Navigating Femininity at Work


workplaceBy Jeri Asaro

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]B[/dropcap]efore I chose to leave the business world to become a teacher, I spent 23 years performing a number of management roles in the publishing and advertising fields. Early on, in my mid-20s (1981), I was promoted to a frontline position, and my immediate team consisted of five men and me. The position was newly created, and the technology that went with it was state-of-the-art. My new clients were all high level, ADULT men on the staff of a well-known, international business publication.

WHOA! I had no idea how to be a manager in a workplace where my team was all men, or how to speak with my male clients daily, and not come across as a small, freshwater fish in the huge, salt water sea! Did I belong or was I about to drown? I wasn't sure they would listen to me! I wasn't sure I had the technical expertise to handle this huge new role. How the heck did "little old ME" get chosen for this job? I was overwhelmed.

Being a woman in the workplace has its extra challenges! Nation's statistics still show that men dominate much of the workforce. As a woman, how do you get ahead and stay true to yourself? Do you have to be more masculine to fit into a business world originally created by men? How much femininity is appropriate? In general, how do you earn the reputation you want to earn?[divider type="dotted" spacing="2"][divider type="dotted" spacing="5"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]n my life, I've had countless bosses. Interestingly enough, I've probably had an equal amount of men and women leaders in my life. Many of them were "middle of the road" superiors. A few have been truly excellent, especially the two working with me now.

But, I've had two who were simply terrible. They were nice enough women outside the office, but terribly mean managers– even scary, and I do not scare easily! Both were women who entered the workforce in the same time period I did. They were fighting to the top when the fight was much harder than it is now. Maybe these women thought they needed to take on those masculine traits to make it to the top? Is it possible their journey to success may have taken a little longer if they had used a more "feminine" or balanced approach? In their seasoned years, as their careers are coming to a close, I am certain they would rather be highly respected, than feared.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

Many times, when talking about life and death, I have heard people ask, "How do you want to be remembered?" Maybe it would be a good idea to transfer that life and death question into a "work" question? At work, how would you want others to remember  you?

Think of it this way. If you could hear your boss in upper management's office, fighting for a raise for you, what would you want that boss to be able to say about you as an employee? Chances are, none of the items on your list have anything to do with your femininity. To do a job well, you don't have to do it like a man, you have to do it by using your natural qualities and gifts, in the most professional way.

I bet this list of traits are some of the ones you would long to hear in that conversation:

  • a team player, who can deal with conflict
  • organized and meticulous
  • a go-getter, who exhibits self-confidence
  • one who lives with integrity, and displays respect towards others
  • trustworthy, fair, consistent, and one who employs follow-through
  • a creative thinker, with a vision for the future
  • a good listener, as well as a strong communicator
  • one who is willing to make a decision, and remains responsible for the outcome

None of these behaviors are masculine or feminine; they are HUMAN. If you bring these characteristics to the table, you can learn to nurture a team, motivate others, properly delegate work, and negotiate with the other side. You can be an effective leader or mentor.[divider type="dotted" spacing="2"][divider type="dotted" spacing="5"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]S[/dropcap]ometimes, our own mindset gets in the way of reality. Don't assume you're seen as a "just" a woman. Remember the adage about assuming... If what you're doing/believing is not working, try something different, so the results change. You earned your position because you're the best candidate for the job, so live up to that role. Be the best. If you are, it will not matter if you're a man or a woman. Your professionalism and expertise will speak for itself. Have confidence. Instead of complaining that a certain procedure is too cumbersome, think of a solution and put forth an idea. Even if it is shot down, you have shown you're thinking ahead. Try something different!

There are behaviors that employers will look down upon, and are often amplified by the fact.

Allowing your personal life to intrude on your professional life, by talking about it too often or letting it prevent you from doing your best, makes your priorities look unbalanced. Work is work; stay focused. Seeing only one side to the situation when three or more perspectives are available makes you look stubborn and pig-headed.  [divider type="short" spacing="10"]

Taking constructive criticism personally, rather than taking it for what it actually is, makes you look like a big "baby." "Stirring the pot" with gossip or inflammatory information shows a "mean girl" streak. Making unreasonable demands and showing little compassion demonstrates your "bitchy" side. Being moody and make people feel they need to walk on eggshells around you, makes you look like "PMS" has hit. Creating "drama" where there is no need for it only makes you look like a "queen" who wants attention.

Now, I can name as many men, as I can name women, who have these tendencies, but when women do it, it somehow, unfortunately, reflects badly on all women.[divider type="dotted" spacing="2"][divider type="dotted" spacing="5"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]ay back in the early 1980s, I had to figure out how to work closely for 50-60 hour work weeks, with all men and get them to listen to me. The way I earned their respect is the same way they would've earned my respect if the roles has been reversed. I had patience; I treated them in the same way I hoped they would treat me. Having a sense of humor and not being too sensitive helped! I listened well to their ideas. I knew my facts and learned the intricacies of how to get the job done, so I could jump in and help, and I could speak about the work from a knowledge perspective. I gave credit to them when the job was done well, and took the blame when there was a problem because ultimately, I was the boss. Believe it or not, in time, I learned to smile, relax, and laugh with them, and they with me! We were able to get the job done, successfully. We were a team.

Slowly, the roles of men and women, on all fronts, are changing. Men now more readily stay home and care for the children; women are the breadwinners of the household; opposites attract. Where one partner might be concrete, the other is more abstract. The traditionally masculine and feminine traits are melding together. In the workplace, you don't need to imitate a man, you just need to be able to get along with him and earn his respect. Maybe when we as women stop thinking about the gender roles, men will follow our lead? Bring your best traits to the table, and let them speak for themselves.

Act professionally. Success will follow!