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It's time for Carly Fiorina to Stop Playing the Gender Card

Liz Wiseman writes, "During the most recent Republican presidential debate, Carly Fiorina, clad in vivid red against a lineup of dark suits, quoted Margaret Thatcher, saying, 'If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.'

It’s debatable whether this quip is true, but is such a distinction even wise? Clearly Fiorina was appealing to voters fed up with the rhetoric-to-action ratio in politics, but it’s unclear if appealing to gender strengthens her case.

For those in business leadership, does playing the woman card hurt more than it helps?

Playing up gender might be an honest attempt to find an advantage in a game where you’re an underdog (or wanting to score a laugh), but it can bring trouble. Leaders who play the gender card shouldn’t be surprised or call foul when, like a game of rummy, that same card gets picked up by other players and is used against them. For example, if women are billed as 'good executors,' they are naturally steered toward roles in project management or administration—positions where they make a valuable contribution but where careers often plateau. Meanwhile, chiding men as 'all talk' positions them for roles as spokespeople, sponsors, advisors, dealmakers, and keynoters—all critical roles for advancement to senior management. A study conducted by Catalyst, Inc. and the University of Michigan found that men look at female leaders with more negative stereotypes than women do. When women talk up the advantages their gender brings, it invites men to conjure up their own generalizations.

However, the real danger with playing the gender card is a collective threat that traps our organizations in antiquated, ineffective leadership models at a time when we need agility. The facts are out there. Female leadership is crucial for organizations to perform and compete at the highest level. Yet a Women in the Workplace study concluded that women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to leadership, and report—more so than men—feeling pressure along the way. When we operate from pre-fabricated views of gender strength, we further increase this pressure and limit the range of motion and contribution of both men and women."

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