Do women really need to act like men?

There are many generalisations about the differences between men and women, and like most generalisations, they are sometimes valid – clichés don’t get to be clichés without a good foundation in truth. This is particularly the case when it comes to the workplace, where the following assumptions are often made and are frequently true:

  • Women are good at building relationships.
  • Men are more confident.
  • Women are good listeners.
  • Men are not afraid to ask for salary increases.
  • Women attempt to defuse contentious situations.
  • Men can be more aggressive.
  • Women worry about outcomes and what people think.
  • Men often forge ahead and are less concerned about what colleagues’ opinions.
  • Women are good at calculating risks.
  • Men are good at taking risks.
  • There are more men in the boardroom (this is fact, not a cliché)

Women are often told to be more like men in order to succeed; we need to be more confident, more assertive, more aggressive. Articles like Reframing the leader bitch suggest making friends with the woman in the workplace that you don’t like; the woman who is assertive, confident and exhibits male leadership skills. Connect with her to see what you can learn about progressing in the workplace is the message. I read this article last week and although I could see where the author was coming from, and I agree there is merit to networking with powerful women in the organisation, I’m not sure about the blanket assumption that exhibiting typically male traits is something to aspire to.

A UK survey some months ago showed that many women feel the need to act “like an alpha male” in order to succeed. Avoiding heels and make-up, hiding emotions, believing they “need to act ruthlessly to be respected at work”

Again, I’m not convinced.

The Devil Wears Prada (image credit imdb)
The Devil Wears Prada (image credit imdb)

By all means, if this comes naturally, go for it. If a woman works best by being assertive, perhaps even aggressive, by being a risk-taker, by being seen to make quick decisions without needing time to reflect: good on her. I don’t think she should work against her natural instincts, especially if she’s achieving results.

But if that’s not her natural domain, is it really in her best interests, or her employer’s best interests to force it?

Do businesses really fare better if they have only alpha-male type personalities leading them?

Or could it be that the traits that come more naturally to women complement the male traits to form a more balanced leadership?

Research backs this up – I looked into this when the Anglotapes came out last year, wondering if we’d have been listening to the same thing if there were women on the Anglo board. 

The The European Commission Women on Boards Factsheet states among other findings that gender diversity on boards brings “improved corporate governance and ethics”. And a report by Ernst & Young Groundbreakers: Using the strength of women to rebuild the world’s economy asks if the global financial crisis would have turned out differently if more “diverse perspectives” had been taken into account. The report rightly points out that these are questions that can’t easily be answered, but that “the undeniable body of evidence in favor of women’s empowerment presents a powerful case for building more inclusive leadership”

Companies run only by women or by employees displaying “female” type characteristics might not fare any better than companies run only by men – like most things in life, a balance is best.

For every risk-taker, there’s a voice of reason to suggest caution. For the over-cautious, there’s a quick decision-maker not afraid to take the lead. For the person who ploughs ahead without listening to detractors, there’s a metaphorical hand on the arm and calm voice to pull him or her back.

Workplaces need balance. And we all agree that we need more women at senior levels in organisations. Isn’t some of this benefit cancelled out if women are required to act like men to get there?

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