Women in Leadership: Goldilocks Syndrome

Most children have probably heard the classic fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” A young girl with golden hair wanders into the empty house of three different bears—one small, one large, and one sized in-between. She comes upon a table with three bowls of cooling porridge and, upon sampling each one, discovers successively that the first is too hot, the second too cold, and the third just right. She eats all of the porridge in the third bowl. The same happens when she comes upon three chairs and, finally, three beds. The third item in the series always proves to be the most comfortable, as the intermediate option between two extremes, but more meaningfully, Goldilocks always judges it to be “just right.”

At the beginning of this fall semester, the president of the Engineering Graduate Student Council at Columbia stepped down from his position, at which point I, as vice president, transitioned to the office of interim president. My role has been chiefly to guide the organization until the election cycle in December, at which point I had already planned to leave the group to focus on my research. It was sad to see a good friend and colleague depart the group and rather overwhelming to be thrown into a position of huge responsibility midterm. I had never expected to take on such a visible and demanding leadership role, especially with my experiments becoming increasingly time-consuming. However, I set out determined to make a positive impact in the short time I had.

While I have only been acting president of the Student Council for about a month and a half, the pressures of leadership have already opened my eyes to the double standards faced by women in authority roles. This is especially suffocating in the world of engineering, where women are hard to come by, to say nothing of women leaders. To be frank, I have come across many classmates and faculty who still hold extremely outdated views on the appropriate behavior of women in engineering and the workplace, and it has been a lesson in courage to face them, unapologetically, from a position of importance. I can admit that many restless nights have been brought on by insecurities and fears stemming from how I am perceived as a leader and a woman, and the scrutiny feels especially intense, as I am the first female president of my organization. Our group as a whole has experienced a meteoric rise in recognition and significance within the engineering school over the last two years, and the expectation to measure up to my predecessors who initiated this golden age has been particularly burdensome. I cannot say for sure, as I am not a man, nor have I spoken extensively on any profound level with the male leaders with which I come in contact, but I suspect they have not second-guessed themselves as much in their entire lives as I have second-guessed myself and my leadership choices in the past month.

There are so many exasperating hypocrisies when it comes to society’s judgments of female authority figures, and I could never touch upon them all here. But I can say that, for me, the hardest part of being a woman in a position of authority is the constant need to find a middle ground between being perceived as a nagging and cuckolding harpy and an inept, emotional pushover. I do not feel challenged by others to prove my intelligence, but I certainly feel compelled to hide the more feminine aspects of my personality. I have spent a great deal of time supporting student leaders and acting as a student leader, and I have never seen anyone lauded for exhibiting emotional intelligence or a nurturing instinct. I have, however, noticed leaders being praised for their cunning, assertiveness, and decisiveness. The double standard whereby women are penalized (by both sexes) for exhibiting what are otherwise desirable leadership qualities in men has been an overwrought discussion topic for years. The accepted explanation has always been that all women are expected to play the role of the fairer sex, and when one of us breaks the mold and adopts a more masculine demeanor, society rejects this individual for being antagonizing and divisive. The implication behind this judgment is that there must be something wrong with a woman who would pursue a career using the same tactics as a man. But I do not think women of my generation are facing that exact problem ­anymore. Instead, we are facing a much more complex beast—the double-edged double standard.

Studies have shown that the time of the confident, commanding female leader is here—we are no longer penalized severely for being as aggressive as men in leadership positions. These personality traits might still surprise people, but we can be assertive and establish dominance over those we supervise while enduring less criticism—so long as we stay within a socially acceptable range of these behaviors, of course. Still, this is a wonderful thing. The ironic flip side of that coin, however, is that women who do not choose to lead this way are now being penalized for appearing yielding and ineffective, while men who are similarly submissive are given a free pass. Somehow, a singular definition of the ambitious woman capable of great leadership has been ingrained into society, and all women are now held to that standard. This unfortunate phenomenon has been loosely coined the “Goldilocks syndrome.” Women must always take care not to appear too harsh or too soft.

This quandary of perception has plagued me ever since I became interim president of my organization. With every decision I make or strong stance I take, I feel judged. I struggle and labor over each strongly worded e-mail to make sure I hit the right tone and use the perfect vocabulary. I triple-check every sentence I write, or plan to say in person, to ensure that I sound reasonable and capable but firm. And then, I anxiously await the responses to judge whether I have succeeded and proven myself worthy of my title. For whatever reason, I find myself instinctively seeking validation from my male colleagues and superiors as a means of personally assessing the quality of my leadership, as if their gender predisposed them to accurately measure the value of my voice. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not trust the feedback of my female peers at first, because I was afraid of reinforcing overtly feminine attributes that I had not managed to eradicate from my public persona. Hilariously, in spite of everything, I have already been accused of exhibiting misguided anger and other irrational behaviors. I am exhausted. I am frustrated. I am really, really mad.

I wonder daily whether these judgments are the normal consequence of being a leader, who, by definition, must make decisions that will make some unhappy, or whether I am actually bad at my job. I have seen men who are significantly weaker leaders than I am say incredibly unprofessional things and completely ignore their responsibilities, and yet they were coddled by the administration and protected from criticism. They were given free reign to lack vision and purpose. It seemed they were deemed competent just for doing their “best,” and their missteps were never considered a reflection of their abilities or work ethic. Yet, my actions are always implicitly linked with my gender. I am never just the president; I am, notably, the female president. My triumphs garner no special praise, but my failures apparently speak volumes.

I wonder sometimes if my confusion over how I should act or behave stems from having few female leaders to look up to as role models. As an undergraduate, I remember being drawn to and idolizing the small number of outspoken female faculty in my department. I wanted to be like them so badly. In my first meeting with the new female dean of the Columbia engineering school, I was completely in awe of her demeanor and the way she commanded the room. These women struck me because they were accomplished and deserving of notice, but also because they were so unusual to me, so novel.

This revelation is disheartening. I question whether I have the same strength of character to withstand the scrutiny and accept the unsaid but inferred qualifier that will always follow my job title (*female). Or worse yet, to face the resentful undertones that inevitably accompany positions of high stature, which I have already experienced in small doses as a graduate student: that the women who make it to those levels are only chosen as a courtesy to fill a quota and bump up a percentage on a spreadsheet, and less can be expected of them and their abilities.

I am glad to have had this eye-­opening experience. I am relieved it will be over soon. My brief foray into academic culture has made me a more cynical but shrewder woman. I can understand why women are driven out of academia and high levels of leadership on a more meaningful level. All that remains to be seen is whether this was the final nail in the coffin of my aspirations in academia. I am fully aware that I will face sexism no matter where I choose to go, but I did not think I was supposed to just resign myself to it.