When we talk about “gender bias,” we generally assume we’re talking about a bias against women. Not so fast. The issue is less about men and women and more about a preference for the masculine style. This affects men as well.
I say both women and men must “change” – using masculine and feminine strengths as required at work. If women can succeed only by developing their masculine skills, we’ll just bring more of the same to the top. We won’t have diversity. If women have to do all the “changing,” they risk losing themselves, operating without authenticity and exhausting themselves.
It concerns me that, in the corporate workplace, women and men conform to the masculine model. If we all do that, first, we lose ourselves and become less authentic. Equally important, we perpetuate and ratchet up the imbalance we have in terms of masculine and feminine in the world of work (and the world generally). I don’t want women to become “men” in order to succeed. And I don’t want men becoming more masculine in order to fit in and feel respected. I want men and women to discover the strengths of feminine as well as masculine ways of working and leading.
Women in business and professions know they must sometimes be masculine, sometime feminine. Can women do this “shifting” without burning out or losing themselves? It is natural and smart to select from different “versions” of ourselves when we move from one situation to another. But it can be costly. If a woman who prefers a feminine style has to behave in masculine ways a lot, she may become an “honorary man,” become exhausted or dis-engage. If she does so consciously, intentionally, “mindfully,” can she avoid these costs?
My difference (gender) from the norm at the top of my corporation made me sensitive to diversity issues. In participating in diversity programs and training, I saw how much energy goes into trying to fit in. That lost energy costs creativity and quality. In an inclusive culture, where people feel heard and valued, engagement is higher. Inclusion and engagement drive productivity, innovation and results.
It is natural for newcomers to observe a group’s norms and conform their behavior. Adapting can be exhausting, especially if done unconsciously or for too long. But adapting our behavior is sometimes important for our effectiveness. If I “flex” to be more effective, I am not being inauthentic — any more than I am inauthentic if I try to speak French in a meeting in France!