Executive qualities differ by gender, study finds

Grace under fire is a top characteristic for both men and women, the research shows, but women get less slack on behavior and are more likely to be judged by appearance.

Women may predominate in the communications industry, but the skills executives look for in a leader differ between genders, making advancement harder for women generally.

Sorry to say, comms pros, but your communication skills alone won’t vault you into the top ranks of leadership.

These are conclusions drawn from a survey on “Executive Presence” from the Center for Talent Innovation.

Recently highlighted in AdWeek, the survey also reveals that women judge women’s appearance blunders more harshly than men do.

The survey of 4,000 professionals in large corporations looked at the broader topic of “executive presence”—the mystic gravitas that explains why the top bosses occupy corner offices. The report also revealed significant differences in expectations of men and women, particularly in communications skills.

“Women may not get feedback on what they’re not doing well, or they have less leeway not to do well,” says Karen Sumberg, executive vice president at the center.

“There’s a much narrower window of acceptability around how you communicate: what is too aggressive, what is not aggressive enough in your communication. What is effective, what is not effective.”

The center also reports that “leadership roles are given to those who also look and act the part. … The top jobs often elude women and professionals of color because they lack ‘executive presence,’ or underestimate its importance.”

Showing confidence and “grace under fire” are helpful traits for both sexes: 79 percent of senior executives say it contributes to a woman’s executive presence, and 76 percent say it contributes to a man’s.

The study offers mixed results for communicators. “Communication, according to 28 percent of senior executives, telegraphs you’re leadership material,” the Center for Talent Innovation reports.

Only 28 percent? That may disappoint some hoping to advance on the basis of communication skills, but the survey also revealed that great speaking skills are important. Some 60 percent of senior leaders say these contribute to a woman’s executive presence, and 63 percent say they help a man’s.

Nearly half of executives say the ability to command a room boosts a woman’s executive presence; 54 percent say it contributes to a man’s.

More executives expect that a woman will be able to get into the minds of her audience. Thirty-nine percent of the bigwigs say the ability to read an audience contributes to a woman’s executive presence, and 33 percent say it contributes to a man’s.

Eager to share that great chicken-crossing-the-road joke? Some 35 percent of senior leaders—director level and above—thought a sense of humor was a top communication skill for a man, and 33 percent wanted that quality in a woman.

Appearance matters

The center reports that “appearance counts, largely as a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become more apparent,” the center reports.

Are you a carefree dresser? Eighty-three percent of the total survey group believe that “unkempt attire”—from poorly maintained clothing to visible panty lines—detracts from a woman’s executive presence, and 76 percent say it detracts from a man’s.

Women are more likely to be judged on the basis of physical attractiveness: 16 percent say it contributes to a woman’s executive presence, and 14 percent say it contributes to a man’s, the center reports. But men are more likely to be judged on the basis of height.

The study suggests that women may be their own harshest judges when it comes to appearance blunders.

Appearance standards for women are more complicated, Sumberg says; for men, there’s more of a “corporate uniform.”

“Appearance is your bar to entry,” she says. “If you don’t get that right, no one’s interested in what you say, and nobody can focus on whether or not you have gravitas, because they’re so distracted by some measure of your appearance.”

When asked about blunders in women’s appearance, 74 percent of the total women surveyed regard no bra as taboo. Men are more likely to be OK with that; only 45 percent of them see a braless look as a problem.

Visible lingerie or panty line? Thirty-three percent of men said they were annoyed by that, but 50 percent of women regarded this as a faux pas.

Mentors, anyone?

The study suggests that female and minority professionals aren’t getting the guidance they need to acquire executive presence.

In a recent Ragan video on the predominance of women in communications, Siobhan Aalders, executive vice president of technology practice at Ogilvy Public Relations, highlighted the role of mentors.

She says: “I had strong women who gave me a chance. … Certainly in the early part of my career, it was women that invited me in and taught me what I knew and were running the agencies that I started my work in.”

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