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Women's empowerment

The rules of executive presence are shifting in a way that benefits women 

Published 6 March 2024 in Women's empowerment • 8 min read

A decade of change has led to a marked shift in the perception of what it takes to be a leader. Inclusiveness, authenticity, and the ability to ‘listen and learn’ are now among the most desirable attributes. This is good news for women, argues Ginka Toegel.

When AI text-to-image generators first burst onto the scene, a team of researchers asked the technology to draw images of people in positions of authority like CEO or director. Of the images that Open AI’s DALLE-2 produced, 97% were of white men.

At the time, white males made up 88% of the top executives at Fortune 500 companies. Moreover, a recent survey on executive presence finds people’s expectations of an ideal leader have shifted even further over the past decade away from the archetype of a tall, wisecracking man towards individuals who are authentic, inclusive, and show respect for others.

This is something to be celebrated and adds to a growing wealth of data suggesting that traditional myths pervading women and why they struggle to climb the leadership ladder (they lack confidence and don’t ask, supposedly) are outdated and overblown.

What is executive presence? Put simply, it is about your ability to inspire confidence in others by showing that you are capable, reliable, and can drive results. And it’s critical for aspiring leaders.

Executive presence essentially boils down to three elements. In descending order of importance, these are gravitas, communication, and appearance. A survey of US executives conducted by economist and award-winning author Sylvia Ann Hewlett in 2012 and again in 2022 found that these three categories remain the main pillars upon which executive presence rests. But there have been some marked shifts in the components within each category.

Growing prominence of inclusiveness and respect for others

Within gravitas – the most important component of executive presence – inclusiveness and respect for others are the third and fourth most important traits after confidence and decisiveness. This reflects a growing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion across organizations in light of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and an increased focus on LGBTQ+ rights.

While in the past, leaders tended to hire people who looked like them or came from similar backgrounds, today, diversity is prized. Equally, they need to treat everyone with dignity, recognize that not everyone has the same lived experience, and ensure that team members feel included and supported.

From my experience working with executives, women automatically appear more inclusive since their natural speech patterns invite others into the conversation. For example, you will sometimes hear women affix the phrase “isn’t it?” onto the end of a sentence. Rather than suggesting a lack of confidence, this communication style encourages others to share their opinion and indicates that the person speaking is interested in establishing a connection.

The survey also found that the need for a blue-chip pedigree has declined, perhaps suggesting that the traditional career path where individuals climbed the corporate ladder within a big organization is less valued. This is also advantageous for women who may have taken career breaks to care for children or followed a non-linear trajectory.

Making sure your voice is heard

In the communication category, ideal leaders must still demonstrate superior speaking skills, but the need to ‘command a room’ has been supplemented with an ability to ‘command Zoom.’ This illustrates the shift to virtual communication in the workplace, accelerated by the pandemic, which has made the need to connect with staff online an essential part of executive presence today.

Many women still struggle with being heard for reasons of both biology and bias. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, men are twice as likely to experience hearing loss. A Japanese study found that for participants in their 20s, hearing thresholds at higher frequencies (>1000Hz) were significantly worse in men than in women. With technical issues and faulty microphones compromising sound quality on online calls even further, women need to check with a trusted ally how their voice comes across when speaking in virtual meetings.

A further challenge is that women’s ideas often aren’t acknowledged by others in the first place or get appropriated by others later. If this happens, or you get interrupted, it’s important to be courageous and ask the colleague to let you finish, ask for feedback on your suggestion, or point out that you made this point earlier.

The survey also found that a listen-and-learn orientation has replaced forcefulness. Gone are the days when people expected leaders to be bosses who took charge in a controlling way. In the current zeitgeist of rapid technological disruption and amid an ever-evolving business environment, leaders can’t be expected to have all the answers. Instead, people value those with an open mindset who consult others for advice and take feedback on board.

A joking and bantering manner, which often serves as a mask that hides an individual’s true self, has been replaced by authenticity. Being a top leader involves humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to reveal who you fundamentally are.

“The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”

Formal attire is out, but a polished look remains in vogue

The last – and arguably least important – category, appearance, is the one that has undergone the most change over the past decade. In 2012, leaders were expected to look polished, be physically attractive, have the “next job” style of dress, be tall, demonstrate youthfulness and vigor, and be slim.

Interestingly, having a “polished” look remains just as important as it was a decade ago, whereas physical attractiveness (formerly in the number two spot) has dropped off the list. While some women may balk at the need to look polished and well-groomed, you must consider that this trait signals to others that you are reliable. If you take care of your appearance, others believe you are attentive to detail, will take care of them, and get stuff done. This applies equally to men and women.

At the same time, a new weight has been given to authenticity and a “new normal” style of dress. The latter may reflect changing sartorial expectations from the pandemic when we all donned more casual attire when working from home. Moreover, it may indicate the growing dominance of Big Tech firms over the past decade. Among the most exalted executives today are CEOs like Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, known for a more casual and comfortable attire. Many executives at more traditional ‘old world’ companies have ditched ties and replaced their smart shoes with white trainers.

Over the past decade, I have noticed a similar change in the dress code for women attending the leadership programs I teach. Formal attire is out, and there is a lot more individuality in how women dress, which is another way of demonstrating their authenticity.

An interesting addition to the appearance category is the curation of an online image. In our increasingly digital age, leaders are now expected to build their brand online as well as in person. This can be empowering for women, since they can use social media to shape their image and project their competence rather than relying on old-fashioned networks.

Rewriting the rules of executive presence

In sum, the changing rules of executive presence should empower women to act more like their true selves. The growing prominence of desirable attributes like inclusiveness, respect, and authenticity reveals that women are no longer expected to conform to outdated leadership archetypes. Moreover, women may be better equipped to exhibit more inclusive leadership behavior, since they may have previously faced microaggressions or have personal experience of what it is like to be the minority – or ‘token woman’ – in the room.

In the past, there was not much that a woman could do if she wasn’t tall (the fourth most important trait in the appearance bucket in 2012) or didn’t have a blue-chip pedigree. Today, many of the characteristics that are in ascendance, such as having a Zoom presence or curating an image online, are skills that can be learned and honed with practice. With the latest survey results, the evidence is clear that the increasingly essential leadership traits are going in a direction where women are strong.


Ginka Toegel - IMD Professor

Ginka Toegel

Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at IMD

Ginka Toegel is a teacher, facilitator, and researcher in the areas of leadership and human behavior. Specialized in providing one-to-one leadership coaching and team-building workshops to top management teams in both the public and private sector, her major research focuses on leadership development, team dynamics, and coaching. She is also Director of the Strategies for Leadership program and the Mobilizing People program.


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