an issue,” she said. “But I can force myself to take a stand, to consciously bring it forth.”

Responses to the responses

When we look at our leadership styles, how do we respond to outside stimuli? A woman whose boss has a tendency to yell at her during meetings asked him, “Why are you yelling at me?” It was effective at the moment, but she wondered whether to keep doing it.

Leadership is situational. We all have different styles, and we have to figure out which one to bring, said Washington. In higher education, the current trend is to be collaborative. “Collaborative is not collective,” she said. We have to stop to examine the buzzwords. It’s a perpetuated myth that everyone gets a seat at the table.

Higher ed differs from the corporate world in that we try to use committees. Corporations might bring a few key people in for input and then announce, “That’s it, the decision has been made.” “Boom. Then you move on,” she said.

In higher education, however, there’s the aura of collaboration. In the 1960s, there was the ideal of consensus, which changed to consensus minus one, and then consensus minus two, etc.

But this consensus gave rise to the power of bullies. “In consensus, it’s very easy for a bully to run things,” noted one woman. “A seeming absence of hierarchy limits what you can do. Nutty things happen because of the way hierarchy is modeled.” You have to work within the school’s governance style.

In the early days of higher education, faculty did everything. As new administrative positions were created, the power moved from faculty to administrators.

What differentiates between leaders and leadership? Leadership is moving a group toward their goals, not the leader’s. Leaders also have followers and a vision.

Building alliances across differences

There are other differences including sexual orientation, ableness, class and position within an organization, but race and gender are the key multiple identities.

“When we don’t look at issues of race, we lose key people within an organization,” said Washington. “We have to not just ask questions, but be willing to answer them.” White women, she said, are used to asking the questions, and black women to disclosing. It’s rarely reversed. We have to be conscious of those things.

Making differences explicit can be uncomfortable. And there are gendered differences between comfort levels with conflict. A woman’s dean recently noted, “We have all these new faces of color, and all this conflict now!” as though there were no conflicts before, the woman noted dryly.

To form effective multicultural alliances, strive to welcome the full range of identities that women bring to the group, Washington advised. Be willing to engage authentically with both the differences and the similarities.

To counteract the messages you’re either bombarded with or have internalized, “You have to be vigilant every day,” said Washington. “You have to be able to say ‘Oops, that’s just a voice in my head—that’s not real!’”

Contact Dr. Sharon Washington at:

Back   |   Read Archive