Women in the business and professional world know they must be able to act in certain masculine ways – but also in feminine ways. This was confirmed in a study from the Stanford school of business. The study says women are rewarded if they can be confident, assertive, dominant and competitive – but also “self-monitor” and behave in the feminine counterparts to these masculine attributes.
Can women do this “shifting act” and not burn out from exhaustion? Can we do it and remain authentic?
I just delivered two workshops for women attorneys at a conference of the American Bar Association. We looked at differences in how the prototypical woman, representing the “feminine” approach, thinks and acts – and at how the prototypical man (that is how I define “masculine”) sees the world and behaves. I call the prototypes “Max” (the masculine) and “Fran” (the feminine).
We explored differences in how Max and Fran talk and differences in Max’s and Fran’s style of decision-making, influencing, conflict and humor. Then we took a look at how these differences run up against unconscious mind-sets – the way people think unconsciously. We looked at unconscious images – our pictures of how power, success and leadership “look.” This mind-set, I said, is why women conform, adapt or shift to the masculine norms in the workplace.
It is a life skill to shift how we behave. It is natural and wise to select from different “versions” of ourselves when we move from one situation to another – comforting a child, disciplining a subordinate, welcoming a new employee, meeting with our boss, or pitching business to a high-level executive.
But it can be costly. If a woman whose natural style is feminine (she is more like Fran) has to operate like Max a lot of the time, she may become an “honorary man.” Or she may wear out or feel de-valued and dis-engage. If she shifts intentionally, can she avoid these costs?
Dr. Ellen Langer, Harvard professor and expert on mindfulness, reports on one experiment she did. She asked two groups of women to give a speech in a masculine way. She coached one group to do this mindfully. When the videos were shown to men, she reports, “women who adopted a male leadership style but who were mindful were perceived as more genuine, were better liked and were perceived to be more effective leaders than those who were less mindful.”
I proposed (and propose) that women can shift with authenticity, as well as be more effective, if they do so “mindfully.” Know which version of you is most effective. Use that consciously. Then restore your energy by finding a situation in which you can “be yourself” – i.e., act in a way closer to your preferred place on the masculine-feminine continuum. After a day of board meetings (and being “Max”), I would restore by going home to my kids or out for wine with a girlfriend!
Do you agree that awareness can make “conforming” or “adapting” less costly?
When you need to solve a novel and important problem, what kind of leader do you want in charge? Does the word “decisive” make your list? What do we mean by “decisive”? How people approach and make decisions is one important dimension of workplace behavior where there are “gender” differences — more precisely, masculine-feminine differences. I define those terms using prototypes, Max and Fran. Max (who could be Maxwell or Maxine) represents the masculine approach to making decisions. Fran (Francis or Frances – woman or man) is the prototype for the feminine approach. They operate at different points on the masculine-feminine continuum. In the western world at least, key leadership attributes include being “decisive.” The term generally describes Max’s (the masculine) approach to making decisions. Max “leads from the front,” aligning the team on the goal and moving into action, straight for the goal. There are situations in which this approach is most effective – e.g., in emergencies or when time is short — and circumstances when it is not. When you need buy-in and creativity, Fran’s approach will get better results. Fran involves the team in identifying issues and proposing solutions. There is more process in weighing risks and upsides of multiple ideas. Which approach do you want on a team? The answer is, of course, both.
- If a team is made up only of Max-thinkers, they will accomplish the goal efficiently. They may pursue the ideas of the “alpha” leader; pushing aside issues they see as not on the linear path to the goal. They may overlook key issues or impacts of their decision on people. They may march efficiently off a cliff!
- If only Fran-like people are on a project, they will involve people, generate more creativity and build consensus. But they will generally take longer to reach a decision. They may get paralyzed by process or trying to reach consensus and never reach a decision!
- If the team has a balance of Max’s and Fran’s (as is more likely if both men and women are on the team), the Maxes will keep the group focused on the goal, and the Frans will raise issues and perspectives that may make for a better, more sustainable outcome.
John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, says that the historically accepted form of leadership is overly masculine. He says that leaders today must add more traditionally feminine strengths to their tool kits, including soliciting diverse perspectives in making decisions. In a recent New York Times opinion, Therese Huston reviews studies answering the question, “Are Women Better Decision Makers”? The studies show that, under stress, there are gender differences, and women perform better. In stressful situations, women take smaller, surer risks and are more able to take another person’s perspective; men take bigger risks for bigger wins and become more self-centered. She concludes that this may explain why companies with women on their boards get better financial results. I agree. The real point goes beyond gender. It is about valuing both masculine and feminine forms of decision-making – in both men and women. We reserve the descriptors “decisive” and “strong leader” only to those that make decisions in Max’s style. Good decisions can also result from collecting input, processing various points of view and taking time to reflect. Colorado’s governor took time to decide on a death penalty issue, generating criticism that he is indecisive. President Obama was criticized for lack of leadership when he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet . . . It’s too soon to say” about events in Syria. For big, complex and important matters, recognizing the need for more thinking, more expertise and more reflection is a good thing! See more on this issue in my piece on Huffington Post.