Too emotional to lead, too cold to connect: busting the myth of the difficult woman

© Bronac McNeill (
© Bronac McNeill (

A Bloom event tackling 'the myth of the difficult woman' has lifted the lid on the challenges faced by women deemed 'too nice' or 'too difficult' to become leaders in the creative industries.

"2013: Smile more
2015: Smile less"

"You will never be in a leadership position you are not ‘strong’ enough."

"My manager told me I can’t wear skirts to work because I am distracting the boys and he doesn’t want HR complaints. I’ve been told I’m too opinionated to be successful."


These three highly personal stories of how casual sexism permeates the creative industries shared on the confessions board at the Bloom 'Myth of the difficult woman' event last week, puncturing the myth that men and women face an equal playing field when it comes to progressing their careers in the creative industries.

The event, which was held in support of Women’s Aid and held at Cheil London’s offices, shone a light on the challenges still faced by women in the workplace. Just as Always' 'Run like a girl' campaign underlines how simply being a girl is a shortcut to criticism, in the business world leading "like a woman" comes with its own set of outdated and challenging stereotypes.

Even the way the media writes about women and power underlines the fact a woman’s place is outside of it. Glass ceilings, glass walls, glass cliffs, glass lions – the glass metaphors are seemingly unending.

Gina Hood, president of Bloom, said women can experience a double bind. "When they display female traits these are often not seen as leadership qualities but when they do follow traditional ways of acting their behaviour can be interpreted negatively, for example being perceived as difficult rather than game-changing," she explained.

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How to lead like a woman

For those who believe the adland is already a gender neutral playing field; Imagine for a moment if it was Martina Sorrell and not Martin Sorrell who had lead and left WPP. Would she have pinged back to her pre-pregnancy weight? Would she have had too long a maternity leave or not enough? Would she have faced greater scrutiny than her male counterpart? No question.

As Elena Ferrante writes: "Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves". She explains that not only is female power suffocated but also, for the sake of peace and quiet, "we suffocate ourselves."

In this environment it is easy to see why some have reverted to traditional masculine models of what success looks like. But wouldn't the industry be a better, more inclusive and diverse space if leaders felt free to bring their whole selves to work and lead like a woman? A theme the event set about to tackle.

A generational shift

The event underlined the fact the industry is in the midst in a fundamental shift in leadership, which has brought with it significant challenges. Lindsay Pattison, chief transformation officer at WPP, urged the industry to embrace a "more modern way of leading". She explained: "You have to have a flexible working environment, you should be able to work from home, work from different offices, work at airports. You have to be flexible about children and be flexible about which parent is dropping off and picking up and not be rigid about that. Have parental leave not maternity or paternity leave. Employers have to get with the programme."

"The challenge is most leaders are Baby Boomers and Generation X, and most people that work in our industry are Millennials or Generation Z.

"The expectations of leaders is to be much more open. empathetic, inclusive and ask questions," she added.

According to Pattison, while some leaders roll their eyes and say the problem with Millennials is that they aren’t loyal and they want the whole world, but why not [aim for that]? "That generation works incredibly hard but but we have to be much more flexible about how we lead," she added.  "If you don’t lead in an open, transparent, clear way. If you withhold information, if you use hierarchy, if you hide behind your control of a spreadsheet and your IQ you need to move out or move on."

Accentuating difference

In a people-focused business such as advertising you need to have the EQ to manage the talent and the empathy that goes with that. Pattison urged the audience to call it out if a situation makes you feel awkward of different.

She said: "I sit on a board of all men. I stand up and look around and say still just me then, still the only women, still wearing a dress and talking about gender equality."

Jim Carroll, the former chairman of BBH and a consultant, urged the audience to channel anger into a positive force. He explained: "You may actually need to use negative feedback to make yourself feel angry and feel good about the anger and use it to motivate yourself – to leave the company, or agitate for something different. Anger can be a positive thing."

He said the advertising industry is essentially the "difference business" in that agencies are in effect attempting to manufacturer difference for brands, businesses and consumers. An ecosystem that demands as both individuals and businesses we recognise and cherish our own differences.

"If you feel angry or you feel different, they maybe your greatest strength and motivate you to do something different and that is what business needs," he added.

In the spirit of that differences, here are each of the panelists personal takes on gendered expectations in the workplace:

Sereena Abbassi, head of culture and inclusion at M&C Saatchi Group

The sharing of stories cultivates empathy
Sereena Abbassi

Intersectionality was the opening theme for Abbassi’s wide-ranging and thought-provoking talk. "The traits for the idea of femininity isn’t attached to black and brown bodies in the same way it is attached to the white body," she said.

Abbassi’s background as an artist-performer singer, actor, voiceover artist, infused the lens through which she views the world. She explained: "I believe in the true artistic spirit that is why the arts are powerful because we get to tell stories  and it is through the process of telling stories and sharing we cultivate empathy."

She explained that empathy sits at the heart of the work she does with diversity and inclusion, explaining:"The only way I can do the work that I do is by having a huge amount of empathy. To have a real deep seated faith in humanity, in people and knowing we all have a capacity for good as well as bad."

Living in Brooklyn and working as an actor was a turning point  for Abbassi, as it was here she became aware the only roles coming to here were "the help" or "the overly sexualised woman".

"Being a woman of colour there were no diversity in those roles whatsoever," she explained "That is why films like Black Panther as so incredible because they actually show the multiplicity in which black and brown people exist."

Abbassi said that she believes the polarity in terms of gender in the UK is down to the lack of proximity. "For me it blows my mind we have single sex schools in this country. Is it any wonder we are not going to see any women in industry if men and women don’t know how to relate to each other," she said.

She also shared her experience of recently having her ESTA declined for a planned trip to the US, (she has dual Iranian and British citizenship).  "It was actually a humbling experience because you don’t realise how privileged you are until you have a privilege taken away from you," she declared.

Looking ahead Abbassi  explained she is excited about working alongside men, saying: "I don’t think men are free either - men don’t have the ability to express themselves in the fullest way." She ended her presentation with a quote from educator and activist Tony Porter:

"My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman."

Lindsay Pattison, global chief transformation officer at WPP

Don’t try to be liked and competent be loved and brilliant. Lindsay Pattison

"The myth is to succeed in our industry you have to be difficult and challenging and forceful," said Pattison, as she lifted the lid with an honest insight as to what it is like to be the only woman on the WPP board.

"I don’t think Im difficult, my leadership style is that I am calm, collected and  visionary I hope to be inspiring. But I am very clear - you can be nice and forceful and visionary – you can be a whole mixture of things to succeed."

She described her style of leadership as rooted in helping other people be the best version of themselves. Explaining: "Why wouldn’t you want everyone in the room to succeed, why wouldn’t you want everyone below you to replace you The way to succeed is to nurture."

Sharing an anecdote about last year’s Cannes Advertising Festival, Pattison said a man from the industry said to her: "the thing is Lindsay I can’t find anyone with a bad word to say about you". In effect actively soliciting negative feedback about her.  

She added: "To fit the stereotype of the successful woman is to be somehow difficult and to be a bitch, because that is what you are called often as a successful woman."

According to Pattison women are walking a tightrope of being either liked or competent. She explains: "If you are liked then you are probably not very good at your job, which is bullshit, and if you are competent then you are not very nice."

She describes this tightrope as "an incredibly low bar", adding: "I would urge every woman and man to not try and be liked and competent because it’s really hard to do both, but be loved and brilliant. That should be an ambition for everyone."

Pattison touched on the generational challenges facing women in businesses today and shared how she had a difficult conversation with her own husband over her work schedule.

"I’d taken on a new role and I was travelling and he said I didn’t sign up for this. I thought what did you think you had signed up for? Did  you want me to be an account director all my life?"

While her mother, who is in her 70s, is always asking after her husband, and essentially sending the message "poor David" as opposed to asking about her work. "But my mum is in her late 70s so I have empathy with that," she added.

Pattison added that the industry faces a significant challenge in the wake of #metoo. "How do we figure out the boundaries as lots of us meet our partners at work," she said. As well as working out how to be "gender-blind" when it comes to work conversations.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t wear a skirt, or athleisure or wear lipstick, you can be a feminist and be feminine and make it work for you," she said.

Patricia McDonald, managing director Strategy and Insights at Weber Shanwick

Don’t fall into the ‘good girl’ trap. Patricia McDonald

A talk from a female headmistress was the inspiration for McDonald’s insight into ‘The Good Girl Trap’. a strategic and articulate theory as to how and why creative women’s careers are being suffocated.

The headmistress talked about how girls become risk averse very early on, they don’t raise their hand unless they are confident they know the answer, they care about the presentation of their work, they are perfectionists and  they seek approval much more than boys.

McDonald says women face a similar bind in the workplace. "When women start our careers we challenge everything as we don’t know very much. However as time goes on we master the craft and learn the rules and we become a little bit less challenging. Then ideally over time we become masters of our craft and then  we start challenge again and that is when we become leaders."

However, in practise, she says that women often get "stuck in the middle". She explains: "They are just conscientious and talented enough to keep on working and being proficient in difficult environments not saying this is crazy lets try something different."

According to McDonald, these women face a double jeopardy as they are more likely to get negative feedback and are therefore more likely to adjust our behaviour in response to  it. She adds: "We then get validation for adopting more feminine behaviour, so we double down because we really like approval."

Pointing to research that shows that women get more negative feedback overall than their male counterparts. McDonald added that the  positive feedback women get is often damning by faint praise. "Enthusiastic, energetic, organised it sounds a bit like a Golden Retriever," she quipped

She added that what is really damaging is women start to assimilate those terms and adopt that language to describe themselves. "We start to say on our CVs that we are efficient. enthusiastic, we are organised, we communicate well. While men tend to say they are goddam rockstars. We adopt the language of the oppressor," she added

Posing the question should women be more difficult? McDonald said that the answer is a clear "yes", but being difficult should be rebranded as "impactful". She also urged the audience to rethink their personal relationship with being ‘nice’, explaining: "There are kinds of nice that are business impactful and there are times of nice that are damaging."

She urged the audience to consider what is perceived as ‘nice’ can in fact be business and self-sabotage. "Very senior women absorbing admin roles or not delegating because they think it’s a bit mean, or women who are so perfectionist they don’t share their work early. All these things are sabotaging."

While being a woman is a culturally loaded experience, McDonald urged the audience to find their own personal style. However, she noted: "We should be much more accepting that there are diverse styles of leadership and women should have access to them all."

She closed with a John Steinbeck quote: "Now you don’t have to be perfect you can be good".

Caroline Manning, strategy director at Initiative and the 2018 Vice president of Bloom

Be difficult but stay true to yourself, and don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Caroline Manning

Describing herself as the "ultimate good girl" Manning revealed that as a child she would take herself to the naughty step if she did something wrong. Having secured a role in a media agency on a graduate programme she soon found herself taking this "good girl trap" to the workplace.

"I stayed late, I finished off other peoples work. I worked as hard as I possibly could and sometimes I would get stressed and I would cry secretly in the loo and not tell anyone. If I saw something wasn’t right, If I disagreed with it I wouldn’t speak up. I wouldn’t say anything," she explained.

In an honest and brave appraisal of her career at this point, Manning said that in this time she was never difficult or challenging. "My bosses knew I was a safe pair of hands and I was given good work but not the best work," she added.

It was at this point she decided she needed to change direction and was called by a recruiter who had the brief for her dream job in strategy. However, she was getting married and she felt asking for four weeks off would be too "difficult". Despite her fears, following support from her husband she went for the job and got it.

"That was two years ago and since then I have realised being difficult makes me a better strategist. I challenge the brief. I say no to projects and I stand up to myself," she explained.

Manning also shared that while she is still making the tea and holding onto her title as the "smiliest woman in media" she has also made  an unintentional, yet nonetheless important change. For rather than hiding she now cries openly, sometimes out of frustration but sometimes because she cares so much and sheer passion for the work she is doing.

"The good girl would hide in the loo, but I show my vulnerability and I am open about I am. It shows people that its ok to show your emotion. It has made me more approachable," she adds.

When she wants to be challenging, she asks herself: "Do I have a chance to achieve something here?" Adding that showing your whole self is ‘scary’ but it is how to do your best work.

She concluded: "If there is an employer that doesn’t want  all of me, the challenger, the good girl and the crier then I don’t want them. because I know it’s possible bit by bit to embrace this challenger woman inside of her and let her out bit by bit."

Jim Carroll, former chairman of BBH and consultant

Leadership is the amplified self. Regardless of gender, you need self knowledge and self expression to succeed
Jim Carroll

Reflecting on the great leaders he has worked with throughout his career Carroll analysed the traits of a great leader: One was an amazing competitor, another was pragmatic and got things done, while a different one who was a great motivator and got everyone feeling great. Another just emanated wisdom

Yet none of the leaders he admired embodied all of those characteristics. He explained: "What they all had in common was they all had very great and very  different personal strengths and they learned how to amplify those strengths and play them out on a bigger stage and in a louder voice."

In this way he believes the essence of leadership is the amplified self. "If you want to become a great leader you need self knowledge and self expression," he says.

However, he explained this course of action is "easier said than done", primarily because of the annual appraisal system and our innate human tendency to focus on the negative.

"All of us get our annual appraisal and we get positive feedback and negative feedback and maybe a lot of us obsess about the negative feedback, then we spend much of the rest of the year trying to get better at commercial or relationships or whatever it is and then the next year you get the appraisal and it is exactly the same."

Carroll describes the liberating moment in his career as when he learned to  disregard the negatives and focus entirely on the positives. He continued: "Whatever your boss tells you to correct ignore it. Focus on amplifying the positives and that is what all great leaders have done in their journey."

He believes that we obsess too much on the notion you will progress if you only listen to what your boss says. "We progress when we know ourselves well  and express our truest strengths well then we will perform well and we will be successful with our clients and our team and our boss will not be able to deny the success that we are having in the business."

He urged the audience to be "clear headed about who you are and confident about yourselves".

To close Carroll adapted a George Bernard Shaw quote:

"The reasonable woman adapts to the world.
"The unreasonable woman persists in trying to adapt the world to herself.
"Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable woman."

All pictures © Bronac McNeill (

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