Women possess the smarts and skills to succeed in any job.
But here’s the catch (and one reason its taken so long for women to break through): There is a double standard so that the same behaviours that help men get ahead and prove their worth on the job are discouraged in women.
In a Stanford University research project, people (of both sexes) were asked to list desirable adjectives for men and women. The answers re desirable male traits were all about being assertive, dominant, independent and decisive. Those are all traits that both genders should prize. But the desirable traits listed for women were all about relationships: loyal, compassionate, warm, cheerful, soft-spoken.
This creates enormous fears in women: we are afraid of being too assertive, we are afraid of not being good enough and we live with an all-purpose anxiety.
Aside from the office and career anxieties everyone faces, women have specific work-related fears that centre on the paradox of maintaining relationships and remaining “feminine” while still doing a good job.
These are the fears of ambition and assertiveness.
According to psychiatrist Anna Fels:
At each historical juncture where women have achieved access to social influence and recognition – legal and political rights, educational opportunities, career options – their capacity to be “real women” has been impugned
Fels also notes the barrage of fear-mongering magazine articles and news stories that imply women have to chose between being a professional and being a good wife and / or mother.
The internalisation of this fear begins at an early age. Girls begin life with just as much ambition as boys, but they slowly lose steam in adolescence, right when self-consciousness about gender roles begins to seep in.
The result is that women get the message loud and clear that ambition isn’t feminine. Even when women are able to continue dreaming big, there’s still a difference between the way our successes and those of men are received. When women succeed, we are much more likely than men to be uncomfortable with public acknowledgement of our success. We shuck off accolades – and any advancement that comes with them.
Indeed, when Fels began researching the role of ambition in women’s lives, she found that the women she interviewed hated the very word ambition:
For them ambition necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-agrandizement or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. None of them would admit to being ambitious.
Instead the constant refrain was “Its not me; its the work”…Clearly, these accomplished women were caught up in some sort of fear.
According to Fels:
The underlying problem has to do with cultural ideals of femininity. Women face the reality that to appear feminine, they must provide or relinquish scarce resources to others – and recognition is a scarce resource.
Although women have more opportunities than ever before, they still come under social scrutiny that make hard choices – such as when and whether to start a family or advance in the workplace – even harder.
The concept of femininity also interferes with a woman’s ability to be assertive and aggressive.
We so want to be liked that we worry about alienating people, so we often try to get what we want behind the scenes while still being careful to avoid seeming manipulative and disingenuous. Its nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back and undermines our authenticity.
Fear of sticking our necks out because of how we’ll be perceived often causes us to sabotage our careers. And the consequences of stifling ourselves aren’t just financial. For example, Gail Evans, who worked her way from talk show booker to executive vice president of CNN, making her at the time the highest-ranking woman in broadcast journalism, says that even after she made it to the top of her field, she was still afraid to speak-up at meetings. Instead, she’d let other people get credit for her ideas.
You’d think, as much power as I have there, that I could be comfortable saying anything…but I still hold back, I’m constantly censoring myself. And it’s always a man who beats you to the punch.
Karen Samuelsohn author of How To Succeed in Business Without A Penis observed that:
Men are more often warriors and women, worriers
Women want to be liked. This is something that starts very early on in life. They’ve done studies with little girls and little boys, and having lots of little girlfriends around us is very important to us. It doesn’t go away when we get to be big girls, either.
Guys know that in business nice guys finish last; girls don’t know if nice girls finish last or if pushy, aggressive girls finish last.
We should, though. All we have to do is look at the science. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that:
agreeable people tend to self-sacrifice and compromise their own interests in order to make other people happy
If you’re still not convinced, ask Lois P. Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International and author of the book Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers.
She warns against acting “like a nice little girl” instead of an adult woman, and advises against acting obedient, asking permission and being the last to speak – all nice and polite traits but likely to get you branded as a lightweight.
So the choice that many women see in the workplace is (a) be nice and demure, and just hope that someone notices and gives you a promotion, or (b) be assertive, get labeled pushy and aggressive, and hope you advance before becoming too hated. As most women know, it doesn’t take too much to get labeled pushy and aggressive.
Who is responsible for this double standard – men or women?
However it began, the answer right now is both. Deeply ingrained cultural ideals of femininity make it much harder for women to own up fearlessly to their ambitions and pursue them without apology. We pay the price in opportunity, achievement, success and satisfaction.
Ultimately, to be fearless at work means to find a sense of self-determination, accomplishment, fulfillment and purpose that help us live our best lives.
In case you were wondering, The Escape Artist did not write the piece above.
It was written by Arianna Huffington, a woman, mother of 2 daughters, author and the entrepreneur businesswoman that co-founded The Huffington Post.
The section was taken from Fearless which you may have seen on my list of life changing books…I think of it as a woman’s equivalent to Steve Biddulph’s book Manhood.
Just as I said about Dr Robert Glover’s Nice Guy theory, this is not absolute truth…its just Arianna Huffington’s point of view.
Which, I hope you will agree, she is entitled to. Arianna strikes me as a smart, effective and capable woman (rather than a Nice Girl). I invite you to consider the possibility that she might know a bit about the subject.
Huffington is not anti-men just as Dr Glover is not anti-women. And I don’t see any contradiction between what they wrote. One is offering some advice to men to up their game, the other is offering some advice to women to up their game.
In case you hadn’t yet realised, this is a game where you’re allowed to support both teams. If you see the world through a frame of male vs female gender wars where one sex can only “win” if the other loses, you’re going to be miserable throughout life. And not very good in the sack either, if you know what I mean.
One of the things that I like about Huffington’s piece is that she avoids the temptation to focus on blame. That’s probably because she’s a practical businesswoman interested in finding workable solutions to problems. There is no pretense of easy magic wand solutions for issues with deep roots in our cultural history and biology. The focus is on what women (and men) can control…their own thoughts and actions.
Huffington also offers a few tips on exercise as a path to fearlessness, encouraging women to run, swim, bike, hike, do yoga or hit the gym. I couldn’t agree more. Doing that stuff is not a chore, its a life-hack for becoming more confident, assertive and successful.
I’ve highlighted this because it resonated with me and with the real life experience I’ve gained through giving financial coaching. In those coaching sessions, I’ve seen plenty of highly intelligent women (and men) that have a touch of Nice Girl (or Nice Guy) syndrome about them. I’ve helped many of them become more assertive and stand up for themselves. Not to mention helping them get paid a shit load more money.
It was one of those female clients that recently challenged me to write another version of my previous Nice Guy article, but this time for women. At the time, I made some excuse about not having the relevant biological credentials. But I reflected on it and I think she had a great point.
Having said that, I decided that the article comes better from a women like Ariana Huffington.
If reading this has made you angry, please feel free to leave comments on your own blog or over at Arianna’s website. Good luck with that.
But, if any of this resonated with you, I’d encourage you to read Fearless which is an excellent book.
You’re welcome 😉