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Credit: Tyler Kliem

Women are leaders. We deserve a seat at the head of the table — just as much as any male leader does. It shocks me that I still have to write articles like this, even with the myriad of evidence that supports and empowers female leadership. Harvard Business Review released an article highlighting research showing that women are better leaders during a crisis. Countries with women in key leadership positions fared better during COVID-19. Women lead through every faction of society — from the kitchen to the boardroom. We are more than leadership material, we model and shape the future of leadership. However, women, like myself, still face various challenges when ascending to our rightful positions of power and influence in corporate or organizational hierarchies. Our inner Wonder Woman is waiting to emerge and manifest, but is often squandered due to various gender stereotypes, hindering our potential for impact.

In 2014, Sheryl Sandberg, famed chief operating officer of Facebook and author of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” launched the BanBossy campaign to encourage girls to become leaders. I vividly remember watching a BanBossy ad as a young teenager. I was student body president of my middle school at the time, and I was constantly told that I was "bossy" and "aggressive." At 14 years old, I soberly recognized that my path to leadership would be a lonely one — that some people would accuse my passion and ferocity of being "pushy" or "intimidating." Today, in 2021, I still face many of the same struggles I dealt with at 14 years old. In six to seven years, things have only scarcely improved for women in leadership. Unfortunately, I am far from the only woman who has faced this issue. 

Women leaders are still facing discrimination when in positions of power and influence. A Harvard Business Review article uncovered that women leaders are given disproportionately more negative attributes in their performance reviews. This article proves that the way we analyze leadership skills is still subject to gender biases. Female leaders received, on average, significantly more negative language in their evaluations as male leaders, and were referred to as being "selfish" or "vain." In another article, researchers found that women in leadership are often pressured to simultaneously display traits from two extremes: to be both "competent and tough" and "warm and nice." All in all, this paints a starkly negative picture of women in leadership, portraying them as constantly being "too much" or "not enough."

For women of color, the struggles of attaining leadership positions are influenced by the impacts of racial stereotyping. LeanIn.org collaborated with McKinsey & Company to release a report on the state of Black women in corporate America. The report outlines various gendered microaggressions, with women being told that they are "overly ambitious" or "out for themselves" when showcasing a desire to lead. However, women of color experience these biases with more intensity, given their often-faulty portrayal of being a "diva" or "bitter" when speaking up at work. I relived many remnants of my own experiences when reading these reports. However, this Women’s History Month, we must collectively commit to improving the leadership experience and improving access to leadership experiences for women across different identities.

To improve the state of women in leadership, we can do three key things. First, we can hold space for the talents of female leaders. Women are often accused of being self-promoting or narcissistic in their ambition. Before you label a woman who is a strong leader as something problematic, why not support her? Celebrate her efforts and achievements. Ask yourself, "Would I have an issue with this personality trait or behavior if a male leader displayed it?" Check your biases continuously. Women leaders face enough negativity — work to build them up and do not tear them down.

Don’t allow women’s contributions to be overlooked or overshadowed by a male leader. Cut down on the male interruptions ("manterrupting") in your organizations, and make sure that women have a chance to speak up and be heard. Second, promote women. Be the change you wish to see in your organization. According to the American Association of University Women, women are still less likely to serve as leaders across various industries. Don’t be afraid to move women into the boardroom or the executive space. In fact, companies with more women on their boards often fare better financially.

Most importantly, we can commit to paying women an equal wage. It is 2021. A wage gap should not exist. By paying women less, we subtly communicate that their work, and the benefits they bring to the workforce, are negligible or less important. Women often bear the weight of the emotional labor of the workplace. Combining that with a lack of equal pay can easily lead to burn-out and other mental health issues. Organizations where women are being paid less, especially when in leadership roles, need to be held accountable. We have to step into deeper equality, and that starts with companies putting their money where their mouth is.

I long for a world where women can unleash their inner Wonder Woman without dealing with the scars of negative biases or sentiments hurled towards our leadership or strength. I don’t know how long it will take for us to get there, but I will continue to do my part to pave a path for the future of leadership to be equally and unabashedly female. Before you call a woman leader a bitch or even bossy, thank her for her drive and ambition instead.

SURAYYA WALTERS is a Wharton junior concentrating in management and decision processes  from New Rochelle, N.Y. Her email address is surayyaw@wharton.upenn.edu.

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