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Suppressing Your Feminine Side May Be Bad for Business

November 11, 2010

Written by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

About 15 years ago a woman I barely knew, the wife of a coworker, was listening to me describe the challenges I faced at Hewlett Packard. “You’re not using your feminine power!” she suddenly pronounced, as if she’d just discovered the cause of some mysterious chronic illness I’d been suffering from for a lifetime. My first reaction was, “Use my feminine power? I sure hope not!” Since I was obviously perplexed, she further explained that this included nurturing behaviors like bringing food and drinks to meetings, and expressing other characteristics that I’ve heard described as “soft skills” by HR pros. I guessed I missed that in the job description.

You see, I was working in high-tech, and for over a decade I’d painstakingly stamped out any semblance of femininity in my work. After earning a masters degree in physics, a field in which women are almost as scarce as on-time schedules, I’d entered the high-tech engineering world, a profession with an equally abysmal track record of attracting women. Why on earth would I want to associate myself  – in any way – with anything female in my work? I was sure I would appear weak and ineffective to my colleagues, and quite possibly my salary would decrease.

Maybe I was being a little paranoid, but until recently, I have done my best to ignore the gender issue in my career. I’ve steered clear of “radical feminism,” and I most certainly didn’t want to be perceived as “nurturing.” However, this past year I’ve been working on a book project, Scrappy Women in Business, which prompted me to reflect on the role of women in the workplace, and my own experience as a female in a predominantly male work environment. As a result of this, and the changing nature of the work environment, I’ve come to value what my wife’s colleague called my “feminine power.” But my initial hesitancy wasn’t completely unfounded, given the research on women in the workplace.

Even If I’m Not Nurturing, Chances Are People Will Think I Am

It turns out that it might not matter whether I am nurturing or not – being a woman, it’s likely that I will be perceived as nurturing by CEOs and other top executives. Catalyst, the leading global nonprofit dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business, published a study in 2005 under the intriguing title “Women Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed. Their research demonstrated that, although women and men often lead in similar ways, they are perceived very differently by both male and female senior executives. Regardless of the reality, women are perceived to be better at supporting and rewarding while men are perceived to be better at delegating and influencing upward.

Unfortunately, these unconscious biases impact the perception of competence and fitness for promotion, though with the growing emphasis on teamwork and collaboration these days, I’m not sure in which direction. It turns out that female versions of leadership improve bottom line business results. Companies with higher proportion of women on their top management teams enjoyed 35% greater ROE (Return on Equity) than those with the lowest.

The Road to the Top Winds Uphill All the Way

Is there gender bias at work in the business world in general? I have no real way of knowing whether there is bias in the process, but I do know that there is a difference in the outcome – the participation and compensation of women relative to men. The measurable data from Catalyst certainly demonstrate a disparity, with less than 3% of Fortune 500 Women CEOs.

The causes no longer interest me. Making and measuring progress does. What’s measured tends to get attention, and frequently improves. Good intentions or accidental bias can no longer be acceptable as a defense for inequitable results. After all, if I accidentally run you over and land you in the hospital, you’re just as injured as if I’d driven purposely in your direction with intent to harm.

If Being More Nurturing Will Increase Project Success, Bring on the Nurturing!

I was educated as a scientist, and if I were just looking at past data I’d conclude that expressing my so-called feminine side in the high-tech business world would put me at a bit of a disadvantage. But that’s kind of like driving while only gazing into the rearview mirror. With almost everyone hating their jobs, increased emphasis on collaboration, and the coming shortfall in skilled workers, I’m thinking that a more nurturing work environment is going to be a competitive advantage.

©2010 Kimberly M. Wiefling. All Rights Reserved.

About Kimberly Wiefling

Kimberly Wiefling is a globally recognized author and business leadership consultant specializing in helping people achieve what seems impossible, but is merely difficult.  She is the author of one of the top project management books in the US, “Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces”, growing in popularity around the world, and published in Japanese by Nikkei Business Press.  She’s the executive editor of the whole series of Scrappy Guides, and recently published Scrappy Women in Business and Scrappy General Management. The founder of Wiefling Consulting, LLC, she consults to global business leaders committed to solving global problems profitably.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 11:54 am

    Great post Kimberly! The downside to business as usual is seeing people steer clear of natural talents that are for some reason not valued. We are all different and that means we all have the ability to use our differences as strengths in the workplace.

    I have never shied away from my nurturing helpful side, just like I don’t shy away from my ability to work independently or be a leader. Everyday I look for a way to help someone else through my business. This has kept me loving what I do.

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