In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg addresses what she calls the “leadership ambition gap.” Sandberg observes that fewer women aspire to senior positions. Although she acknowledges that there are external barriers, she puts her attention on the internal ones. She notes that we women hold ourselves back “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back.”
Many of the things that Sandberg addresses as internal barriers are what I see as “feminine” ways. She, like most in the business world, defines leadership and success in “masculine” terms. So her advice is for women to be more masculine.
To avoid stereotyping, in my book, Difference Works, I use prototypes for masculine and feminine, Max (representing the masculine view in both men and women) and Fran (representing the feminine perspective, whether in a man or woman). Both Max and Fran think and act as they do because of how they are wired and acculturated.
Max sees the world hierarchically, values status and therefore toots his own horn and avoids admitting when he does not have an answer or does not meet 100% of the qualifications for a job. Max is more comfortable taking risks, which is encouraged from childhood. Max’s behavior is associated with “ambition.”
Fran sees the world as a network in which relationships matter more than status. Acting superior, bragging and claiming her accomplishments come less naturally; they are discouraged in childhood; they threaten relationships. People, including Sandberg, observe this and judge it as less ambitious.
Valuing status, Max tends to speak in declarative sentences, sounding confident even if he is not really sure. Fran tends to speak with more humility, wanting to keep herself equal with others rather than appearing superior. Even when she is sure of her point, she disclaims, hedges and poses the point as a question; this sounds less confident. For a woman to be seen as self-confident, she must act more like Max.
We value masculine ways in the workplace and identify them with leadership. Feminine ways are often seen as less valuable and not associated with leadership. Because of this gendered view of leadership, a simple difference becomes an external barrier. If a woman operates in feminine ways, she will not be seen as a leader. To make it to the top, she must “lean in” – which means act more masculine. (But, because of the double bind, this may make her less “likeable.”)
I have to agree with Sandberg’s view that women who want to make it to the top of the business world must demonstrate confidence and ambition. This is borne out in the study reported by Stanford School of Business, which concluded that women are most successful if they can be confident, competitive, dominant and aggressive (masculine traits) – but shift back to feminine behaviors to avoid the double bind. But we should recognize that many women who display masculine traits are displacing natural feminine tendencies. We need to be aware and shift consciously. And we need to honor our feminine strengths as well.
I hold on to the vision and hope that, in the business world, and the world in general, we will learn to understand and appreciate both masculine and feminine approaches to working and living. My vision is that women can act authentically, whether that is masculine or feminine, and still make it to the top!