I have a Post-it-Note on my desk that states: “The Career Woman’s checklist for success… Look like a lady/Act like a man/Work like a dog”
Whenever I show this to another woman, she smiles. We all know the extra effort it can take as women to be recognized and placed in positions of leadership in a traditionally male world. While women have shattered glass ceilings, most leadership positions are still seen as requiring what have traditionally been perceived as masculine qualities. Many women feel they have to behave in “masculine” ways to be seen as competent and be placed in leadership positions.
One approach to this dichotomy is to combine the best of feminine strength with true accomplishments and strengths to enhance opportunities for success. We know this is not as simple as it sounds. For example, if you are perceived as being too feminine, you may not be perceived as being competent, but if you’re too masculine, you are seen as difficult to work with.
An op-ed in the Washington Post discussed the difficulties women have with female stereotypes and professional advancement. (http://tinyurl.com/pzt9nhj) “Powerful women often take feminine stereotypes that can hold women back — the selfless mother and the dutiful daughter, for example — and use those stereotypes to propel themselves forward.”
This op-ed calls it gender judo and states, “the martial art of judo, which means ‘gentle way’ in Japanese, focuses on using your opponent’s momentum to overpower him.”
I actively look for creative ways women can combine traditionally feminine traits with personal strength to promote themselves and note how they use this combined momentum to propel themselves forward.
Generally women are socialized to work for the good of the group. You often hear that female leaders are genetically wired to be communal in their leadership styles—that they’re relationship oriented and sympathetic to others’ needs. However, it may be that female leaders are communal not by nature but by necessity. They are socialized to be empathetic because they sense, accurately, what works for women. Women often receive pushback for self-promotion—this negative reaction can be even stronger from other women who feel that their female colleagues aren’t following unwritten societal rules.
It is true that men can also find it distasteful. However, mixing masculine competence with feminine niceness can be a successful strategy. “Powerful women often take feminine stereotypes that can hold women back and use those stereotypes to propel themselves forward.”
Acting like a “big sister with a big personality” is another way to exert authority without triggering pushback. Adrienne D. Davis, a vice provost at Washington University in St. Louis, said that as a young law professor, when the class threatened to get out of hand, she joked to her students that she was going to turn the lights off and make them put their heads on their desks, the way a kindergarten teacher might do to quiet students down. The class laughed—and gave her their attention. Most probably had kindergarten teachers who were women, so her technique felt familiar and comfortable.
A tip on how to get a word in when the opportunity to speak is not offered: when someone is talking but winding down, slowly start talking over him. If he doesn’t stop talking, say: “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were finished.” In this way, we can do something often perceived as masculine—interrupting—but in a feminine way.
Many baby-boomer professional women have actively resisted feminine stereotypes and may be outraged at the thought of adding a bit of femininity to their power plays. Yet millennial women more often think that everyone—men as well as women—should strive for the right mix of masculine and feminine traits. For men as well as women, self-promotion exercised with warmth is better than a strut of dominance.
I would love to see a world where men, as well as women, mix the masculine and the feminine. However for now, gender bias remains pervasive. Given that, it’s better to help women to spot those biases early on and arm them with ways to fight back. AAWEP (and other women’s organizations) helps us to do just that. Of course, strategies for navigating bias are no substitute for eliminating it. All of us can help in a continual strong push for ongoing culture change in our own environments. For example: Men tend to be judged on their potential, women on what they have actually accomplished. So, when we serve as an evaluator, we should assess potential and achievements separately—that way, both men and women are more likely to be judged by the same metrics.
A version of the article was originally published in the AAWEP newsletter.