A study last year offers the answer to how more women can make it into the upper ranks of business. They just need to know how to switch on and off masculine behaviors — at the right times.
The report, published last year by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, concludes that women who master certain masculine traits, “but who can turn these traits on and off” depending on the circumstance “get more promotions than either men or other women.” The study confirms that “leadership” is defined in masculine terms; feminine behaviors are not associated with competence or leadership. To be seen as leaders, women must, to some degree, perform in masculine ways.
The report proclaims that the study “resolves the conundrum that has plagued women in the business arena,” the phenomenon that I call the “double bind.” (If women behave in too feminine a way, they won’t be seen as leaders; but, if they behave in too masculine a way, they will not be liked and will be called a word beginning with a “B.”) So the report confirms that the double bind continues to exist; to succeed, women need to be really good at avoiding it.
Any newcomer figures out that, to succeed in a new group, he or she needs to imitate how things are done by the most successful members of the group. Men were in the business and professional realms long before women. Women are relative newcomers, having arrived at the entrance in large numbers only a little over three decades ago. They must imitate masculine ways.
Much of the literature about gender in the workplace is designed to help women succeed in the masculine world of work. Scores of books explain masculine ways of thinking and behaving to women so they can understand what might otherwise remain a mystery. These books tell women that they need to speak up in meetings, take credit for their accomplishments, ask for what they want (including raises and promotions), and take risks by asking for assignments they see as beyond their abilities. In other words, they must learn masculine ways.
In the Stanford study, “masculine women who were low self-monitors” got fewer promotions than those who found the “switch.” The lesson is clear: Successful business women must operate in masculine ways — but not “too” much, too often, or at the wrong times. Women must sometimes be masculine (tough, direct, commanding, self-promoting, competitive, and self-assured). At other times, they must be feminine (supportive, collaborative, unassuming, and indirect). Moreover, according to the Stanford study, they must be an expert at turning the masculine switch on and off by “self-monitoring.” The study called women who succeed by operating the switch “chameleons” who to fit into their environment by “assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly.”
The purpose of my business and my book is to show the strengths of both masculine and feminine ways of working — in both men and women. My goal is to help leaders build inclusive cultures and achieve gender diversity in leadership — and as a result, get better results. When I first read the Stanford research, I was irritated; I thought it suggested that women alone bore the burden of adapting their workplace behavior. The study found no benefit to men for being “chameleons” — operating in both masculine and feminine ways at appropriate times. I thought it suggested that a business’ ability to get the benefit of gender diversity depends solely on women making it to the top by being “chameleons.”
But this study focused on only a few aspects of masculine behavior — assertiveness, competitiveness and confidence. There is much more to being masculine than these traits. There is much more to being feminine that the opposites of these. Feminine strengths include building community, collaborating, synthesizing lots of inputs, sharing power, and creating inclusive teams. Both men and men are better leaders if they can demonstrate these feminine strengths — in the right circumstances.
I can’t argue with the point that, to succeed, women must be assertive and confident. Women must definitely tone down behaviors I would call “aggressive.” But women must also leverage feminine skills. And so must men.
Businesses will have gender diversity at the top if more women succeed by demonstrating a balance of masculine and feminine skills. But leaders, too, play a role in achieving gender diversity. Leaders, men and women, need to appreciate feminine as well as masculine strengths and minimize the barriers imposed by the double bind. They must build inclusive cultures where more women will succeed.
What do you think? Is it up to women to get to the top by “flipping a switch”? How can leaders create cultures that enable both men and women to succeed?