27 September 2023

Behind the mask: How masking derails women’s leadership ambitions

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Nancy Doyle* says many women have subconsciously learned to wear a mask that allows them to avoid criticism and reproach.

Those of us in the neurodiversity community are very familiar with the term “unmasking”.

It refers to the process of consciously peeling back the mask we have built up through years of needing to act and appear as though we were neurotypical.

For many of us, this mask was built not by a conscious choice but by years of learning the hard way that our more instinctive behaviours often got us in trouble.

Being labelled as “aggressive” when we were simply being factual or direct, or “rude” because we didn’t feel the need to make eye contact.

Having such experiences as a child, you learn quickly the rules and expectations of others that keep you safe from this kind of negative feedback and you internalise that message.

So, why unmask?

You might think, if it keeps you safe from criticism and helps you fit in surely there’s nothing wrong.

First of all, years of trying to be something you’re not takes a serious toll on a person’s mental health, and second, when I stop fitting in I am exceptional in a way that has led to my success.

As a female leader with ADHD, I’m noting that the two processes are inextricably intertwined.

The masks we wear as women in leadership

As young girls many of us were raised to be likeable, obedient, peacekeepers.

Negative words were used against us whenever we didn’t fit the mould.

Beliefs about gender identity inform everything around us throughout our childhood from toys, to speech to body language.

It is no wonder then that many women have subconsciously learned to wear a mask that allows them to avoid criticism and reproach.

The reality is that this doesn’t work for us, it works for everyone else.

Getting the wrong support

I have turned to leadership research to advise on my own development and my mentoring of colleagues as my business grows.

Nearly everything I found just simply didn’t apply and the bias towards a more typical male perspective was apparent.

Let me provide you with examples of what has threatened derailment for me and my female colleagues:

  • Female leaders doing urgent admin tasks for their direct reports rather than asking them to catch up on their workload.
  • Female leaders working additional hours way above and beyond what is necessary, while insisting their team members take long lunch breaks.
  • Female leaders failing to address significant poor performance on their team then conducting reviews that focus on how happy and content everyone feels.
  • Female leaders using phrases such as “sorry to trouble you but do you think you could get this done this week?” rather than “I will need this completed by next week”.

Leadership research is based on the current paradigm of leadership, in which privileged people are overrepresented.

Unmasking deference

Deference is carefully constructed through many experiences of being overruled or ignored when presenting a challenge.

It’s the times we’ve told the mechanic what was wrong with the car, for him to then ask our husband who is standing right there.

It’s the meeting where we presented an idea, and were ignored, only for the same idea to be mooted by a male and accepted.

In order to unmask deference, we need to hear our own voices and be comfortable with other peoples’ biased negative opinions.

Unmasking martyrdom

Martyrdom comes from working hard and doing things for others, without asking for recognition or support.

We learn it from our mothers, who have worked as hard as our fathers for less money, whilst completing the majority of housework, and we’ve not really moved on in this generation globally, though a few countries have made some inroads.

To unmask martyrdom takes years of unwrapping those layers and learning to prioritise self-preservation.

I see my role as an unwritten instruction — if I am advocating self-care for my clients and staff, how can they take me seriously if I can’t manage it myself?

I try to inspire my female colleagues’ ambition, demonstrating that you can achieve with hard work, and you can balance this with rest and that the company will accommodate that.

You cannot pour from an empty cup.

Unmasking rescuing

The rescuer role is insidious.

We think we are helping, we are keeping the peace but actually we are preventing people from learning or resolving their own conflict.

Similar to the unmasking of martyrdom, we have to subvert our drive for doing what is best for all by realising that rescuing helps no one.

We’re not going to succession plan our staff or support the career of our colleagues by taking over, even if they are floundering.

If people are floundering maybe that’s for the best.

Maybe this is the point they learn the most, and force themselves to level up, or towards a decision that they are in the wrong job.

Rescuing at work is just a delaying tactic and it might be useful in a short-term crisis but long term it only adds to the dependency others have on single nodes in the system.

It creates vulnerability and leads to failure.

The best mentors I have had were the ones who trusted me to get on with it, not the ones who smothered me.

Masking doesn’t serve us

When you are wearing a mask, you follow the wrong trajectory.

Women leaders are lacking in sound advice to help overcome issues of masking often because we have not yet unpacked and processed which behaviours are our true self and which have been encouraged by years of social conditioning.

Wearing our mask is working against us and actively maintaining the status quo.

The lesson here is do not wait until you are struggling, do the work now to unpack your true leadership style.

Unmask and learn to trust your unfiltered self, buffer yourself with colleagues who have different strengths.

The process of unmasking is likely to be frightening because it may mean being less popular, it may lead to push back as you de-genderise your passion (you’re so emotional), your focus (you’re so uncaring), your assertiveness (she’s so abrasive) and more.

But it can also be empowering and lead you to excel where you have previously been using all your brain space just treading water.

I’m not behaving like a man when I am fiercely advocating, bravely selling or clearly instructing.

I am my authentic self, and I am not scared of her anymore.

* Dr Nancy Doyle is CEO of Genius Within. She tweets at @NancyDoylePsych. Her website is geniuswithin.org.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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