Editor's note: Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank. For the last nine years she's directed the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She's also co-director of the Women's Leadership Program at the Columbia Business School, and is the author of the forthcoming "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor."
(CNN) -- Early in Dara's career, she was told by a coach that "honey attracts more bees than vinegar," so she took pains to rein in her natural candor and soften her opinions. But when she started her present job as vice president at a national retailer, her boss told her she was too nice. "Where's the balance?" Dara muses. "Do they want me to be harder or softer? With men or with women? With my superiors or my subordinates? It's tricky to figure out."
Call it the Goldilocks Syndrome. That's the double bind women too often find themselves entangled in when they try to prove they have what it takes to be a leader. They're called out for being either too this or too that: too feminine or too masculine, too self-deprecating or too self-aggrandizing, too frumpy or too provocative, too bossy (read: bitch) or too circumspect (read: cream puff). They're never "just right."
In short, smart women face tough choices. Should they try to be perceived as competent or likeable? A recent study suggests cheerfulness could hold back female leaders, which is just the latest in a body of research exploring the behavioral barriers women encounter on the road to the top.
Research conducted in 2012 by the Center for Talent Innovation, the New York think tank where I serve as president, shows that across all three pillars of executive presence —gravitas, communication and appearance -- traits or behaviors thought to enhance a woman's executive presence are just as often cited as likely to detract from it.
Focus group participants told us, for example, that too much makeup undermines a woman's credibility, but then faulted female leaders for looking too unpolished. Forty-two percent of our survey respondents said that unkempt nails detract from a woman's executive presence, yet nearly as many (37%) said that "overly done" nails were un-leader-like. The issue of age, for women, is fraught with peril: Almost the same number of respondents (8% vs 11%) said "looking too young" was a liability as told us "looking too old" undermined a woman's executive presence.
When we pressed managers to identify the "sweet spot" for women in terms of looking just the right age, we discovered the band of acceptability was somewhere between the ages of 39 and 42. Older women are invisible, they explained, while younger women project "the wrong kind" of visibility.
Everyone I spoke to agreed that those awful days when women donned mannish suits and bow-ties are long gone. But they also conceded that "getting it right" across all professions and environments was a tightrope act.
Suzi Digby, a British conductor, was particularly adamant that women not compromise their femininity. "It's counterproductive to look like a man," she says. "You give up a card." In her profession, however, this presents special difficulties. Conducting demands she put her back to the audience, a pose that features her posterior. Men can wear tails to downplay the distraction: "Women tend to have big bums, and that is bad: it has connotations," she points out. So to downplay the distraction of presenting her backside, and to strike the right silhouette (tall, lean, clean-lined), Digby wears heels and "a well-cut trouser suit." She also ties back her long hair. "It's important to get it right," she says. Then she sighs and adds, "I just don't know any women who do."
Women seeking to command a room run up against a similarly narrow band of acceptability. If they speak confidently about their accomplishments, it will cost them: 29% of our survey respondents said "tooting your own horn" detracts from a woman's executive presence. Yet 24% felt that "self-deprecating" behavior undermines it.
Women, we learned, are deemed to be "too shrill" (which seems to be the universal code for describing overly emotional and/or egregiously feminine women) or not outspoken enough; too direct in their remarks ("ruthless" being a common descriptor) or "too nice," meaning ineffectual.
The too blunt/too nice bind also surfaced: 17% of respondents believe a "failure to convey empathy" detracts from a woman's executive presence; a nearly equal number (15%) believe that being "too nice" also detracts from it.
The trickiest terrain a woman must navigate concerns her gravitas, where the effective-but-unlikeable chasm yawns the widest. A woman who is decisive, assertive and willing to hold her ground risks being perceived as shrill, aggressive, or uncooperative ("not a team player").
A man is viewed as a strong personality if he is arguing a point, whereas a woman arguing the same point is viewed as a bitch and "hard to get along with," one focus group participant observed. Our survey results reflected her confusion perfectly: 31% of respondents said that being "too bossy" undermines a woman's executive presence. Another 31% said being "too passive" undermines it. Go figure.
Nobody knows the Goldilocks Syndrome better than Hillary Clinton. For as long as she has occupied the national consciousness—as first lady, as senator, and as secretary of state—she has never been quite "right". Too female to be taken seriously (remember that bit of cleavage she revealed on the Senate floor?), she was also dubbed too aggressive for driving health care reform.
She was perceived as too accomplished to appeal to the electorate, but too politically inexperienced to be elected president; too much Bill's wife to assume the White House in his wake, but not enough of a mother to Chelsea to win the women's vote. If only she'd baked more cookies!
Clinton eventually proved that a female leader could be both effective and endearing. When she stepped down from her Cabinet position in 2012, she had approval ratings higher than President Obama's.
But the "damned if you do, doomed if you don't" trade-off will continue to snag many potentially high-impact females for one fundamental reason: As long as the stereotypical leader looks like a man, women will find themselves up against the impossible expectation to be someone they are not.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sylvia Ann Hewlett.