Earlier this year, I facilitated a leadership event on behalf of the Rethink Recruitment Group, on Inspiring Female Leaders. Providing a forum for businesswomen to discuss their challenges, opportunities and experiences, the initial meeting asked whether women can be feminine and still hold a position of power?

But what does it mean to be feminine? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is:

Having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness:
“The snowdrops gave a feminine touch to the table.”

But is that really what it means to be a woman in the 21st Century? In the same year that we celebrate the long battle of the suffragettes with a movie dedicated their struggle – women who were passionate, determined, and strong – do we still think of women as delicate flowers?

I think that most of us would agree that women, by and large, tend to possess different personality traits to men. And, in the session we identified typical feminine traits to include flexibility, expressiveness, and reasonableness.

But are these the traits that get women to the top? Particularly when women are not thought to be as competitive as men.


Only recently it was revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received significantly less than their male co-stars in the blockbuster movie American Hustle. Interestingly, Lawrence cites the reason for this discrepancy as not wanting to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’ during contract negotiations. Having learned her lesson the hard way, the A-List star went on to say that:

“This is an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue. Are we socially conditioned to behave this way? … Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?

“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable! F— that.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard. Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.”

All over the world, women are still fighting for the right to be seen as fully human. To go to school, to get the necessary health care, to be paid fairly for their work. To be listened to and believed when they talk about the realities of their lives. And, even here in the West, with all the power and protections of the Equality Act, women are still not deemed to have the traits necessary to succeed in business.

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. Many women who have moved ahead in business, have done so by all but ditching their more feminine traits. But even then, they can’t win. A woman who adopts a more masculine approach may get to the top, but you can guarantee that she’ll be judged and disliked for it along the way. On the other hand, women who behave in a feminine way – the way people expect them to behave – may be liked, but they risk not being seen or respected as leaders.

And it’s not just a question of the way we act. In 2010, a female banker sued her employer after she was fired for being “too sexy”. Indeed she alleges that her male bosses told her that they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her clothes were too distracting. When she pointed out a number of female colleagues with clothing more revealing than hers, her bosses allegedly blamed her figure for drawing too much attention.

So what is the answer?

Well, according to a Stanford University study, women who display masculine traits ― but who know when to turn these characteristics off ― get more promotions than their female or male peers. However, what’s true, for both men and women is that it’s difficult to maintain a position of power while pretending to be someone you’re not. To be successful, leaders of both genders need to be authentic.

So, can women be themselves and still work towards positions of power? The truth is that a great leader will possess a broad range of traits that can be associated with both genders. It is the understanding of these traits that truly helps us succeed professionally and personally.

There is, no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a leader, but the more you know about your personality type, your values, motivations, competencies, skills, and emotional intelligence the better. Not only is this knowledge important to your own career success, but it is fundamental to managing and motivating others. And that’s what makes a leader great.

The date of the next event  ‘The Power of the Voice’ is Thursday 12th November 2015.