Computer science Barbie inspires me. She happens to be a girly girl, and happens to like computers too. So that’s how she presents herself. The combination of her intelligence plus her authenticity shows her capacity for effective leadership. She’ll be your boss one day. I’m talking to you, lame startup guy.
Women are told that we need to act more like men to get ahead. We need to downplay our feminine ways and stop sabotaging our careers by doing girly things, like over-explaining ourselves, leaving crappy voicemails and using emoticons in emails. And we can’t cry – that makes guys uncomfortable. And God forbid we make people uncomfortable by being too girly.
You just can’t win. The messages are confusing. They’re telling you you have to act a certain way to garner the respect and trust to earn a high-power position, but you can’t try too hard or else that’s distracting and threatening and people won’t like you. This message is conflicting, frustrating and unproductive, especially for young women like myself who are just starting out in our careers.
Men and women are not equal – we’re different. In Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”, she diplomatically explains some reasons men get ahead in the workplace and points out some things they do better than us:
- 57% of men negotiate their first salaries. Only 7% of women do this. (Wonder where the pay gap begins?)
- Men attribute their success to themselves (“I’m awesome!”) while women attribute their success to external factors (“So and so helped me along the way…”) No one gets a promotion if they don’t think they deserve success!
I like to see behavior differences between myself and my male peers and think about things they do differently (and in my opinion, better) than me. I find the guys I work with to be more direct in how they communicate than I am. They make decisions faster than me. I think that’s because they’re more confident than I am and they don’t waste time second guessing themselves. They take credit for their work. They never seem to feel like people are taking advantage of them, whereas I do. You teach people how to treat you. Is this a difference between men and women in general or just between some assertive guys and a learning-to-be-more-assertive girl? I’m not sure.
While these points are somewhat worth exploring for personal growth I think it’s more worthwhile for young women to identify and cultivate their personal strengths than it is for them to try and act like one of the guys just for the sake of downplaying our feminine sides.
Because honestly, no matter what you do to downplay your feminine side, your gender is still out there. It’s this pulsing theme in the background of your life. No, not all women want to be moms, but the potential and desire for motherhood has a huge impact on your career, the choices you make and the stresses you feel outside the office. Women have miscarriages at the office. Then they go to board meetings. Even the most conservative/prepared/cautious birth control-pill-popping-20-something career girl secretly does a little fist pump and thinks “Yes! Dodged another one!” every month. She doesn’t want kids, she’s focused on her career. She’s in law school or getting her MBA or something. All of this only to end up doing IVF at age 35 and squinting at a pregnancy test every month praying she gets the two pink lines. (Worth noting: 11 of the 12 female Fortune 500 CEO’s are moms.) Even if you do end up on Forbe’s 50 most powerful women in the world list, they’re still gonna list your marital status and the number of children you have. Sure it’s 2011 but we’re still somewhat defined by our ability to reproduce and get hitched, not only culturally but also by the personal choices we have to make along the way. You’re still a woman. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a push-up bra or shoulder pads.
I imagine and celebrate a scenario in which an up-and-coming sales exec will go out for manicures to chum up to her female CEO just like how men go golfing with their male bosses. Embrace who you are. I don’t think it needs to be an either-or situation of being taken seriously and being feminine. To encourage more female leadership in tech, it doesn’t need to be a choice between science camp or jewelry. Wear your jewelry to science camp. To get to the corner office, it doesn’t need to be a choice being between an iron-fist or a nurturing hand, it just means choosing a leadership style that reflects who you are.
Furthermore, you’re allowed to hate manicures too. Go smoke cigars with your up-and-coming sales exec if you ladies prefer that. And if you hate jewelry, wear a baseball cap to science camp. Just make sure you are being mentored by your CEO or role model. And get your butt to science camp. Be who you are. I demand this. To be anything else is a distraction from your goals.
I think the article “Can She Lead” offers a good solution:
“It seems that authentic leadership is the most important factor women can maintain to rise as leaders for society. Women shouldn’t feel they must lead with an iron fist to thrive because, nor that this is the only way they will ascend the corporate ladder. Leadership should not be garnered by fear, but rather by consensus and a belief in the leader. In addition, women should not feel that they must act passively to conform to traditional ideas of female leadership. Rather, they must be true to themselves and realize their influence as leaders… Female leaders can rise to the top as they embrace their own strengths as women and maintain a leadership style that is embedded in their individuality. This is what will draw others near, inspire, and motivate.“
When it comes to female leadership in the workplace, I hope my little blog post is just one piece of an increasing discourse centered around embracing individual strengths. And if we do generalize about differences between men versus women, I hope we see more conversation that emphasizes the benefits of a “female style” of leadership. Positive reinforcement, people: Let’s talk about what we’re doing right once in a while!
We’ve got a ton of work to do. 85% of PR practitioners are women but the top 80% of management is male. The glass ceiling still exists in many industries. I’m painting my nails and I’m getting a hammer.