People Are Still Afraid of Powerful Women

Here’s what we can do about it.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Women and those who support them have made incredible progress since the women’s movement in the 1960s. From the United States White House to the head of New Zealand, women are rising to the top tiers of government. In the entertainment industry, women are hitting all-time highs regarding profits (Rihanna), demanding safer work environments (Selma Hayek, Ashley Judd), and taking on power positions to integrate the media (Eva Longoria, Shonda Rhimes).

Business is seeing more women sitting in the C-suite and leading national and global companies. So why is it that powerful women still make people uncomfortable? Why are there still double standards when it comes to these powerhouse females?

Related: 100 Women of Impact in 2021

Where we were

In the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, the expectations and roles for women and men were clearly demarcated within society. Men were the breadwinners. Their role was to provide financial stability and comfort to their families. They were expected to be strong, objective and logical. They were the heads of their households. Women’s roles offered a balance to that male persona. Women were considered the weaker sex. Women were considered more nurturing, passive and emotional. They followed rather than led. Their primary role was as caretakers of their spouses and children and as managers of the home.

From a psychological perspective, norms and standards offer comfort. We know what to expect. We know what we can rely upon. There are no surprises to throw off the day-to-day functioning of society in general, or homelife specifically. Of course, as the twentieth century progressed, these traditional norms changed. The delineation of what a woman’s role was became blurry. They started asking for things they wanted: education, equal pay, leadership positions. They began postponing or rejecting the idea that they were meant to get married and have children. Essentially their actions, thoughts and words no longer aligned with societal scripts, the scripts society was comfortable with.

When two behaviors or two thoughts don’t align, it creates cognitive dissonance in humans. This cognitive discomfort is not a state people can exist in, and to reduce cognitive dissonance, something must change. When women clearly were not going to give up on their new rights and freedoms, that meant the members of society had to change their definitions, perceptions and understanding of women’s roles. The problem is that changing concepts that are decades, if not centuries, old doesn’t happen quickly.

Where we are now

As powerful women become more common in society, it is less acceptable to verbalize any discomfort with their changing roles. Members of society are expected to accept the changes, fully and happily. If they have reservations about women in leadership roles, most know the backlash it will create to voice their unease, and they squelch their discontentment. The biases don’t disappear simply because women’s roles are changing.

Instead, the biases are shoved down, silenced or hidden. The expression of these biases has gone from overt declarations that divide women and men to covert  systems, sometimes without the owner of the bias even realizing it. They don’t say the biases out loud, but these outdated standards still influence the owner’s reactions, thoughts and feelings about strong women. So, the cognitive dissonance isn’t resolved. There is still the misalignment between what is changing in the roles of women and that person’s beliefs, and because of this, there is a continued discomfort with these women who aren’t following the norm.

How we can grow

How can the standards regarding women change enough that they eradicate the old definitions? The umbrella response is to keep adding women to the ranks of leaders, whether it is the leader of a classroom or the leader of a country. The more commonplace this is, the more acceptable it will become simply because there’s nothing novel about it. To do so, people, and specifically women, can take steps to facilitate the acceptance of powerful women as the norm rather than the exception.

1. To start, push back against the societal standards, definitions and roles

 Pay attention to the words and phrases you use that relegate women to outdated identities or foster stereotypes about women. In turn, develop an intolerance for others’ use of these terms. Words have an impact on culture and behaviors. They influence thoughts and beliefs sometimes without people even realizing it. You can decide if you want to promote the idea of powerful women as a norm or undermine it by using words that subvert women’s power.

Related: Why Women Leave Tech: It Isn’t Because ‘Math is Hard’

2. Next, don’t let challenges or failures stop you from achieving your goals

 These are your moments to learn and grow. A great example of this is ’s experience. Wolfe Herd was ousted as vice president of marketing at Tinder amid reports of sexual harassment from her former boyfriend, another executive at the company. Instead of letting that experience stop her, Wolfe Herd moved on to create Bumble, the billion-dollar app that lets women control their dating experience. She didn’t follow the old standard of quietly leaving the company or letting it stop her career. She used the situation to develop an idea, to grow it and change one aspect of life for other women.

3. Another way to progress as a powerful woman is to create your own model of power or leadership

Masculine traits and perspectives tend to dominate leadership models, leaving little to no room for feminine approaches. Often female leaders will work to fit into these models, to adopt the approaches of male-dominated templates, instead of creating a model that works best for them. When you create a model that emphasizes your specific strengths — feminine, masculine or some combination — you function at your best and build your influence. You demonstrate that the way leadership was done in the past is not the only option.

4. Define what you want

Rather than approaching your professional and personal life from the perspective of shoulds and have tos, reframe your thinking to account for what you want. By asking for what you want and working towards that goal, you flourish because you are enjoying going after something desirable to you. Your energy increases. Your focus is heightened. You become more satisfied and happy. Essentially, you live as your authentic self. You articulate yourself as a priority alongside the other important people in your life, instead of behind them. Ultimately, you change the paradigm: Women are not only givers to others, but also givers to themselves.

5. It is also important to promote other women

 We are not each other’s competition. When we support one another, we create opportunities, experiences and connections that foster other women’s growth and our own. We challenge the ideas that women are “catty” and instead help other women achieve their goals. Women grow powerful together, personally and collectively. This also means contributing to the growth of next-generation women. Whether you teach or mentor or donate towards organizations that empower young women, these are the generations that will continue to foster the new norms.

Related: To Shatter Glass Ceilings, Spread These 4 Messages to Young Women

6. Be realistic about the 100% you’re able to give

Women cannot meet all the old standards and all the new ones at 100%. We can’t give 100% to our career and 100% to our partner and 100% to our kids and 100% to self-care and 100% to our community work. Your time, energy and focus can be represented as a pie chart. The whole pie is 100%, and each day your activities are divided within this pie. Trying to give 100% to each part every day is a mathematical impossibility. This leads to burnout and failure, and it undermines our success.

As women strive to change expectations, they often hear they can have it all, meaning you can meet the old standards and the new ones. While you can, you won’t likely have it all at the same time, and maybe the pressure of trying to do it simultaneously is too much. Supporting your own and other women’s choices about how to allocate time and make decisions in ways that may diverge from the norm encourages the new model for women as powerful leaders.


Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

A cognitive-behavioral coach with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dr. Robin Buckley helps successful women and couples thrive in their careers and relationships.
© YVR Consulting Pty Ltd 2024