In the world of work, women have always had to ‘play the game’ to get ahead.
From using their sexual wiles (or ‘leveraging their erotic capital’, as it might now be known!) on the casting couches of Hollywood in the 1950s to acting like ball-busting men to compete for positions of leadership from the 1980s onwards, the common denominator is women playing out roles dictated by someone else’s script. While men have always behaved like men and are applauded and rewarded for embracing their intrinsic skills and capacities, women are often not being true to themselves.
Yes, increasingly, women are being promoted in the workplace and assuming leadership positions, and rightly so, but do all women leaders need to be ball-busters to boot? Is there a different way to be a woman and lead in the workplace? In my work with a large corporate client recently, I’ve been coaching a number of women who have just been promoted, with the overall brief that they need to ‘improve their leadership skills’ and ‘be more visible’ in the company. On asking one of my coachees, ‘D’, a feminine, softly spoken, measured and engaging woman, what ‘visibility’ meant to her, her answer was intriguing. It included ‘being louder’, ‘shouting about my successes’ and ‘saying more in meetings’, all said while she squirmed in her seat.
Clearly, these were things she’d been told that leaders and managers do, and she’d seen this behaviour modelled again and again in the company culture, but felt hugely uncomfortable about the prospect of having to embody it. On top of this, her promotion meant she’d be managing a team, and she wasn’t sure about the best way to do this.
In our sessions together, we worked on bringing to the fore the unique qualities D already possessed that made her a great leader and manager. We explored her life outside of the workplace and it transpired that D was often at the centre of her social scene.
Not in a ‘look at me’ way, but via her incredible ability to connect with people, build rapport, ask questions and embrace new people into her friendship group. In other words, she was expressing a series of natural, feminine qualities – instinct, emotional intelligence, collaboration and warmth – and as a result had unconsciously created a social ecosystem that had evolved and revolved around her.
“Just like running a team, then?” I proffered, and the realisation hit her. Visibility as a leader for her could be about using her natural, feminine skills to engage, value and motivate her team. She didn’t need to be the star of the show but by enabling and rallying others around her, her team would naturally have results to ‘shout about.’ The main benefit for D was that her ‘work self’ ceased to exist because she was just being herself, operating from an authentic, feminine place rather than living in fear of doing things the wrong way.
Thankfully, organisations are waking up to the fact that the softer skills that women naturally possess and employ daily in and outside of the workplace are a valuable asset to their growth and success. And, after decades of ‘playing the game’, women are finally re-learning how to express their femininity and be at ease with it, making for a far more fulfilling life in the office, both for them and the people they lead. And the further payoff for us as women? It also leaves men to get on with being themselves…