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Before you start running for the hills, this post is not about politics. Well, sort of.

If you’ve opened any major news publication in the last week or so, you may have seen that there’s some hot competition between Janet Yellen and Lawrence Summers, the two front-runners to succeed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. For those who missed it, here’s the backstory.

Some say Yellen, the current Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, has it in the bag. Others claim she doesn’t have it in her, and that Summers (former United States Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton) is the chosen one. Both candidates have the experience, hold PhDs in economics from world class universities and they’re both liberal. Politically, they’re pretty similar. So, for some, it’s coming down to one thing:

Gravitas.

What the hell is “gravitas” … and why should we know about it?

Two things:

1. If you don’t recognize a word in any book, news story – whatever – always look it up. Always.

2. You should know about gravitas because it’s what holds many women back… and they may not even realize it.

Gravitas can loosely be defined as someone’s strength of character. It’s the seriousness and importance in their mannerisms and how they appear trustworthy and gain respect from others. It’s their self-esteem.

So, let’s address the elephant in the room: the ones who don’t think Yellen will be chosen? It’s because they think she can’t gain immediate credibility. Naturally, of course; she’s a woman. They question her ability to handle the upsets and think she doesn’t have “presence.” Summers, on the other hand, “shows teeth.” He’s a silver-haired, confident executive. The definition of gravitas.

Not so fast. That definition is changing. It is increasingly important for leaders to have empathy and compassion. Those who aren’t able to understand a variety of perspectives are at a significant disadvantage to those can (a study of more than 600 companies showed that those in the top quartile had two times the financial performance than other companies – see “Beyond Performance” by Scott Keller and Colin Price).

Empathy is the force that moves business forward. Women, studies have shown, are naturally more empathetic than men. It is necessary now, more than ever, that a leader have high self-awareness, motivation and social skills. Wrapped into one, that’s called emotional intelligence. Is this shift in leadership style happening because more women are present in the workplace? As we keep pushing forward to bridge the gender gap, only time will tell.

Gravitas is elusive. It’s in your posture, your voice, your non-verbal communication. Stand up straight, be confident in your speech and be self-aware of your verbal cues. Research on power poses might be an interesting topic to explore as well. Practice, polish and persistence can improve your self-esteem and presence. Don’t let something like gravitas be why someone questions your ability to do the job. Let there not be any question that you can do it.

We won’t know whether Yellen or Summers will get to taste sweet victory for a few more months. And, that’s not the point. The point is recognizing that these are the kinds of things women are up against, and not just on a major level like being selected to serve as the Federal Reserve Chairman. This is an everyday thing: in schools, tech firms, fast food restaurants, you name it.

They’re asking, “She’s just as talented as a man, but is she tough enough?” Show them your teeth.

Empathetic teeth, of course.

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