Aug 10, 2018

Nicole Taylor was born in a small Australian coal mining town called Cessnock in 1972, the 2nd eldest daughter of a young couple full of life, optimism and ambition. Whilst her memories are positive of that time, her mum and dad divorced when Nicole was only 8 years old and she entered a new world with an abusive step father (but with a Mum who refused to be a victim and give in to his destructive ways). Today, she is one of the very few female advertising leaders as Australian CEO of McCann World Group – one of the world’s great advertising brands. Nicole has a young daughter with her wife. This nature loving pioneer, still calls her late mum her hero and is everything the boys club isn’t!

I am not afraid…I was born to do this. Joan of Arc

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I was recently in an energetic conversation about how women must conform to masculine ways of thinking and behaving in order to succeed in business. I referred my colleague to a study by the Stanford School of Business and to my related article in Forbes WomensMedia, commenting that this study confirms that women must master certain masculine traits andstill face the “double bind.” The “double bind” is the unwritten rule that women who act in feminine ways are unlikely to be seen as leaders, and women who operate like men are often judged as unladylike and disliked.

The conversation ended in a lament framed as a question, “Can women who are feminine ever make it to the top?” This started me thinking about three forms of being feminine:

  1. looking feminine,
  2. acting girlish or seductive,
  3. and working and leading in feminine ways.

Three decades ago, women in the business world practically had to hide the fact they were women—wearing tailored suits, preferably black, grey or navy. At least today, women in the workplace can look feminine. There are limits, of course. To be taken seriously, business women need to look like they are going to work, not to a bar or the beach. The issue of casual and revealing attire causes tension between female Baby Boomers (who remember the navy-suit era) and younger women. If women appear too frilly, they are less likely to be seen as professional. If they display too much flesh (short skirts or low necklines), they may be seen by men as sex objects—and judged by women as inappropriate. But there is a lot of room for looking feminine.

How about acting feminine? I’ve seen women be very effective using feminine wiles at work, being flirtatious or cute. Obviously, this works only if the woman is very competent and doesn’t overdo it.

A more important aspect of the question is whether women can succeed using feminine forms of leadership. The Stanford study that I mentioned to my colleague answered the question in the negative. This study of 132 business school graduates looked at women who scored high in “masculine traits” of aggressiveness, assertiveness and confidence. The researchers found that women with these traits—who could self-monitor and regulate them—got the most promotions.

They (the Self-Monitoring group) did better than the following groups:

  • Masculine men (Self-Monitors got 1.5 times more promotions)
  • Feminine women regardless of whether they were good at “self-monitoring” (Self-Monitors got 1.5 times more promotions)
  • Feminine men regardless of whether they were good at “self-monitoring” (Self-Monitors got 2 times more promotions)
  • Masculine women who were low on “self-monitoring” (Self-Monitors got 3 times more promotions).

To succeed, this study suggests, women have to demonstrate certain “masculine” traits and be able to turn them on and off. It confirms that the double bind is alive and well. To succeed, women must appear confident and dominant. But if they appear too confident or are too assertive (don’t rein in these behaviours or exhibit them at the wrong time), a promotion is much less likely.

In this analysis, feminine women do better than overly masculine women, but not nearly as well as women who can be masculine at times. (The report notes that ultra-feminine women are seen as less competent.). But note that the definition of masculine used in the Stanford study is narrow. There is much more to being masculine than being aggressive, assertive and confident. There is much more to being feminine than being non-aggressive, non-assertive and appearing less confident!

I view masculine and feminine perspectives and behaviours as appearing along a continuum. I define masculine by those perspectives and behaviours that are commonly exhibited by most men and “feminine” by how most women tend to see things and behave. Men have both masculine and feminine ways, as do women. And there are strengths and limitations to both masculine and feminine approaches in different circumstances.

Strengths on the feminine part of the continuum (again, seen in both women and men) include:

  • Building relationships and establishing community in the workplace
  • Structuring teams and groups in non-hierarchical, egalitarian networks that encourage involvement
  • Collaborating (as well as competing)
  • Making decisions by paying attention to process, gathering input and synthesizing perspectives (vs. driving to a goal)
  • Influencing by persuading (vs. commanding)
  • Sharing information, credit and power.

These strengths are named in numerous books on leadership as highly effective ways of leading. Most don’t name them as “feminine” strengths. McKinsey & Company has created a “map” of capabilities it calls “cantered leadership”; McKinsey notes that the capabilities demonstrated in such leadership are found in both men and women, but that the characteristics are “mind-sets and behaviour often considered feminine.”

The workplace values a number of the feminine strengths. Organizations are leveraging relational skills to address the need for connection felt especially by post-Boomer generations. They are utilizing flatter, less hierarchical structures when creativity, innovation and buy-in are important. Good leaders are leveraging both competitive and collaborative skills. They are recognizing that the best decisions come from groups that balance masculine and feminine ways of making decisions.

Defining “masculine” narrowly, the Stanford study suggests that men don’t benefit from exhibiting feminine skills. Using a different and broader set of characteristics, the McKinsey research indicates otherwise. The Stanford study suggests that men have less need to self-monitor and use both masculine and feminine approaches. Common sense, and the work on situational leadership by Hersey and Blanchard, suggest otherwise. Situational leadership theory holds that leaders are most effective if they adopt different leadership styles depending on the task and the people they are leading. Using the masculine-feminine continuum, surely all leaders are more effective if they can demonstrate both masculine and feminine approaches and use the approach most effective in the circumstance.

Can women look feminine? Yes, with some limits. Can women use feminine wiles? Some women can pull this off if they are competent. Can women make it to the top without being assertive and confident? Probably not. Women must master masculine ways, like demonstrating confidence and being assertive and decisive; but women must watch out for the “double bind” and avoid exhibiting these and other masculine ways too often or at the wrong times. Can women make it to the top with feminine skills of synthesizing lots of input, sharing power, and exhibiting relational skills, collaboration and inclusion? Clearly, they can and do—and so do men

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