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Conformity1A male colleague told me this story. He was a successful attorney but was told he would not make partner in his firm. Firm leaders (male) told him that a key reason was that he “wore his heart on his sleeve” – and this wasn’t fitting for his line of work. Years later, after reading my book and following my writing, he says, he understood what had happened. He saw that “wearing his heart on his sleeve” fit the “feminine” style. It did not fit the masculine model. And only that model was valued. He also began to value the strengths of his feminine, as well as masculine, styles of working.

When we talk about “gender bias,” we generally assume we’re talking about an issue that negatively affects women. Not so fast. At the surface level, women are most affected by the gendered definitions of leadership. For decades, in North American and other cultures, business and political leaders have been primarily white males. So it is natural that we have come to believe that leaders “lead from the front” (rather than through others), are “decisive” (meaning they make decisions quickly rather than valuing more process), are competitive (rather than collaborative), and mask their feelings (rather than expressing them). Women are most affected by the unconscious cultural preference for masculine vs. feminine ways of seeing the world, behaving, working and leading. But this is not about men and women. It is about masculine and feminine styles of working and leading, which are part of both men and women. This preference for the masculine style affects men as well.

First, like my colleague, men can be penalized for exercising feminine strengths. They break the stereotype of how men behave or lead. And the focus is on that — rather than on the results they achieve and the value they add by using both masculine and feminine strengths. Second, just like women, they can conform and lose their wholeness and authenticity.

All of us naturally conform to the ways modeled by those who have succeeded the most. Men as well as women are rewarded for behaving in masculine ways (though women are penalized if they do so too much). There is a natural tendency, as a result, to double down on the masculine style, perpetuating the masculine nature of an organization’s culture. John Gerzema has declared that to meet the demands of today, leaders today must exhibit “femininity” – be “flexible, nurturing and collaborative.” Says Gerzema, “The essence of a modern leader is feminine, as preferred by people around the world,” including leaders who share their feelings and emotions openly and honestly! Just like my colleague did!

Gerzema and I value the masculine, too. We are both advocating that we include the feminine. We agree that economic benefit comes from a balance of masculine and feminine ways of thinking.

Do you see examples of men being penalized for demonstrating feminine strengths? Do you have stories of good results coming from a balance of masculine and feminine styles?