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mindfulnessWomen 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?