Opinion: The ‘Musk double standard’: Why rebel men are lionized but women get criticized.

4 mins read

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk should make women wonder: Why does society lionize men who he describes as “risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training”? 

These words encapsulate a perplexing double standard: the willingness of society to not only accept but worship the audacious risk-taking behavior of male billionaires such as Tesla
CEO Musk and Amazon.com
CEO Jeff Bezos, while most female leaders are praised for conforming to expectations and steadying the ship when their company is in crisis.

The “untamed genius” halos over Musk, Bezos and others are deeply rooted in America’s long admiration for mavericks who challenge norms and revolutionize industries, attaining monumental success and influence sometimes at the expense of ethics or rationality. In contrast, when women assume leadership roles, any sign of brashness or audacity is met with skepticism or censure.

Men are forgiven for failures, which are viewed as inevitable side-effects of risk-taking, while women leaders are expected to fail — and get fired. Two notable cases that vividly illustrate this double standard are Marissa Mayer and Rosalind Brewer, both accomplished leaders in their respective fields. 

Mayer, a seasoned executive in the tech industry, assumed the CEO role at Yahoo during a critical juncture. Her appointment aligned with the “glass cliff” phenomenon, where women are often chosen for leadership positions during times of crisis or significant challenges. Mayer faced intense scrutiny and high expectations, highlighting the complexities and biases that women leaders confront, particularly when they step into high-profile roles during turbulent times.

Brewer, another established executive, was appointed the CEO role at Walgreens Boots Alliance
during the height of the Covid pandemic to steer the company out of crisis, another instance of the “glass cliff” phenomenon.

What sets Brewer’s experience apart is the additional scrutiny she faced as one of the few Black women serving as CEO of a major Fortune 500 company, especially within a predominantly white and male-dominated boardroom. Brewer’s recent departure as CEO leaves only one Black woman as a Fortune 500 CEO, and further highlights the challenges women of color face in top leadership positions. 

Many women feel compelled to navigate within the status quo, oftentimes at the expense of their authentic voices and leadership styles.

The margin for error is notably narrower when women assume leadership roles.

In addition to facing a double standard in risk-taking, women in business often grapple with the expectation to conform to established norms. This pressure to fit into existing corporate frameworks can be stifling, forcing women to suppress their authentic selves and adopt more masculine traits. As a result, many women feel compelled to navigate within the status quo, oftentimes at the expense of their authentic voices and leadership styles.

It’s virtually impossible for women leaders to get the expected balance right between assertiveness and likability. Assertive women are sometimes unfairly labeled as “difficult” or “bitchy” or “bossy,” perpetuating harmful stereotypes. When women do assert themselves in the workplace, their actions are called “aggressive”. This deters many women from speaking up, contributing ideas, or taking bold steps towards innovation that everyone would benefit from.

The gender disparities in the business world unfortunately aren’t going away soon. But conforming to unfair standards and avoiding labels isn’t the way to create change.

Paving the way for change

Women who ascend to positions of power recognize the profound responsibility that accompanies their leadership roles. Beyond simply guiding their organizations, they take up the mantle of championing inclusivity, diversity and fostering a balanced work environment. Their mission extends beyond personal success; they’re dedicated to reshaping business culture for generations to come.

These trailblazing women understand that achieving true progress means more than merely emulating the patterns of male leadership. It demands a thoughtful, deliberate approach to dismantle outdated norms while simultaneously offering equal opportunities. They realize that perpetuating the status quo isn’t an option. By advocating for policies that promote fairness and by providing platforms for underrepresented voices, they break through traditional barriers and drive meaningful change.

Furthermore, these leaders recognize the power of mentorship and advocacy. They actively seek out opportunities to uplift and guide other women navigating their own paths to success. By sharing experiences, knowledge, and strategies, they create a network of support that empowers women to excel in leadership roles.

Advocacy is a key pillar of their approach. These women unapologetically assert their worth, ensuring that their contributions are not just recognized, but celebrated. They demand that their voices be heard, and their achievements acknowledged. In doing so, they challenge the prevailing norms that have hindered progress for far too long.

Additionally, they actively cultivate allies who are genuinely supportive of their mission. Recognizing that change is a collective effort, they seek out like-minded individuals who are committed to dismantling barriers and fostering a more inclusive work environment. Together, they form a coalition that propels the cause forward, creating a united front against the deeply entrenched biases that continue to persist in the corporate world.

Breaking stereotypes

Through their dedicated efforts, these women leaders not only break stereotypes but also leave an indelible mark on the traditional business landscape. They’re not content with mere representation; they’re driven to redefine what leadership looks like, setting the stage for a future where diversity, equality, and authentic leadership are not just aspirational ideals, but tangible realities.

At the end of the day, Musk is certainly not the role model we want for women, but he should remind us that the most neglected women’s right is our right to rebel. Let’s celebrate authenticity rather than stifling it. Let’s take risks. Let’s witness the groundbreaking ideas and transformative leadership women will contribute when they defy norms and embrace their true selves. Let’s become the subject of the next bestselling biography — one that’s not about a misbehaving man-child but a bold, unapologetic, inspiring woman.

Lisa Carmen Wang is the author of “The Bad Bitch Business Bible: 10 Commandments to Break Free of Good Girl Brainwashing and Take Charge of Your Body, Boundaries, and Bank Account” (Harper Business, 2023).

More: Some men may obsess about the Roman Empire. But what about the rest of us?

Plus: Women just hit a C-suite record. But it may be harder for the next generation.

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