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Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, Work like a boss

In spite of advances towards integrating women in corporate leadership, the workplace continues to be a very hostile place for many women.

More often, women are expected to forget who they are and their values when they enter the work arena. Many of us would remember the uproar caused in August 2015, when a well-known company made as part of its campaign a poster with the famous words in the title above. For many women, this was a slap in the face, that woke us up to the reality that it will be some while before women are taken seriously and gain the respect they deserve in the work place. The message that was so well communicated in this campaign presupposed that, the way they are, women are not good enough. To be accepted,  they needed to think, look and act in ways that betrayed their authentic selves. This in my view was also a reminder to women to not forget who they are in the eyes of society – that no matter what positions they might be in – they are still girls!

The sentiments raised by this campaign are no surprise, as the stereotypes there in reflect the daily experiences of many women in the work place.  Indeed, such stereotypes are not just a corporate problem, but one that is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society. Growing up in a patriarchal family and a traditional rural village, I have come to know who calls the shots at home and in society and what is expected of me as a ‘good’ woman. I have been taught that when important decisions are made, the women should step aside and allow men to handle them. These cultural norms, ways of thinking and behaving are carried over into the workplace by both the males and women. Research time and again shows that the woman enters a workplace where the structures, processes and practices are heavily biased towards men.  As such many times we find ourselves tempted to behave and handle ourselves in these ‘acceptable’ ways, for the work arena is an extension of these very societal stereotypes. The culture in many work spaces is organised and dominated by men’s ideas and world view.

Whilst women are not a homogeneous group, many believe they have to work twice harder than their male counterparts to be recognised in their workplaces. This is well illustrated by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, “The Confidence Code”. One of the female leaders they engaged in writing this book was the defense-industry pioneer, Linda Hudson who was at the time the CEO of BAE Systems. In their interview with her, Linda told them that “even in the position I am [in] now, everyone’s first impression is that I’m not qualified to do the job…When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise.” Thus for women, to be recognised, they have to fight stereotypes such as these which undermine them on a daily basis. Some of these include treating women as subordinates, excluding them from certain jobs on the basis that they are women, lack of recognition for their work, gifts and leadership styles.  Similarly, it is not uncommon to find that when women come up with exciting and innovative ideas, these often land on the desks of men. Their male counterparts, who are seen as more knowledgeable and have what it takes to get the idea far enough, either volunteer or are appointed to lead these innovative ideas.  When they are not allocated to men, women’s ideas often get overlooked. I myself have been in many meetings, where a man had to repeat what I have just said for that idea to be taken seriously.

The extent to which women have been able to unlearn and resist the societal stereotypes assigned to them, determine whether they are going to survive and overcome the workplace challenges they face. The default response by many women is simply keeping quiet, whilst dying slowly from within, for it is expected of them as ‘good girls’ to submit. This and other factors in the culture of the organisation affect women’s confidence in themselves and in their work. The result is that many women are unable to assert themselves at work, allowing themselves to be continuously interrupted as well as being apologetic for their views[1].  This amounts to what is referred to as ‘ internalised oppression’, where oppressed people behave in line with ways that are predetermined or created for them as a group. In an attempt to protect themselves and to ensure they live up to the expectation, many women leaders find that the only way to be influential in the boardroom is to ‘lead like a man’. This approach while good in the short term means they are not able to act from a place of authenticity and hence often find this very stressful.

It is also true that some women are finding their inner voice and courage to confront and challenge these workplace stereotypes. This pushback is not always appreciated as it disrupts old practices and underlying values that have always been seen as normal. For such women, they often find themselves in confrontation not only with those they dare challenge but institutional stereotypes as well. At the same time, assertive women are labelled as aggressive, bitchy and unpleasant.

If women are to make head ways in the work space, stereotypes such as those discussed above  cannot be allowed to continue without a challenge. The work place needs to be transformed to ensure that women are free to live their values and use their gifts, without feeling the pressure to conform to an environment that continuously suppresses them. We need to go beyond numbers and compliance to understanding the underlying drivers of the unacceptable cultural behaviors in our Organisation. How is your workplace doing in moving beyond numbers and compliance to enabling a transformed environment where women can be truly authentic?

[1]Jill Flynn, (2014) Harvard Business Review.

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