Many years back at my old consulting firm, I received a call from a Company I was working with. My client, the CEO of an alternative energy company discussed with me the hiring of another C-suite executive, a female who I would begin working closely with over the next several months as he was switching gears to spearhead their international expansion. I, in turn would now be working with this new executive on crafting and refining their corporate communications strategy. I found out she was a new mother (me too!) and a lawyer (I love Law & Order!) and I was looking forward to working with her.
The excitement quickly wore off two days later when we began our kick-off call. My new mommy lawyer buddy turned out to be quite abrasive, even condescending. And though I did my best to remain on neutral grounds, I couldn’t help but be completely put off by her communication style. She was overly aggressive right off the bat, talking over me, hijacking our conversation and taking ownership of our project. For a moment I felt like a red fire hydrant.
Throughout my career, I’ve come across many women who felt the need to act “like men” to get ahead. Perhaps they’re privy to the numerous studies out there suggesting that adapting male characteristics would allow them to be taken more seriously or bring them closer to success and so they adopt an exaggerated male version of themselves, oftentimes rubbing both men and women the wrong way. As a side note, my male colleagues also found her to be “extremely hard to work with”.
Although I’ve had equally as many pleasant experiences in working with women who were supportive and collaborative, I still found this a wake up call to the other half who feel the need to crank up their misinterpreted dominant masculine energy. But who can blame them? Because as we’ve come a long way since the Mad Men era, studies continue to identify that in comparison to men, the majority of women in the workforce come across passive, lacking personality, less confident and more risk adverse.
So how do we find a middle ground when it comes to projecting decisiveness, confidence and leadership? How do we avoid acting to the extreme? Here are some common mistakes women have been known to make – and why we need to steer back on the track to success:
- Over-emphasizing your qualifications. Women are often told that we speak with too much humility and don’t allow ourselves to shine. We typically aren’t hardwired at self-promoting and tooting our own horns. As a result, we may find ourselves overcompensating by over-emphasizing our qualifications. Yes it’s great you went to an Ivy League and worked at several Fortune 500 companies but how you tell it determines the impact you make to your audience. In fact, results from focus groups have shown that women who communicate their credentials are more effective when done in a storytelling approach whereas men who list their credentials receive less repercussion about being “pushy” and “bossy”. So the next time you want people to know you came from Harvard Business School, tell them a (funny, interesting, relevant) story about it.
- Hiding your feminine side. The University of Michigan and Carthage College researchers wanted to find out if women who exhibited a masculine appearance and took on stereotypically masculine behaviors (aggression and self-reliance) would fare better in the workplace. Turns out they receive more office bullying and sexual harassment. The findings were such that “For women, working in male dominated workgroups, having a stereotypically masculine appearance, and being aggressive were associated with exposure to sexist remarks and gender policing.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are a host of characteristics in “feminine leadership” that lead to long-term success and those include nurture, empathy, conversational turn taking, credit distribution, inquiry, and networked thinking which are critical for the success of any organization. These are just several more reasons to hone your feminine characteristics.
- Always going against the grain. Oh you know this type. They always disagree with you and sometimes they sound like they are saying “no” for the sake of disagreeing. Women have been told we are “too much of a team player” or “too passive” so the adaptive tone turns you into a contrarian. This approach over time lacks credibility and comes across narrow-minded. Having the ability to embrace and selectively choose new ideas or endorse other people’s ideas are essential qualities of true leadership.
- Detaching from other females. You never see them interact with other females either out of fear of being typecast as “too girly”, or they view other females as competition. Sophia Nelson, author of “The Woman Code,” explains, “From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to compete,” said Nelson during an interview with CNN. “I need to be prettier, taller, smarter, my hair needs to be straighter, curlier, whatever it is. I need to get the better-looking guy. I need to always be better than because we’re taught to come from a place of lack as women.” Men however, operate from a sense of, “there’s this whole pie, and I want my piece, and I don’t care if he gets his piece, and maybe we even have to work together to start that business, start that company.” The key is to understand that through collaboration, you can still achieve your goals and that women’s career is not a zero-sum game.
Harvard Business Review issued a report several years back on how feminine values provide future leaders with a distinctive edge. This was based on 10 qualities and competencies that were correlated with the success of today’s modern leader. Interestingly enough, only 2 out of the 10 qualities were viewed as masculine. The key takeaways were that “empathy is Innovation” and that “vulnerability is strength”. Indeed, our empathy and ability to embrace our vulnerability are just some of the many great assets we possess – and that there are still many other wonderful qualities that we need to hone and own.