In the U.S., women make up nearly 47 percent of the workforce, so it’s only natural that opportunities have opened up for women in recent years. But things have only changed so much: The Fortune 500’s CEO roster included just 24 women in 2018.

Other traditional perspectives still lurk, including the expectation that women should strive for perfection. From the “Lean In” movement to heavier workloads at home, women continue to face increasing to-do lists — and the expectation to do it all well. It’s played a big role in how women perceive themselves and how they interact with the work world: Girls as young as 7 years old feel the need to be perfect, and women hesitate to apply for jobs they aren’t 100 percent qualified for. (Men, in contrast, will apply for roles where they meet half the qualifications.)

It could easily be assumed that the Wonder Woman act is only expected of those still proving themselves in the workplace, but it manifests itself even in the most visible arenas. Tennis star Serena Williams said earlier this year that she felt “mom guilt” and double standards hanging over her as she resumed playing — she was expected to be strong and not reveal her vulnerabilities. Elon Musk, on the other hand, broke down during an interview about his past year at Tesla’s helm and was lauded for demonstrating “an extraordinary level of self-reflection and vulnerability.”

So what gives? Why are women and men still being held to such different standards when it comes to vulnerability?

Vulnerability Is a Strength, Not a Weakness
Kristie Rogers, assistant professor of management at Marquette University, explained to Harvard Business Review that leaders need two kinds of respect: earned and owed. Those who gave their teammates the opportunity to be creative and vulnerable risk takers earned respect, in turn, and created an environment in which each person could thrive.

By extending openness and compassion toward team members, leaders establish vulnerability as a core way of working and improve the psychological safety of their workplaces. Google studied what factors made its teams successful, and the No. 1 element was psychological safety — people performed more highly when they could be vulnerable with their teammates.

Max Hawkins wrote that crying at work, perhaps the chief vulnerability, can be seen as a hierarchical issue: “Managers may cry in front of reports. VPs may cry in front of managers. The founder can cry in front of the whole company. But not before the board of directors…many people prefer to cry alone, where the act does not chance at unsettling any social dynamic. It’s easier, less messy.”

When we limit who’s allowed to be vulnerable in the workplace, however, we restrain our creativity and our empathy, which can short-circuit our long-term potential. And when we prevent half of the population from exhibiting vulnerability, we hamstring entire companies.

Only Wonder Women Need Apply?
The pressure to maintain a put-together appearance and work-life balance weighs on women, which hinders their performance. Sheryl Sandberg, who launched the “Lean In” movement, revised her stance after her husband unexpectedly passed away. In her follow-up book, “Option B,” she said life as a single mother gave her a new perspective on the high expectations she’d proffered: “They were right. I didn’t get it.”

Isa Watson, the founder of social community platform Squad by Envested, says part of the problem stems from how women are socialized regarding achievement in the corporate world. “Women naturally focus on meritocracy and believe they should be rewarded on their hard work — and they should be,” she said. “But men place a higher priority on relationships and developing buddies in the workplace. That keeps women from ascending the ladder as quickly as their male counterparts because they’re missing the people who could expend political capital behind closed doors to get them promoted.”

When women focus on meritocracy, the perception is that high standards have to be met — or exceeded — to succeed. Catalyst’s study on double-bind dilemmas found that women are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” If they fulfilled gender stereotypes by being soft, they were considered less competent leaders; if they bucked gender stereotypes, they were seen as too tough. Clearly, the high standards women carry have been absorbed.

Rebounding From Vulnerable Moments
Women often feel penalized for showing vulnerability at work; how others perceive them can quickly shift based on an expression of emotion. Women can reframe the conversation by how they react.

1. Assess the situation. “When someone really questions us after we’ve shown vulnerability, we have to assess the environment we’re in,” Watson says. “We need to identify our sponsors and mentors to help us keep perspective.” She says many of her own setbacks came about because she failed to understand who her support structures truly were. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” If a person isn’t ashamed of her behavior, she shouldn’t apologize for it.

2. Develop a comeback strategy. Often, when people are overwhelmed, they focus on overcompensating and eliminating the setback. But it helps to step back and think about one’s goals and identity. Asking, “Who am I? Is this behavior in line with who I am as a person?” can help eliminate doubt.

3. Avoid closing off. Another tendency that can strike is to suppress vulnerability and openness, to become robotic and without feeling. However, that prevents the very things that provide support and growth, both professionally and personally: relationships. While not every workplace is compassionate, most don’t suppress the human elements because they realize they’re authentic and establishing trust between individuals.

Vulnerability isn’t a weakness but a strength. By revealing the things that make us human, we develop stronger connections and higher performance. Ensuring women aren’t held to superhuman standards — and aren’t penalized for revealing their soft spots — can actually be a good thing for business.

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