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A recent study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business concludes that the key to success for women in business is to be able to “turn on and off” the masculine traits of being assertive and confident. The study says there is a hierarchy of those most likely to be promoted.  At the top are women who can “self-monitor” and “be chameleons” by adapting their behavior (moving between masculine and feminine approaches) in light of the particular situation.

This seems to prove part but not all of what I have preached in my workshops for years.  I’ve argued that the best leaders appreciate and use both masculine and feminine approaches—and know when each is most effective.  I believe that both men and women need to be able to “flex” and shift between masculine and feminine as called for by the circumstance.  But the study seems to say that it is less critical for men to do so.

Women who can flex come out on top in getting promotions. Behind them, in this order, are: (1) men with a masculine style whether or not they can flex, (2) feminine women whether or not they can flex, (3) feminine-style men whether they can flex or not and (4) masculine women who do not flex well (i.e., don’t mix in feminine approaches).  Not surprising, the study finds that women with “ultra feminine traits” are still seen as less competent as managers. And it confirms what women know well—that they will be penalized for acting “too masculine.”

Most books on gender difference are written to help women succeed in a world that values and models masculine ways more than feminine.  This study points in the same direction. This is, sadly, no news flash. To succeed, women can’t be too feminine, must master masculine approaches and must be skilled at moderating their use of the masculine.  Some women may do all of this with ease. For many, it takes effort.

I’m disappointed that the study indicates that men don’t seem to benefit from flexing—and using a feminine approach when it is most effective.  At least it doesn’t point to a penalty for doing so.  I plan to continue to teach men as well as women to understand, appreciate and leverage both masculine and feminine approaches. I long for a world in which men and women are equally challenged to flex and use both masculine and feminine approaches—in a workplace that models and values both.

What do you think?