Heidi and Howard: An Update on the Tightrope

tight rope

By Lyn Turknett

Co-founder and Co-chair, TLG

Most women in leadership roles are familiar with the tightrope they are expected to walk – too aggressive and you are seen as overly pushy, too passive and friendly, and you aren’t seen as a leader. Our implicit assumptions are that women will be kind and nurturing, and that leaders will be authoritative and forceful. So how does a woman who is also a leader behave? The answer, as all women know, isn’t easy.

This tightrope has been called the double bind or the competence-likeability paradox, and the existence of this issue for women is well documented.

A Stanford professor, Frank Flynn, gave us one of the most interesting demonstrations of the phenomenon. In discussing gender issues in business, he used the 2000 Harvard Business School case of Heidi Roizen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and one of the first women in a field still dominated by men. She was confident, competent, and successful.


Heidi and Howard Revisited

Flynn decided to do a simple experiment. For some students, he changed the name of the protagonist in the case to “Howard” Roizen and changed pronouns to match. Students saw both Heidi and Howard as competent and effective leaders. But they didn’t like Heidi, they didn’t want to work with Heidi, and they wouldn’t hire her. They were perfectly willing to work with Howard – for him, confidence and assertiveness were expected.

We all grow up with this bias, and it’s likely below awareness in all of us. Training in implicit bias can’t erase the bias, but it can possibly help us be more aware.

I was excited to see an article late last year entitled, New Research Suggests Not All Female Leaders Have a Likeability Problem, and hoped to read how some women navigated the double bind. No such luck. Ironically, the research showed that only women who got their leadership role through luck – through random assignment or an unpredictable circumstance – suffered no hit to likeability. If women actively pursued the role, likeability went down.


New Data Shows Hope

I’ve seen some additional data, though, that has given me more hope. Research by Melissa Williams and Larissa Tiedens may rub some women the wrong way, since it puts the onus of walking the tightrope on women, but I’m a fan of reality and am willing to flex my behavior while still being a voice for cultural change. And, I’ve long realized that some women do an amazing job of projecting authority and competence without seeming threatening or confrontational. Eye contact with a smile – and no tilted head – is unconsciously coded as strong. The authors go on to say that “standing tall and using a loud voice during a meeting can express authority, but it’s subtle enough not to be resented. … Sitting with an arm draped over a chair, and an ankle resting on a knee, makes a person look larger and more dominant – but not threatening.”

The most encouraging was a report of findings from researchers at Columbia Business School, Stanford, and Duke entitled Representation Matters: Putting Women at the Top Transforms Organizational Rhetoric & Company Culture.

Researchers analyzed language from internal and external company documents, shareholder reports, and investor documents from large companies that had hired a female CEO after a male CEO. For comparison, they matched each company with a similar firm that had maintained a male CEO. For example, General Motors (Mary Barra), was compared with Ford. Eleven organization sets were analyzed.


Change is in the Air

Results should give us all hope. Language clearly changed. Having a woman CEO meant that agentic traits like decisiveness, confidence, and ambition (words associated with men and unconsciously associated with leadership) were now associated with female words. Organizations described their female leaders as both agentic and likeable, and that association began to infuse the organizations’ language.

We’ve long known that role models provide our primary vehicle for learning leadership. We know now that it’s even more important to have female role models throughout our organizations, and especially at the top!