My purpose is to eliminate the “pyramid problem”—my shorthand for the fact that women, who represent half the workforce and entry level positions, represent a smaller and smaller percentage at each higher rung of the corporate ladder. My purpose is to help businesses achieve gender diversity in leadership. In fashioning solutions to this problem, I focus on causes in organizational culture, factors that cause women to stall out, quit climbing or move on. These are factors that leaders must address to solve this problem (and obtain the substantial upside of gender diversity). There are, though, things that women themselves can do to improve their odds of reaching the top.
Much of the literature about gender in the workplace is designed to help women succeed in the masculine world of work. The reason for this approach is clear. Men got to the U.S. workplace first and (naturally) built in in their image. The business world tends to model and value masculine approaches to doing things. Women are relative newcomers. Feminine ways of working and leading are still not mainstream. In fact feminine ways are not associated with leadership. To be heard and seen as leaders, get credit for their accomplishments and advance up the corporate ladder, women must do some “masculine” things: speak up in meetings, act confident, ask for what they want (including raises and promotions), take the risk of seeking “stretch” assignments, and toot their own horn, taking credit for their accomplishments.
For some women, all of this comes naturally. For others, it means learning to operate on the masculine side of the masculine-feminine continuum. But for all women, it means watching out for the “double bind.” Being too feminine doesn’t work. But being “too” masculine doesn’t either. Women who operate too far into the masculine side of the continuum are not liked—and are called a word starting with a “B.” The title to Catalyst’s piece on the double bind says it all, “Damned if you do; doomed if you don’t.” A study by Stanford reports that women with masculine traits, including being 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” (italics for emphasis).
My focus is on changing the workplace, creating enlightened leaders who don’t trap women in double binds. But until all workplaces and leaders are enlightened, women must do all those masculine things. At the same time they must be skilled at knowing when to tone down the masculine. They must be tough, caring, professional, polite, and authentic. That’s a bit like saying that more women can move to the top if they can walk a tightrope, chew gum, give a speech and send text messages! They can!
Have you seen the double bind? To succeed must women be superwomen? Share your thoughts.