Is Executive Presence Sexist?

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

When we think of leaders, we usually have a few ideas in mind about what they look like and how they act. If you asked a random person on the street to imagine a CEO, they would probably think of a person who is male, white, tall, straight, decisive, genial, and a jumble of other traits that come together to form the CEO archetype.

Another trait most leaders share is executive presence. It’s a trait that’s difficult to define, but you either have it or you don’t, and we know it when we see it.

It is precisely that intangibility that makes feedback on executive presence so hard to process. How can people who don’t automatically conform to the leadership stereotypes above attract and maintain power? And when women receive feedback on executive presence at work, are they simply receiving advice on how to act more stereotypically male? In other words, where do the male leadership stereotypes end, and the executive leadership traits begin?

According to Lauren Leader-Chivée, Senior Vice President at the Center for Talent Innovation, it is possible to detangle executive presence from the cult of masculinity. By understanding the foundational components of executive presence, she believes, women and minorities can better navigate the often contradictory messages around what makes someone “leadership material.”

What Does Leadership Material Look Like?

As the Center for Talent Innovation explains in a recent report, our concept of executive presence is linked with male leadership stereotypes. Authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Lauren Leader-Chivée, Laura Sherbin, and Joanne Gordon with Fabiola Dieudonne write:

“Indeed, many of the presumptive signals that someone is leadership material—aggressiveness, assertiveness, showing teeth, commanding a room, being tall, or having gray hair— are steeped in historic male stereotypes of power, especially in the workplace. The fact that 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are male, and only 4.4 percent are people of color, are two more data points that support what we already know intuitively as well as what we heard: ‘senior leadership is white, male, and preferably tall’ and the C-suite is ‘definitely more comfortable with sameness.’ Thus, it is assumed (and not just by white men) that future leaders must look, act, and come across like this white male model.”

Yet, today we do have leaders who are not white men, and we have lots of rising stars in the public and private space who don’t conform to that stereotype either. How can they climb to the top?

CTI polled 3,929 male and female executives, and according to the respondents, 25 percent of what it takes to get promoted is executive presence. Based on the research, CTI identified three factors that make up executive presence: communication, gravitas, and appearance – and, as Leader-Chivée pointed out, these three factors were equally important for male and female leaders to attain.

But there’s an added layer of complexity for women and multicultural individuals, she continued. “Each one of the dimensions were seen as equally important for men and women to advance. But as we know, it can be more complicated or difficult for women to be seen as having gotten it right. The same goes for people of color.”

For example, she said, think of how many times Hillary Clinton has been the subject of criticism for being too tough or edgy, not to mention the commentary on her hair or clothes. “It’s a double jeopardy that women with a strong sense of self have to face. There’s a general agreement that women have a thin line to walk to get it right.”

But the double jeopardy issue is also evolving, she continued. “I do think there is still the assumption that leaders look like Mitt Romney – his hair, his height, his cheekbones, his suit – he’s the archetypical CEO. But as Barack Obama proved, we’re at a point when we’re looking a little more deeply than those images. We’re looking at the whole picture.”

Authenticity and the Code

One of the key contradictions woman (and particularly African American women) hear time and time again is that they’re either too aggressive, or they’re not aggressive enough. And there’s more. For women it might be the pitch or tone of their voice, or for multicultural people it might be an accent.

Leader-Chivée pointed out, “There’s just a longer list of ‘errors’ that women and multicultural folks get harshly judged on when it comes to executive presence. Whether we like it or not, there is a code at play, and that code varies enormously depending on your organization’s culture.”

She continued, “We believe the model does need to evolve, and that the more women and multicultural folks that move into executive leadership teams and boards of directors, the more different it can become. At the same time, it’s extremely difficult to access that point, if you don’t follow the code.”

One bright spot the team discovered was the topic of authenticity. The survey respondents said that the ability to balance executive presence traits with personal authenticity was critical for leaders. That means leaders shouldn’t feel they are giving up part of who they are to fit in with organizational norms, but rather moderating their personal values through those norms. “What does being authentic really mean? To me, it means bringing your different perspectives to the table through something that is uniquely you, that challenges the conventional wisdom,” Leader-Chivée said.

If that means dressing or speaking in a certain way so you can get a seat at that table, she continued, that doesn’t mean you aren’t being true to yourself. “Your appearance is an enormous first filter that influences how seriously others will take you. And you have control over your appearance,” she added.

Taking and Giving Feedback

Finally, Leader-Chivée discussed a particularly sticky aspect of executive presence – how to ask for and give feedback on it.

The research showed that men were particularly uncomfortable giving feedback on executive presence to women. In fact, Leader-Chivée said, “Women and multicultural people are unlikely to get feedback on this aspect. So they need to learn how to look for cues around them in terms of looking at leaders and choosing how to emulate them. They also have to make it safe for other people to give feedback – make it clear you want feedback, that you genuinely want to know. And if you get feedback that is vague or evasive, make it clear you want a clarification.”

For those in a position to give advice on executive presence, she continued, “Giving feedback is a fabulous act of sponsorship. If you approach it, you can say something like, ‘I think you have a great future here. Are you open to feedback on elements of your personal brand.’ Or ‘I really want you to be successful here and I have your best interests at heart.’”

If someone doesn’t want that feedback, she continued, “I think that says something about whether you should be sponsoring them.”

She added, “Ambitious people generally want it, even if it’s hard to hear.”

7 Responses

  1. Avatar

    Ms. Leader-Chivee,
    A great perspective on how the best leaders can manifest executive presence while also remaining authentic. My hope is, as it finally sinks in that diversity is plain old good for business, that leadership models will shift decidedly. The process has begun but change is tough — it’s like defying gravity. The truth is that for the rate of change to accelerate, the approach must be more holistic or, as you say, we must look at “the whole picture.” This means aggressively breaking down silos, sharing intel, modeling behavior and rewarding courage (personal as well as professional).
    On my personal note, I’m responding to this Glass Hammer post while I’m supposed to be working on my book: “Do It Yourself: The Ageless Woman’s Guide to Position, Power and Plenty.” How’s that for timing?

    Would love to connect offline as well.

  2. Avatar

    Years ago, many, dreaming of writing the great allegorical novel of the French Canadian Separatist Movement, I worked as a temp during the Christmas rush for a major company. We began with 4 people and 4 pair of scissors. A week later? 10 people and 3 pair of scissors. (1 Pair? Broken) The first time we backed up, my supervisors boss came in from HQ to reorganise. The second time we had a bigger mess. The VP came in. He asked my supervisor, “What do we have to do to get this mess cleared up?” My supervisor looked at me. The VP looked at me. He put me in charge of clearing up the mess. The next day I had a second operation set up and running. Problem solved. Executive Presence? I didn’t think so. Others apparently did.

    Years back, on the topic of Presence, an article in a woman’s magazine cited Catherine Deneuve as a woman with presence. No loud noises, bright colours, and shiny things. Presence!

    There is a major difference between aggressive and assertive. Aggressive is what people are when they are not assertive.

    Above you cited “straight, decisive, genial,” and went on to cite a jumble of other traits. It is the confidence people have in you because they believe you are able to take care of them in a time of crisis. When a crisis hits, a big one, everyone in the room does not look to the boss. Everyone in the room looks to the leader.

    We tend to promote people and then send them to leadership training. We should instead look for the leaders and promote.



  3. Avatar

    Slim, your definition of leadership: “It is the confidence people have in you because they believe you are able to take care of them in a time of crisis” is spot on. Unfortunately, we know that people take shortcuts in determining in whom they want to place that trust – that’s what this article is about. We as a society tend to look first to the tall, white male as a leader, and then consider everyone else second. That means an additional hurdle for people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold. Leaders don’t just emerge; the group in which they are situated has a role in implicitly giving them power. We want to ensure deserving people aren’t overlooked for that power simply because they don’t fit stereotypical expectations.

  4. Avatar

    Wonderful article with great distinctions! My clients are often given feedback on their ‘executive presence’ and lack thereof. And it’s always so vague. So pulling out the three aspects of communication, gravitas and appearance gives leaders a good starting point.

    In line with the CTI study, it is also my experience that women are afforded much less stylistic leeway than men. There seems to be a ‘stylistic bell curve’ going from ‘hard’ on one end, to ‘soft’ on the other. My research shows that women have a pretty narrow stylistic tightrope in the middle that they must walk. A man has to exhibit pretty extreme behavior on either end of that continuum before his presence is called into question. And yet, like the authors, I do see this changing in the right direction.

    Thank you so much for addressing this topic!

  5. Avatar
    Tamsin McLean

    I agree with Slim about finding the leaders and then promoting them but sometimes they don’t want the promotion….yet.

    A common barrier for women is a tendency to desire promotion only when they feel ready, citing confidence as essential to success. In other words, from competence comes confidence. This is a double-edged sword, as they may be reluctant to take up opportunities that would give them the experience from which confidence comes.

    By contrast, their peers may desire success before they are ready, and find themselves tapped on the stereotypical back. If they don’t bring maturity and commitment to the job, they can be left in a bewildered state of being “chosen” without the tools needed to face the personal and professional challenges of leadership. Confidence does not close the gap to competence, but it can open doors.

    I have seen success by leveraging some of the differences Melissa refers to. If you want to move women into business leadership, build their confidence in financial management, networking and strategic thinking. They are the three most common skills where women lack confidence and are also the most valuable for leadership success.

    Organisations should provide equal opportunities for support and mentoring and focus the pipeline on building confidence in critical business skills.

    The leverage is that those in a minority are often more conscious of what they need to do to succeed, are more open to feedback and self-reflection and are willing to work on weaknesses or barriers to success. As they develop a deeper understanding of how the business functions and build their networks, their confidence in themselves grows, as does the business’s confidence in them. The result – executive presence backed by sound business acumen – leadership readiness.