Sometimes women feel that they have to go against gender to succeed. Photo: Shutterstock

Wednesday 6th January 2016

Manning up

Do women have to act like men to succeed in the workplace?

There’s a fine line for women at work. If they act too much like a man, then they’re too bitchy and can lose support. But if they act too much like a woman, they’re ‘not leadership material’.

It’s hard for women because the systems, culture and policies of the workplace were, essentially, designed for men. Asking women to be successful in a workplace can be like asking a fish to climb a tree.

Women do adapt and ‘act more like a man’ to get ahead. That works for some women, but many other women just feel inadequate or excluded. Others feel inauthentic and plateau in their career or leave altogether.

It may seem to you that you have no alternative. It seems logical that if you want to advance in your career, you need to adapt to what is expected.

But some women are succeeding by being Gender Smart: being aware of the differences between men and women and applying that awareness at work.

You don’t have to be like a man to succeed. Here are five tips to help you be Gender Smart. These will not just help you to survive, but could actually help you to thrive in your career.

  1. Speak up about your observations

Men and women pick up different signals. We do not hear and see the same. Women pick up more facial and body signals than men. They are more inclined to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and tend to have a focus on people. Men pick up signals too, but those signals are usually linked to danger (of their position). They are more inclined to look at a situation objectively and have a focus on data and ‘hard’ facts.

This means that your observations are unique. No one else sees what you see. If you do not speak up a vital point of view is lost, and your team and organisation might miss out.

  1. Highlight the value of your contribution

Women can achieve the same as men, but they often take a different way to the target. The way women work can be as effective, however it is often not seen and not valued. A consultative style of working may not look like ‘strong leadership’ and is less visible. Often, results will be attributed to ‘the team’ rather than the leader.

If you have a consultative style then you need to talk about your way of working. It’s about making sure people understand what you did that led to a good end-result, so you get the credit as well as the team.

  1. Frame your way of working

The preferred way in which many women work is different, and is often not trusted or is seen as not credible. Many women, for instance, have a preference for seeing the bigger picture. They like to ask questions about the ‘why’ and look at the consequences of a decision or action. Their questions seem ‘not to the point’ to many men.

If this is you, then you need to explain your apparent ‘lack of focus’. It’s important you explain where you are coming from, and what the expected results of your approach can be.

Your route may be obvious to you, but it often is not to the people (especially men) around you. If you explain more, you can take people with you and it will be easier for them to trust the route you take.

  1. Ask for the leadership support you need

Managers are often unaware of what women need to perform best as it can differ from what men need, and from what is seen as ‘good management’.

You need to be vocal and explicit about what you need from your manager. Ask yourself how you get motivated, how you like to be challenged, what kind of feed-back helps you to feel valued. Then find ways to communicate this to your manager.

  1. Join a peer network

Women find security in groups of friends. For many women, sharing experiences helps them to keep up morale and get inspired.

Try joining a peer network, or just start your own monthly dinner group. Use it as a place to vent, share experiences and exchange ideas. For most women it can be powerful to feel recognition and the validation of their feelings by others.

It may help you feel that you are normal, and can be a great way to get inspired and boost confidence.

Starting Point

None of the tips I have given you are easy, as it really is about changing your mind set, your self-awareness and your behaviour.

The best place to start is with yourself and the people around you. Just start observing. Notice what kind of things you tend to do. How do you work? How do you get to results?

Then observe how others do things. That will help you determine where your strengths are, and what your contribution and way of working is.

Only when you yourself have a clear picture of how you work can you start speaking up about your observations, highlight your value and frame your actions.

And of course, sharing some of your observations with peers can help along the way.

About the author

Inge Woudstra

Inge is the author of Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women.