How can senior women executives wield power without being seen as monsters? The recent firing of Jill Abramson from her job as Editor of the New York Times has reopened questions about women and leadership. While women have made immense strides at lower levels of business and the professions, we continue to be a rare breed at the top of the house. And even when a woman makes it to the top, constant pitfalls await her.

The core of the problem is that our images of a good leader and our images of a good woman continue to be incompatible. Leadership is associated with traits like toughness, forcefulness, decisiveness, and a willingness to do what needs to be done without letting emotions get in the way. Womanhood is associated with gentleness, kindness, openness, and sensitivity to emotions. So what’s a woman to do?

Successful women typically craft a leadership style which includes elements of both images. This requires a very nuanced and difficult balancing act, and it’s very easy to lose that balance. Both men and women are very quick to criticize a woman’s leadership style, often for behaviors that would be admired and appreciated in a male leader.

When we evaluate the effectiveness of senior women leaders, both women and men need to use our heads, rather than responding emotionally to powerful women. We all had mothers – we all have feelings about those mothers – and our female boss is not our mother.

For more on this topic, check out my recent comments in Crain’s Chicago Business here.

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