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Strong Female Lead

How Our Idea Of "Strong Women" Unintentionally Hurts Female Leaders

Like other "compliments" women receive, "strong woman" does more harm than good.

[Photo: Flickr user R Barraez D´Lucca]

I don't mean to bite the hand that gives me this platform, but the phrase "strong woman" sets my teeth on edge.

My implicit-bias antennae start to buzz anytime I hear or see "strong" paired with "woman" to describe a leader who happens to be female. You don't have to look very far in the business world to find that. It pops up in casual conversations about individuals, the names of networking groups, accounts in the press of female leaders and entrepreneurs, self-help articles, and descriptions of female roles in TV and movies.

The intent, of course, is praise, but the implication is that most women—by definition, and unlike men—are delicate flowers above which only a few hardy shoots will rise to warrant the "strong" label.

The Strength Of Words

Gloria Steinem called this linguistic differential the "politics of the unnecessary adjective" when I asked for her take on the use of "strong women." She observed that in general, the lower-power group requires an adjective, but the group with greater power takes the noun, "as in 'women artists' versus artists, 'black poets' versus poets, 'lesbian novelists' versus novelists—and so on."

Like other types of supposed compliments that do women more harm than good, it's time to remove this irksome adjective from the way we talk about women in leadership, for the simple reason that it prevents more women from getting there.

My grandmother used to say, "Gloria's so good, you don't know you have a child around." She meant it as praise, but the message I got was that being quiet and invisible was "good." Having a voice was not. Though I’ve since been privileged to speak in venues from the grassroots to the highest halls of power, I remain reluctant to start conversations, and I still sometimes feel reserved, even around family members I love dearly.

When a man tells me he was brought up by a "strong woman" in order to establish his feminist creds, I wonder what woman who ever raised a child was anything other than strong. He may not actually believe that women are inherently not strong, and those who are must be unique, but that's the sense his words convey; intentionally or otherwise, language shapes us like a scalpel. It draws boundaries around us, and creates meaning for us.

Change And Its Adversaries

That's why words can be both agents of change and constraints against it. Consider it this way: "Strong" is implicit in the word "man," especially when used in conjunction with the word "leader." How do we know that? Because, for one thing, when asked to conjure their idea of "leader," both men and women are more likely to envision a man.

Man is the archetype—the default, the norm. "Woman" means, literally "man with a womb"—the aberration, not your standard-issue human. Human in need of a modifier. Always the judged, never the judge. The fish on the bicycle.

So describing a woman as "strong" with respect to her leadership skills or her character, rather than calling attention to her specific physical or mental prowess, keeps all women mired in a mental model that already casts us as the weaker sex. "Strong woman" diminishes with faint praise at best and reinforces a culturally ingrained gilded cage at worst, locking women into secondary roles, all while seeming supportive and modern.

Know Any Iron Men?

Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female British prime minister, was dubbed the "Iron Lady," and that was not a commendation. Because Thatcher smashed through gender barriers to become a leader in the male-dominated political world, she was mocked in a uniquely sexist way. The only men we call "Iron Man" are triathletes and fictional superheroes.

Sure, times have changed. But the same phenomenon, which experts call "stereotype threat," still rears its head today when a female employee who asks for a promotion or raise is penalized for being "aggressive" or "pushy," while men who behave similarly are admired or rewarded. I recently asked a friend, Dr. Mary Lake Polan, chair emeritus of Stanford Medical School's ob/gyn department, if she had ever been called a "strong woman." "Yes," she told me, "when they meant ‘bitch'."

Just keep an eye on the U.S. election cycle and you'll notice that when a female political candidate voices her position with the same force a man does, she gets called "shrill" or "like a screeching ex-wife." Stanford University linguistics professor Penelope Eckert contrasts Hillary Clinton's "loud and clear" voice with our stereotype of a "nice" woman, whose voice is more breathy: "There is nothing breathy about Hillary Clinton’s voice. And if someone doesn’t want a woman to be powerful they’re not going to like that voice."

Jennifer Lawrence pointed out the Hollywood version of this phenomenon last year when she learned she was making considerably less than her male costars. In an interview with Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive, Lawrence had this to say about the success of Joy, with its female protagonist:

It wasn’t until they had a headline like, "Even though she’s a woman!" And I was like, "Oh. I didn’t know to be looking out for that." [Baby voice] "How did this wittle vagina manage that? I carried a whooole movie." [Laughs.] "How did I do it, getting a period once a month?"

It simply isn't necessary to add the adjective "strong" to the noun "woman" unless it's to define a specific mental or physical strength that the typical woman or man doesn't possess. Otherwise, please ditch the "strong women" meme.