The young lawyer worked long hours, did great work, served on firm committees and got along with clients and colleagues. At her performance review, the senior partner noted all of these strengths. But he identified one “area of improvement”: “You are lacking in humility,” he said. I suspect the “double bind” is at play. The double bind is the tightrope women must walk. If they work and behave in more feminine ways, they are not seen as leaders. If they act in masculine ways (or too masculine or too often), they are disliked.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points to internal barriers that hold women back. Many are just “feminine” ways. Women are wired and acculturated to value relationships more than status and to avoid bragging. This looks like lower ambition. Women tend to speak more humbly; this looks like lower confidence. I agree that, to make it to the top, women must demonstrate ambition and confidence. But my hope is that one day leaders will understand and appreciate feminine as well as masculine style and see leadership in both.
Sandberg’s advice fits into a large genre of advice for women on how to succeed in the masculine workplace. She correctly says women need to appear more confident. The typical man speaks with confidence even when he is wrong; the typical woman speaks more hesitantly even when she is sure. While advising women to learn to speak more confidently, we need to encourage leaders to understand the gender differences in communication. Translate vs. taking literally. Bilingual cultures (inclusive cultures) allow women to feel valued and be engaged. That’s good for business.