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To Get Ahead in Business, You Need to Be Strong Enough for a Man but Made Like a Woman

women in business, masculine women

Women really can have it all, if only we behave perfectly within a specific set of emotional boundaries.

If you’ve worked a day in Corporate America, you know how cut-throat and intense the atmosphere can be. Do more with less. And do it faster. These are the kind of directives that when barked constantly at you can make a grown woman cry… in her cubicle. Fashion publicist and author Kelly Cutrone famously said, “If you have to cry, go outside,” but it turns out she was only partially correct in assuming that female sensitivity is not welcome in the workplace. “In the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women,” according to a recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

That’s good news, I guess, especially if (like me) you’re a naturally confident woman. (I heard the words “intimidating” and “overzealous” a lot when I was in my teens and early 20’s. But never “bitchy,” though. That’s one thing I’m not.) I think I sit pretty much in the sweet spot, as far as Stanford’s behavioral recommendations are concerned. “The research suggests that for women to be successful they must simultaneously present themselves as self—confident and dominant while tempering these qualities with displays of communal characteristics.” In other words, if you want to get ahead at work, act the same way in the office that you would in front of your kids: be firm, but loving.

“Women may have a ways to go, but their ability to be flexible in how they behave is leading to some extraordinary results.  Some women are starting to go very high in the managerial ranks using this strategic approach,” concludes study co-author Olivia O’Neill of George Mason University.  If you accept the basic premise that women are natural nurturers (whether they have children or not) and you look at mothering as management, it’s not a big stretch to see how our default setting as women makes us perfect leaders.  The only problem is, I get the sense that we’re talking here about that most depressing rung on the career ladder: middle management.  The real question is, are women making it to the top?  Do we want to?

I’ve worked under plenty of female middle managers, and I have to say, more often than not I’ve found them insufferable.  Of course I’m generalizing and this is all anecdotal, but I’ve polled friends from time to time who agree with me.  I think there’s something particular about a woman in a low-level position of power feeling squeezed from both ends.  She’s constantly bothered by her employees’ needs and trying to fulfill the wishes of her bosses.  Because of this, these women – who in truth are just trying to do the best job they can – get stressed and end up unhappy (being “bitchy”), leading them to lose empathy – the one trait that in addition to our 21st century aggression is supposed to help us get ahead.

And let’s not ignore the fact that the women who are being promoted at a higher rate than men or other women must “self-monitor” their behavior. “These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their environment by assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly.”  In other words, know the perfect thing to do or say and do it at all times.  No pressure, ladies.  A man might go off in the work place and he’s just being a man, but a woman must pick and choose exactly when to be macho and when to be feminine.

Here’s an interesting idea: maybe men should try doing that, too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of sensitive male bosses and teachers and directors who embodied exactly the type of emotional balance lauded in these findings.  To continue with my parenting analogy, one of the reasons why I hold the memory of my father in such high esteem is because he spent most of his time in the perfect pocket of the strong yet sensitive male.  (My older siblings would disagree, however, because they had to deal with him before he mellowed a bit.)  The most fascinating part of the Standford study, though, is this: while “masculine women who were high self-monitors… received 1.5 times more promotions than masculine men,” they also received “about two times as many promotions as feminine men, regardless of whether the men were high or low self-monitors.”  In other words, it’s okay to be feminine if you’re female, but not if you’re a gay guy.  Additionally, self-monitoring masculine women “received 3 times as many promotions as masculine women who were low self-monitors, affirming that masculine behavior alone does not garner success.”  (It’s okay to be male if you’re male or a highly self-monitoring (hot) straight assertive female, but not if you’re ugly or a lesbian.  Ugly lesbians need not apply.)  Not surprisingly, “women with ultra—feminine traits… are still seen as less competent in traditional managerial settings” and are promoted 1.5 times fewer than “self—monitoring masculine women.”  (God, I wish we weren’t so willing to refer to human beings in such a robotic way.)  “There is no evidence that ‘acting like a lady’ does anything except make women more well liked,” O’Neill said.  (It’s okay to act like a secretary if you want to be a secretary.)

Of course I’m reading between the lines here, but I’d be interested to see a study about the effects being gay has on corporate development.  I guess it depends on the field.  (There are lots of gay male managers in television.)  As it is, for women in general, “being able to regulate one’s masculine behavior does not simply put women on par with men, it gives them even more of an advantage,” notes O’Neill.  As long as you can keep all your balls in the air, that is.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business

Photo via Flickr

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