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Negative Stereotypes about Powerful Women

Perception vs. Reality

We’ve all heard the old saying:  “perception is reality.”  That can be true for the person doing the “perceiving,” however, it may not be “true” for the person being “perceived;” and this is where dangerous “stereotyping” occurs.  Typically these “stereotypes” or “perceptions” are wrong and that’s especially true for women in positions of “power.”  Unfair and damaging “stereotypes” are projected onto women more so than their male counterparts.

Valerie Young, Ed.D., author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women says, “Women face harsh, limiting assessments based on their gender.  Women are being judged more, even by other women.  “While male leaders are allowed to have complex personalities, powerful women are often summed up by hackneyed stereotypes that undermine them and their power.”

In her March 6, 2013 article entitled, “Beware of Broken Glass: The Media’s Double Standard for Women at the Top” for The Verge, Elizabeth Spiers describes how the press attacked Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, for being strong, ambitious leaders and instituting change within their organizations.  Unlike their male counterparts these women were mercilessly “attacked” for the tough business decisions and policies they made for the success of their companies.

Jenna Goudreau wrote an article in the October 2011 edition of Forbes Magazine that identified ten of the Worst Stereotypes about Powerful Women.

They are listed here for informational purposes only.

The purpose of this article is to provide an increased self-awareness and dwelling on these stereotypes would be counter-productive.  However, there’s no doubt that they exist and that women are encountering them every day.  Women need to be aware that any one or several of these stereotypes can be projected on to them from members of society… both male and female.

Misunderstandings, Miscommunications or Differences in Work Styles

These types of stereotypes can be created as a result of misunderstandings, miscommunications or differences in work styles, especially between men and women.  In addition to this, while I’m not blaming the victim, so-to-speak, women need to understand where and how their own behaviors might be contributing to the perceptions that bring on this type of negative stereotyping.  For example, I remember some of my former female colleagues who, upon returning to the workplace after having their children, tended to act “apologetic” for the time they took off to have and care for their children.  As a result they came across as lacking confidence and having low self-esteem.  This can contribute to the weak and/or emotional stereotypes.  I also remembering hearing some of my former female colleagues making jokes about having Mommy Brain, which can contribute to the cheerleader or token stereotypes.  Women need to project a sense of confidence and pride of their role as a mother and not apologize for their life decisions.   On the other hand, I’ve seen men return from paternity leave and get right back to work… no apologies, no excuses etc.

Diane Lang, MA, who wrote the book, Baby Steps: The Path from Motherhood to Career, said that the greatest driver of a woman’s success is “Different for every woman.”  From what she’s seen and worked with the greatest factor is “A woman’s need for personal and professional accomplishment and to be a role model for her kids.”

One of the greatest challenges women have faced in the past, she goes on to say, is “themselves. It’s the limiting beliefs that they aren’t good enough or that they can’t do it.  It’s basically fear.  She said that the challenges are the same today, “But also for women who are in mid-life, it’s figuring out what they want. They no longer want the career they had before kids and their values have changed. They want a job that has more purpose and passion in life.”

She says that women who are encountering the effects of stereotyping early in their careers need to “Prove they are wrong!  Be the best employee, supervisor you could be!  If you hit the glass ceiling, find another way or start your own niche/biz!  Never give up.”

Forbes Magazine 10/24/11, “The 10 Worst Stereotypes About Powerful Women,”
Lang, Diane, Baby Steps: The Path From Motherhood To Career, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IA, 2008
Spiers, Elizabeth, “Beware of broken glass: the media’s double standard for women at the top,”,, 2013
Young, Valerie, Ed.D, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Crown Publishing, New York, NY, 2011

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About Mary Anne Kochut

Mary Anne is an author, motivational speaker, coach, trainer and organization/management development professional who is skilled in group dynamics, consultation and facilitation. She specializes in the areas of leadership, communications and executive coaching, change management and career transition and has experience in the Financial Services, Telecommunications, public utilities, insurance, retail and healthcare industries, numerous government…