July 2016 Motivate On The Cover

Redefining The Fierce Leader

Written By: Debbie Mason

“We’ve come a long way, baby” frames the progress that has been made for women since the historic 19th Amendment that permitted women to vote was passed in 1920. But, the journey to equality is far from complete.

In May 2016, National Public Radio reported interviews with some of Montana’s male voters in which a number of men said they won’t vote for any woman as the leader of our nation. Several added that they don’t want a woman in charge where they work, either. They are not alone in perpetuating this bias against women.

When women beat the odds to become leaders and lead with authority to create a culture of accountability, many studies report that they are often perceived as “bossy” or “fierce.” The studies show that men exhibiting the same behaviors receive positive labels such as “focused,” “ambitious” and “commanding.”

Yet, most leaders want to be judged not on their gender but instead on their effectiveness in demonstrating emotional intelligence as well as technical and managerial expertise. For “fierce” to become a “good” label for both genders, Americans have a lot of work to do first.

Typically, beliefs are framed first from early childhood experiences in the home. Many people have been taught to believe that there are gender designations for chores, roles and even toys. Data supports that parents, teachers, and mentors often shape and reinforce these gender biases, often repeating the outdated myths they learned from their own parents and teachers.

Several local women leaders report that they were lucky to have been reared in homes with parents who instead avoided those stereotypes. Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said her parents kept their home free from gender bias.

Darnell said, “My parents raised my sister and me in a gender-neutral way. With my dad, we helped him clean his barbershop and he taught us to do minor repairs around the house (and) how to change a tire. My dad did the cooking and my mom did the bookkeeping and accounting in our home.”

University of Florida’s Vice President of University Relations Jane Adams agreed, sharing that she grew up focused on a career choice that was usually reserved for men.

“It was the 1970s and very unusual for women to choose a path in the sciences,” Adams said. “I wanted to go to college to become a physicist, and my parents did not bat an eye. In fact, they fully supported my choice and helped me go for it. They never questioned my decision — or my ability to do it, if that was what I wanted.”

Adams and Darnell believe that a more important component for judging leadership effectiveness, despite gender, is the leadership style exhibited.

Adams explained, “The real difference in effective leadership has little to do with gender and a whole lot more to do with style…Both men and women can be bossy — that term can apply to both genders, based on behavior, just as both can be effective leaders, as well.”

Darnell agreed, “When I am thinking and making decisions to get things done (and) providing leadership to my team, I am not thinking of gender — I am thinking of the goal and getting to it.”

More Progress

Breaking the gender bias of perceptions and labels assigned to women leaders starts with becoming aware of the ingrained beliefs that subconsciously frame the language and behaviors shared within our homes, schools and workplaces.

“Children need to see women in leadership and not think it is unique, so they grow up with that as a norm,” Adams said. “Teachers need to approach this in schools differently so children don’t learn to label a woman or girl who is strong and confident as bossy, and instead, those attributes of leadership are recognized and encouraged.”

“It is important for each of us to reflect on how we navigate the work place,” Darnell added. “Periodic self-assessment of styles helps us to understand how we come across.” The style of leaders is important to listen and function well in teams. Equally important is for leaders to understand how the style of others impacts a leader’s ability to succeed in meeting organizational goals. One day, hopefully soon, gender bias will disappear, and instead, judging effectiveness will be based on leadership style and results. When that happens, the label “fierce” will be equally positive for men and women.



DEBBIE MASON, APR, CPRC, Fellow PRSA is the president of Strategists Inc., a consulting firm providing strategic planning, research, facilitation, team-building, leadership assessments and coaching.

Leave a Comment