Gender differences are a primary — maybe even the central — part of our schema. They are the first differentiator. In the workplace, what goes along with our thinking that someone is a male or female? A lot. A ton. We are just hugely invested in all kinds of preconceived ideas about what men and women can do. The unfortunate part is that what we believe a leader should do is not consistent with what we think a woman can do. So all of the criteria for leadership that we talk about in the workplace — a leader has to be strong, a leader has to be assertive, a leader has to be aggressive, a leader has to be able to command people — no one would even blink an eye if you said, “And John can do that.” But if you say, “And Mary can do it,” it counteracts people’s gender schema for what women, in fact, can do.
And so women, in reacting to that, must deal with this great paradox. “Well, if I show that I can be aggressive, then I should be accepted as a leader,” is one way they might react. Except that if women do act in ways that would be perfectly acceptable for men, they’re seen as bullies. It cuts against what people expect from women, and it’s doubly bad for them.