Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Man Up in the work place

"Stop being such a dude!"... "Stop being so girly!" Both of these statements have been said to me many times, used in their respective context. If I act aggressively or utter a curse word, I am often told I should act more lady-like. If I become emotional, I'm told to "man up." While it may be obvious that I would be offended by statements of this nature, I recently read an article by Sharon Meers in which she suggested that to have a better and more efficient working environment, women should act more like "men."

In her article, Meers explains that women, including tenured professors and leaders in business, medicine, and law, have a tendency to follow societal standards, which put them in positions where they are overlooked or dismissed. Meers explains, women professionals tend to:
... tilt our heads and smile encouragingly because we've been socialized to think this is the polite thing to do. And we wait patiently for our turn to speak. And don't retaliate when interrupted.
As a result, we lose our voices in the discussion and the value which comes with a different perspective or, in some cases, the correct analysis. Thus, it is we women who perpetuate the norms which cause unhappiness and tension between men and women and cause inefficiency in the work place, when women cannot forcefully offer their opinions and solutions. To alleviate this tension, Meers suggests that women act more like men by being aggressive and taking control.

Meers article offers compelling ideas and solutions to women being overlooked in the workplace, including the idea that to be heard you have to demand an audience and the idea that to change a stereotype you have to act in its opposition. However, I find Meers' analysis and solution incomplete. There is a clear discrepancy in the way males and females are treated in professional environments, but should the solution really be for women to act more like men?

I acknowledge that to be heard you must demand an audience. But Meers suggestion that women resort to "male" tactics, which include behavior like interrupting and having no shame in expressing your opinion, even when you are ill-prepared for the discussion, ignores a bigger issue: that even when women bring compelling arguments and opinions they must resort to "male" tactics to be heard.

I can appreciate the argument that, to destroy gender stereotypes, females must adopt traits that are often associated with men, so that it becomes a gender neutral trait. However, I don't agree that becoming a man in a "man's world" will help produce a better and more efficient working environment. This solution not only perpetuates the value we place on the male opinion and character traits, but completely overlooks the problem we are trying to solve.

We want women to be heard, not simply because we are women, but because we are intelligent people and can offer valuable perspectives, opinions, and solutions. Aggressive or not, we should be concerned that being an expert in your field is not good enough and you can and often will be ignored because of your gender.

Although Meers' solution may offer a more immediate response to women feeling overlooked and dismissed, another solution may be to revamp working environments so that well-reasoned opinions and substantive arguments are highly valued, regardless of whether they are presented by a woman or man. When it comes to efficiency, especially when it comes to the bottom-line in businesses, it may be better to shift the focus away from gender. The problem isn't that women aren't aggressive enough, but that businesses and our society are willing to ignore well-reasoned opinions and solutions to maintain gender-based societal expectations.


gtg263r said...

In Sharon Meer's original article, Deborah Gruenfeld, a Stanford Business School Professor in Leadership, stated, "[W]hat feels natural is just over-learned, and [] different work roles call for different kinds of physical actions, regardless of gender. To succeed in a hierarchy, you need to be able to play both high and low. There are real benefits to both."

I think this is a key point for this discussion. I would agree that disassociating gender stereotypes from certain personality traits would be a good thing. Not inconsistent with this position, I would argue that these "female" personality traits are not, and should not, be considered undesirable in the workplace.

I analyze my own interpersonal exchanges on a regular basis to maintain and improve my own interpersonal skills, and I think that different situations require different responses. These responses may range from aggressive physical displays (playing hardball in a settlement conference) or something more nuanced (such as picking up on a coworker's mood and adjusting your interactions accordingly).

Moreover, as Professor Gruenfeld mentions, I also think that power dynamics in any given interpersonal situation will dictate the appropriate range of behavioral responses. This power dynamic could be altered by other factors such as your actual, personal relation to the other person.

In short, I think that both "male" (aggressiveness) and "female" (humility) traits would prove very useful in any business setting, but one must know how to utilize them in the appropriate circumstances.

Rebecca said...

I can remember back to my work-life in the 1980’s. At that time, it was suggested that women dress, more like a man. The solution was called a Power Suit. The phrase was first coined in the 1980s and refers to the exaggerated shoulder pads and skirt suits worn by American businesswomen to make them more like men and more "visible" in the workplace.
When I was elected to the state legislature, I was frequently asked if it was possible for a woman in politics today to be feminine in her dress and still be taken seriously? I frequently took heat in the press about my cute shoes and my colorful suits.
Is it possible for a business-woman to reveal her sexuality and not lose authority? My answer is a qualified yes. Though Condoleezza Rice's sexy black boots and Hillary Clinton's hemlines were front-page news, I think we are at a crossroads in the acceptable expression of modern women’s style in business. We are not quite at a new moment in history in which women can redefine power and politics expressed through our individual style of dress. But we, as women, are at least in a more powerful position to define our business identities without the constraints of the Power Suit uniform of the past. We don't have to look or act more like a man we just have to continue to produce value.

Betty said...

This is a pressing concern for me, and I'd imagine a lot of our classmates, as females in a professional school working toward a professional degree to . . . well, become a professional. We've come a long way in this day and age since the times were women were forbidden from wearing pants in the workplace and women have indeed far risen beyond the point of secretarial work and the like.

But with the rise of the modern-day working woman, despite Meer's concerns that we should "man up," comes the notion of a double edged sword. On one hand - women may or may not get more respect by acting more "manly" or by conforming to more masculine standards, but on the other hand is the issue of whether or not they should be treated differently if they are to go on maternity leave, or if they turn down a promotion because of scheduling conflicts where they need to be home more with their children.

2elle said...

This is a big concern for me as well. I would like to work in a field that requires me to do a lot of trial work and I find myself wondering how to strike the right balance of being assertive enough to be taken seriously, yet not "too much". I think men are fortunate in that they don't have to worry about this as much. The more assertive, the better - that seems to be the policy for guys.

As Rebecca noted, another issue for women is professional clothing. I don't understand why a skirt suit is considered more "formal" than a pants suit for women. The common advice given to female law students is to wear a skirt suit at an interview if you want to look more formal. It's frustrating for me because how is it not formal enough when that's what men always wear!