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OpinionPeople and LeadershipShort Read

Let’s talk about sex.

There is a saying that ‘behind every great man is an even greater woman’, but who is behind every great woman?

Recently, whilst researching Field Marshal Slim’s comment that leadership is ‘just plain you’ I stumbled across articles that identified how challenging it is for female leaders and realised the importance for all leaders to be aware of these considerations.  

The appearance of the sexes 

In this equality driven world, I have often wondered why I wear a man’s uniform to work? Every time I sit down, and even when I stand up, I have a pouch where my apparent penis should be. On a safety note, the Army hasn’t accommodated for females either as the Personal Protective Equipment prevents me from being able to take a knee, as the plates are too long, and they prevent other females from breathing as the plates are shaped for males and not females. Furthermore, why do I have to scrape my hair off my face and pin it to my head, covering it with a hair net, which, ultimately, makes me like a 14-year-old boy and not the 30-year-old woman I actually am?

So, why am I highlighting the issues around wearing men’s clothes and looking like a boy for work? In my opinion, I should be able to look professional whilst maintaining my femininity and not be disadvantaged as a leader because of this. According to Vestal (2014) there is a positive correlation between physical appearance with leader emergence and perceived social competency. 1 Additionally, males tend to anchor more on physical appearance to their decisions involving leader potential and selection. This brings to question, when the majority of Soldiers and Officers I work with are male, am I being negatively judged on my capability as a leader because I am required to wear uniform designed for males and hide aspects of my femininity by wearing my hair in a net? And, are these bias dress regulations favouring the male gender because they wear a uniform, albeit potentially ill-fitting for some, that is designed for them?


Attitudes to success and powers of the sexes

Sandburg (2010) concluded, we have too few female leaders because women don’t reach for opportunities, they underestimate their own abilities and don’t negotiate for themselves in the workforce, unlike men who do these things well. 2 Studies show when women are asked how they did such a good job, they will commonly say how they ‘had a good team’ but a guy will say it’s because he is ‘awesome,’ followed by ‘why are you asking?’ 3

Therefore, Sandburg (2010) states women just need to believe in themselves, but it is not as simple as that. 4   Further studies show that success and likeability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women, meaning even if you believe in yourself, and do well as a leader, you are less liked. However, this is challenged by the research of Zenger and Folkman (as cited in Cooper. 2013) who found ‘…likeability and success actually go together remarkably well for women.’ 5 Yet, decades of other studies still support the view of Sandburg (2010) that when women behave in ways that violate gender stereotypes, they are often penalised. More concerningly, women are experiencing comments such as ‘you only got that job because you are a woman’ as organisations try and bridge their gender gap. This then has a negative effect on the employment of women as their work ethic is undermined, again, because of their gender. 

One famous study which clearly demonstrates the biases faced around females and success is based around the work of Heidi Roizen. Heidi was a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who became the subject of a case study at Columbia Business School. Professor Frank Flynn presented half his class with the case study with Heidi’s name on it and gave half the class the same case study with her name changed to ‘Howard.’ The students rated ‘Howard’ and Heidi, equally competent, they liked Howard, but not Heidi. 6

So, how does the Army overcome this? Currently the Army is composed of 8% women, with limited representation at higher ranks, and with extremely slow change in either of these metrics.  How can we make this better?  It is paramount that we raise awareness of our biases, reflect on our gender biases and consider the implications which may arise for females in command and consider ways to support rather than penalise or dislike.   

Accept we are physically different

It is a great time to join the British Army for women; all job roles are now available regardless of gender. Already though we hear how our first female infantry Soldiers are physically breaking and I plead to those in command to acknowledge we are physically different. Women can, and do, meet the standard required but studies show they need longer to get there to prevent injury.   

Dr. Sims (2016) highlights that females are biologically different. We all know the obvious differences, but we don’t know the full extent of it.7 We must acknowledge that women are not small men! Why are we ignoring the facts and continuing to make a career in the Army harder for women instead of acknowledging the studies that explain why and how we are different and what needs to be in place to support women reaching their goals? Women will meet the same standard but to do this safety and efficiently, they need longer to train. 

The Cinderella Complex

What makes this even worse is once prejudices are overcome and you’re employed by the military, accepted you have a crotch pouch, you’re respected by your higher command and sub-ordinates, you’re passing the fitness tests but then you’re hit with the added expectation of marriage and motherhood. Women now have the challenges of managing a career and/or a family life. And, unfortunately, studies show that ‘the rising number of women working today correlates closely with the increase in deteriorating marriages’ (Dowling,1981).

Dowling (1981) also identified that women had a ‘psychological dependence,’ a conscious or unconscious wish to escape responsibility, known as the Cinderella complex. 8 This ‘Cinderella Complex leads to inappropriate or ineffectual behaviour on the job’, such as anxiety about success and fear that independence will lead to loss of femininity. Areas which need acknowledging if we aspire to bridge the gender gap in the top job roles. 

So how do we survive in this man’s world? 

Ladies, let’s get together! Get together and support one another. As I see it at the moment, Junior Officers are provided ample opportunities to be mentored. So, organise an event to get together and talk – that is apparently what women like to do anyway – so get talking, share what experiences you’ve had. It could be the answer to the work issue someone else is experiencing. To the men still reading, there is nothing stopping you having a lad’s night, or maybe come along to the lady’s night, you could identify with some of the topics too and thus improve your leadership and better understand the differences between males and females.

You can’t win them all 

Last year, a male infantry NCO I was travelling with randomly said ‘I can’t take orders from women.’  Yup. My thoughts exactly, ‘Bugger, this male uniform really has made me look like a 14-year-old boy.’ Naturally, I wanted to know why. We debated how he had no qualms taking orders from a male (even one who had just been CASEVAC’d for slicing his own finger as a result of stabbing a tree…) but wouldn’t be happy taking orders from an intelligent female, because, well she was a female. He had no logical explanation and I learnt you can’t win them all and changing some people’s prejudices can be a constant uphill battle.

Work with each other not against

The final uphill battle to women’s success and likeliness is other women that may not like it either. Sure, we accept we are in a competitive world but we should be working with each other and not against. We have too many other challenges to face just by being a female so don’t make it harder for one another but be brave enough to have a conversation and move on. Or in the words of the Army’s Servicewomen’s Network; engage, inspire and empower. 

Let’s talk about sex finally

Our appearance, name, characteristics and physical composition all impact how females are perceived and responded too, never mind factoring their ability to do the job. So, I urge you to talk about sex, educate other women and men about the differences. Only then may some issues get resolved as we acknowledge our biases, support one another’s approaches to these challenges and don’t restrict opportunities to fulfil bespoke potential as a result of gender. 



Before embarking upon an career as an Army Officer Katie was a Physical Education teacher whilst also serving in the Army Reserves. After leaving teaching behind, she has continued to maintain her interest in Education and Sports by working towards her Masters and intends to complete an Ironman.


  1. Vestal, T, A. 2014.THE BIAS OF PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS IN LEADER EMERGENCE: A META-ANALYTIC REVIEW. Submitted to Honors and Undergraduate Research. Texas A&M University In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the designation as an UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH SCHOLAR. Retrieved on 27 Nov 19 from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/919c/1bd4ff833f04a89a1c267a35138dd5e7f74d.pdf
  2. Sandburg, S. 2010. TED. ‘Why we have too few women leaders?’ Retrieved on 19 Oct 18 from:https://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_ women_leaders?referrer=playlisthow_leaders_inspire&language=en  
  3. Leadership Psychology Institute. (2019). Women & the Leadership Labyrinth Howard vs Heidi. Received on 20 Nov 19 from: https://www.leadershippsychologyinstitute .com/women-the-leadership-labyrinth-howard-vs-heidi/
  4. Sandburg, S. 2010. TED. ‘Why we have too few women leaders?’ Retrieved on 19 Oct 18 from:https://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_ women_leaders?referrer=playlisthow_leaders_inspire&language=en
  5. Cooper, M. 2013. For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand. Retrieved on 9 Jan 2020 from: https://hbr.org/2013/04/for-women-leaders-likability-a
  6. Leadership Psychology Institute. (2019). Women & the Leadership Labyrinth Howard vs Heidi. Received on 20 Nov 19 from: https://www.leadershippsychologyinstitute .com/women-the-leadership-labyrinth-howard-vs-heidi/
  7. Dr. Sims, S.  (2016) ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life Stacy Sims. Rodale: New York. 
  8. Dowling, C. 1981. THE CINDERELLA SYNDROME. The New York Times. Retrieve on 3 Dec 19 from:https://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/22/magazine/the-cinderella-syndrome.html

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