The invisible barriers faced by female leaders

"People whisperer," Anneli Blundell discusses the social backlash female leaders face when they don’t conform to gender stereotypes

The invisible barriers faced by female leaders

“Women are seen through a gendered lens,” said communication expert and leadership coach, Anneli Blundell, known as the “people whisperer.”

“We are all operating in a space of social backlash, brought about by our perceptions of gender stereotypes,” she said. “Women are supposed to be nurturing, humble and supportive so when they act outside of that social stereotype by being strong and opinionated, they face a negative backlash, meaning they are perceived through a negatively skewed lens.”

Research shows that in order for women to be seen as confident leaders, they need to demonstrate warmth and strength.

“They need to be approachable and authoritative,” said Blundell. “If they are too friendly, they can be seen as pushovers who are not respected. If they are too authoritative, they will be seen as cold ice-queens and they get rejected.”

Blundell recommends that female leaders find ways to balance both strength and warmth so they can be seen and heard as confident leaders.

“Women have to walk this fine line of balancing just enough warmth so that people associate them with the female stereotype, which buys them permission to show a little bit more strength,” she explained.

Blundell has found that gender bias is not necessarily intentional or explicit but can appear in insidious ways through gender stereotypes, inadvertently causing women to be held back.

“There is a second-generation bias that is stuck in our system, and policies that we’ve inherited over hundreds of years of a working environment that was created by men for men,” said Blundell.

There are many ways in which men can be allies for female leaders. Blundell suggests that men can start by getting curious about the gender barrier and posing questions to the women in their lives, to find out what it is like for them working in a male-dominated environment. They can also help by sponsoring women and putting them forward for opportunities for which they may not otherwise have been considered.

Men can challenge the status quo by taking parental leave and making use of flexible hours to take on more child-care and household responsibilities. By going against gender expectations, women will have the support and time they need to succeed as leaders.

“Many businesses are offering policies for flexible work but men aren’t taking it because there’s still a social backlash around men taking a step back,” said Blundell.

Blundell is a Melbourne, Victoria-based author, speaker and communication expert, specialising in decoding the people dynamics that drive performance. She also runs masterclasses for women in leadership.