Wherever you live, the chances are that you will have seen posters in your town or city of a familiar woman’s face. The sharply tailored navy blue suit, immaculately coiffed hair piled high, power pearls, and that anthracite gaze that crosses three decades and still has the power to pin you to the spot.
“The Iron Lady,” Phyllida Law’s biopic of Margaret Thatcher, hit the box offices all over the world earlier this year. Thatcher’s pulling power, the enduring legend of the UK’s first female prime minister, is still so strong that the Iron Lady is causing queues to form at cinemas, hitting the headlines and being debated by the media all over the place.
Nicknames are inevitable, especially in public figures, and whilst they provide a handy snapshot of how an individual is perceived, they also reveal so much about stereotyped thinking and preconceptions that condition the way we think.
It’s been well documented that Thatcher modified her style and demeanor to create more impact as a leader; she was coached to lower her voice and speak more slowly to garner more authority. She also worked with a team on her image, taking power dressing to a new level for women in the public eye.
Was Thatcher so successful, in part at least, because she adapted her style to conform to a more male stereotype? Or was it simply that her success was so astonishing that she was given a name that reflected how she was perceived: a woman who got to where she was because she, in many ways, behaved like a man?
I read an interesting article about this film that suggests that women still have no road map to power. For men, it says, there is a “recognised approach” that paves the way to success: a certain way of dressing, talking and, critically I think, an attitude that demonstrates confidence and certitude in their own abilities. Women, on the other hand, still often struggle to find a balance and face a double bind: too masculine and they are perceived as threatening; too feminine and they are not up to the job!
There is plenty of research that shows that women need to adapt their behaviour to succeed in reaching senior positions: that they should avoid being self-effacing, and be more vocal about their capabilities.
And with politics, the media, industry and business still dominated by men – half of our global workforce is made up by women, and yet only one in five executive positions goes to a female.
But should women need to become like men to succeed? Or do we need to change organisational culture to recognise different styles of leadership and enable both genders to be successful?