Last fall, while working with corporate women across various industries, job levels and generations, an age-old issue re-emerged at near-fever pitch. Women were obsessed about being labelled a “bitch”, and to a degree I hadn’t seen since the 1990s.
Be succinct: Assert your leadership.
The reason for their nervousness? Sure, they saw obnoxious women on reality TV shows. And they endured all the talk-show lampooning of Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign. Yet one issue was even more personal: A recession was in full swing, and jobs were on the line.
As one woman put it, “Even in this day and age, a guy barks out an order and he is treated like someone who is in charge and a leader. But when a woman communicates in the exact same way, she’s immediately labelled assertive, dominating, aggressive and overbearing.”
Today, women make up half the workforce, and half the enrolment at medical and law schools in the US. With numbers such as these, you’d think that women could finally relax and stop worrying about how they are being perceived at the office.
But women must still deal with a well-entrenched double standard when it comes to gender-acceptable behaviour. Because of that, they often fall victim to self-defeating actions that can undercut their careers.
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They may assume a strident command-and-control approach or else turn passive—by clamming up, being indirect, failing to ask for what they want or need, and refusing to delegate junior-level tasks and responsibilities.
Consider one of my clients, whose male subordinate had botched a financial analysis. Though he was at fault, she was reluctant to tell him how badly he had done because of how she would be perceived. Instead of asking him to redo the assignment, she planned to fix the report herself.
One study from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard gave participants descriptions of men and women with equivalent qualifications who had applied for a fictitious job. When told that some candidates had tried to negotiate for a higher salary, the study participants—whether men or women—found fault at twice the rate with the women who negotiated than with the men who negotiated. Translation? Pushy women are less likely to be hired. So how can women stay strong and in control, given this narrower band of acceptable behaviour? They can start by revamping their communication style, resisting the extremes of acting like a bull in a china shop or being as quiet as a mouse.
When I suggest to women that they make communication adjustments, there's often a huge pushback. “Why do we have to change? It’s not fair,” they tell me. And they are right. But as long as the stereotypes remain all-powerful and are perpetuated by men and women alike, it’s necessary to navigate them.
A key to deflecting the stereotypes is learning to communicate in ways that tap into our best selves—in terms of expertise and personality—and to connect through a compelling combination of warmth and strength. A communication tune-up can go a long way towards building rapport when coupled with techniques such as being conversational, conveying a message in a specific and succinct way, and using humour, direct eye contact and a firm voice.
In the case of my client, I advised her to take a risk and to assert her leadership by approaching her colleague with something like: “I know you worked really hard on this, but the numbers in the first section don’t add up. If I present your report to my boss and his boss as is, it’s going to make us both look very bad. So I need you to redo the analysis, staying as long as is necessary until it’s right. But first, let’s go over it so you can see the mistakes.”
Ultimately, women must be more mindful and use greater finesse when conveying their messages. We need to become better chameleon communicators and to carefully read our audience, adjusting our style to the circumstances.
Let me be clear. I’m not asking you to give up your soul—but rather to exercise new communication muscles so you can be heard in a variety of situations by a wide range of people.
The ultimate goal: for them to get the message without wanting to get back at you.
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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