Simson noted a softer personal style has a lot to do with her success and in getting results — relying on her technical qualifications is insufficient. "My style is not abrasive. I work with people and lead them, but I don't tell them what to do. You have to have the ability to collaborate with people."
In fact, a change in business culture to favor teams and collaboration over rigid hierarchies should work in women's favor, Major said. "It's [no longer the] old-school dictatorial style" for men or women, she said, and the current collaborative style fits in with how women more typically work. She added, "Women tend to collect data and take more time, be more collaborative, and make sure that everyone has been heard."
And women should not let style differences between themselves and men — whatever their origins — get in the way. "A solid work ethic outweighs any personality issues," Casey said. "People who are successful are true to themselves, have a solid work effort, and produce — outweighs any personality issues," she added.
Act like a man?
Infante doesn't buy the argument that women have to navigate a double standard. Her advice is that women should be unafraid to behave in business as men do, such as wielding their power as a male executive would. "Self-confidence shows, and people are trained to recognize that in others," she said. For her, the real problem comes when "women are hesitant about the use of power." That signals weakness, which undermines their leadership more than the fact that they are women.
Infante acknowledges that "acting like a man" goes against how most women are raised, which is to be shyer and to want to please. But that just won't work in business. "Business is a lot less about the softer self," she said. "Our education system creates passivity in girls and encourages activity in the boys. [Yet] in business you have to be aggressive," Infante added.
From years of working alongside Larry Ellison at Oracle, Infante had a front-row seat to seeing how an aggressive leader operates. "It's not a secret that Larry does not treat people nicely. I am not saying that is a good thing but … business is ultimately about competing. If you are out there and aren't 120 percent in your ability to defeat the opposition, then you will fail. This is where Larry has been very successful. He asks every day, 'What have you done to win today and what have you done today to defeat the competition?'"
Still, Infante admits that a woman could not easily act as tough as Ellison. "If a woman treated people like Larry treated people, people would focus more on the fact that she is not being kind and gentle, but with Larry, they say, 'Oh well, that is the way Larry is.'"
Ellison may be an extreme case, and women don't need to ape male behavior to use their power, Simson advised. She warned young women not to try to be something they are not. "Retain your personality. Being successful is not dependent on being harsh. Be strong, know what you want. Competency is what is valued and what commands respect. Respect does not come because you bullied," she said.
How to climb to the top
Despite the perception issues that can make it harder for women to be seen as leaders, the path to the top in IT doesn't appear to differ from the path to the top in any industry.