This is a question I got while leading a Personal Impact course, from a woman of about 40, a VP in a global bank. She was doing well there, obviously personable and astute. So I was taken aback by the question. I asked her what was behind the question. And the story she told me is the one I have re-told more than any other over the past decade. Here’s what she told me:
‘Where I come from, it’s a cultural thing. We smile. We show people we’re happy, and I used to be like that but about five years ago I was told that I smiled too much, and no-one would take me seriously. So I took the feedback on board: I tried to look more serious, especially in meetings. But then last year I had a performance review, and I was told…’
I usually pause the story here when I retell it, and say ‘Guess what she was told!’. And every time I do, someone anticipates the answer: She was told ‘You need to smile more’.
Now, one way of interpreting this scenario is that the woman in question went from one extreme to the other: at first, she was smiling too much and then she stopped smiling altogether and what she needs to do is find a happy medium.
I don’t interpret it that way, however. I would contend that there probably was no happy medium. As a woman, you either smile too much or not enough. You are too nice or too cold. Too soft or too hard. In the minds of some of the people judging you, there are only two ‘types’: the pliant, unthreatening girl who apologises, laughs off rudeness, and tries to keep everyone happy; the hard-nosed, cold-hearted, ambitious career woman.
It’s tempting to think that this habit of dividing females into two contrasting types is restricted to men. But women do it too sometimes. I’ve often heard women described by other women as humourless, tricky, unsympathetic etc. Often, it’s followed by a comment that this woman has decided to become ‘more like a man’ to get ahead.
But I’m not sure they genuinely are becoming more like men, or even adopting masculine characteristics. What they’ve usually done is to conform to an idea of what a successful, serious woman looks like in the predominantly masculine world where they happen to operate. Of the two stereotypes, the cold, hard, humourless one is the one associated with career success.
It’s different for men. There are lots of different ‘types’ of successful male: the quietly confident guy who’s on top of the detail; the desk-punching, arm waving extrovert who fires up the room; the clubbable teddy bear boss who works all hours and always buys the drinks… so while men may also feel the pressure to conform to certain stereotypes in order to be seen as leadership material there’s more leeway for them to ‘be themselves’.
Although I’ve said that it’s not only men that perpetuate these stereotypes, the onus is on men to overturn them. We’re probably the main offenders and certainly the main beneficiaries of the current situation.
So here are some ideas for what men can do, followed by some for what women can do.
What Men Can Do
If you respect and value your female colleague, tell her explicitly at some point. Don’t leave her guessing. You may have ways of doing this informally with male colleagues – through banter, compliments and bonding. Some women interact in this way naturally, but many don’t. Remember, it’s not just about saying ‘you did a good job’. It’s more about saying ‘I knew you’d do a good job’, or ‘I thought you’d do that well because you’re very…’ The aim is to leave your colleagues secure in the belief that their character is valued, not just their last piece of work. Otherwise, they’re only as good as their last piece of work – and that’s exactly what a lot of them feel. And do this with co-workers who outwardly seem confident, not just ones who appear to need it.
When you find yourself thinking that a woman is not leadership material because she’s too soft/hard/smiley/frowny/nice/nasty etc, stop and ask yourself whether you’re looking for an attribute that is genuinely essential to management success. Or is it an attribute that you’ve come to associate with managers because a lot of managers display it? Maybe excellence looks a bit different in different people.
What Women Can Do
As mentioned above, the decisive changes will come from men, not women. And saying there are ways that some women could sometimes play their cards better shouldn’t be taken to imply that they bring all this on themselves. But there are some things that a woman can do better or worse in a situation that she didn’t create.
The main skill to acquire is assertiveness. It’s a much misunderstood concept. But the key idea is that you’re clear to everyone about the things they need to know, including what you want and expect. You don’t diminish what you’re saying with low status words or body language. Neither do you try to boost the power of your message with a tough or aggressive manner. An assertive person is ‘nice’ because they’re calm, reasonable, and kind. None of that stops them having exacting standards or ambitious goals.
It’s easier said than done, but if you can achieve real clarity then you don’t need added force.