To change or not to change your style in a man's world

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Inge Woudstra talks female leadership in today's business world.

Many women are working hard to progress in their career and get to the top. But it’s not easy to get ahead and what is the best way? The corporate world is a man's world, with systems, structures and policies that work particularly well for men. So should women change their style to 'fit in' to this world to get ahead? 

I believe asking women to adapt to a world designed for man is like asking a fish to climb a tree. You may adapt, and you may well get to the top, but it will take you time and cost you energy. Meanwhile you risk losing your authentic self and your particularly female strengths in the process. A double whammy: you and your organisation lose out.

We are taught to fit in - it brings success

Many women do adapt though, and it can actually be highly effective. Margaret Thatcher is probably a good example and if you look around you at work it will probably not be hard to find some examples. You may even have adapted yourself. 

When women start working they usually put their head down and focus on the job at hand. After a number of years they start to notice that their male peers are doing better. They wonder what has happened and learn to broadcast their achievements, build their profile and ask for what they want; making sure they 'lean in', are visible and are at the table. Indeed many women’s leadership programmes teach women exactly those things.

The costs of fitting in

Unfortunately there are some downsides when you adapt. First of all, it takes time to learn. At age four many of my son’s conversations in the playground revolved around whose dad was stronger, had a bigger car or a better job. These conversations have now become more subtle and I am sure by the time he enters the workforce it will just come natural to him to drop his achievements casually into a pleasant conversation. His female colleagues will be many years behind. 

Not only does it take time to learn new behaviour, it also takes energy and makes you feel inauthentic. You risk gradually losing yourself in the process and looking at yourself in a number of years wondering who you have become. This is the moment many women drop out or change careers to something more meaningful. Fitting in requires those fish to grow arms, and meanwhile they almost forget how to use their gills. 

Focus on your strengths

So what can you do? How can you be yourself and still progress in your career? Is it even possible? The solution can be found in focusing on your strengths. Most women bring particular strengths. Women's brains, psychology and hormones differ from those of men and therefore are inclined to prefer certain types of behaviours. These behaviours can actually add value to a team. As a result women tend to direct their attention to the big picture and the impact on others. Typical questions you may see women ask are, 'Which projects like this were done before?' 'Who can help me find best practices?' 'Who can help me solve this issue?' 'How will our new direction impact on our clients and our suppliers?' 'What will happen if we implement faster and who could help me find that information?' 

These questions lead to better solutions that have buy-in and are easier to implement. This usually female way of working adds value to the organisation. 

Do you recognise yourself in this? Does this describe your way of thinking? Or do you have other strengths associated with big picture thinking and focus on people. 

It is well worth finding out what you do that brings value. Ask yourself:

  • How does my way of working differ from that of my male colleagues?
  • What are the strengths that I have that my male colleagues do not?
  • What does that mean for our results, our clients, our costs and the way I contribute?

Speak up about your way of working

Unfortunately women’s strengths aren’t necessarily seen or recognised in a world designed for men. Your concerns about others and questions about the bigger picture may be seen as diverting attention from the point and delaying vital decisions and deadlines.

You need to get them on your side by spending more time explaining what you do. Clearly state before you start a role, project or task what you aim to achieve, and how you will go about it, so your colleagues and manager can see that you are working to the end-result like they are, for example: 'First I will gather data from IT managers who have done this before, this way we will save time in implementation and can still meet our deadline.'

As you can see, it is worth forgetting about fitting in and focus on your strengths instead. Once you know what your strengths are, and you have found ways of making visible that your way does add value, nothing can stop you. It is endlessly more powerful to focus on your strengths than to work on your shortcomings and more fun too. Don’t grow arms, swim!

Inge Woudstra is the author of ‘Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women’. She trains women in making the most of their gender differences, and works with managers teaching them how to flex their management approach by gender. She has two decades of experience working in international business in consultancy, research and management roles. If you would like to know more about gender differences and how they can help women find their strengths, watch this video

About Inge Woudstra

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