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Should women behave like men at work?

Last updated on: March 30, 2010 11:33 IST

After many years in the corporate world, I believe there is some unfortunate truth to the statement by New YorkUniversity professor Clay Shirky that women should "behave more like men" to get ahead in the world.

I have time and time again been completely annoyed in meetings when male colleagues self-grandiose, pontificate, obsessively dominate the conversation, and frankly to me act like narcissistic fools. But, the truth is that many of these tactics pay off: when you dominate a meeting, it is your point of view that is most heard.

The friendly, over-considerate shy person may have phenomenally intelligent things to say, but without being assertive and speaking up, they are left in the dark. And it goes far beyond simply talking too much.

What shocks me most is how many of my male colleagues can say absolutely nothing of value, but do so in such an authoritative way that others around will listen and believe what they are saying is something to pay attention to. Combine this with constant paraphrasing, building on what others have said, and making small mundane points seem like very important topics, and you have the perfect corporate get-ahead strategy.
Most interesting though, is how the average man in the workplace seems to care less what others think (or at least makes it come across this way). Time and time again I see male colleagues give a point of view that is completely shot down in a meeting, but not seem affected in the least.

Even if they are shot down in an embarrassing way, ten minutes later they will pipe up with yet another comment. I've noticed women colleagues, on the other hand, would retract and think twice before asserting their point of view in similar situations. Does this come from women simply being more self-aware, or are men really just not as affected by other people's perceptions of them?
One of my favorite explanations comes from the book The Female Brain by Dr Louann Brizendine. The overall thesis of this book is that women and men are biologically different, and these biological differences lead to obviously different behaviours. A poignant example given is of an experiment conducted on small children.

Mothers were asked to take their 12-month-old son or daughter into a barren room with nothing but a table and an object placed upon it. The children were all given instructions not to touch anything in the room. It was noticed that very few of the girls touched the forbidden object, and, they glanced back at their mothers looking for approval or disapproval 10 to 20 times more than the boys.

In sharp contrast, the boys rarely glanced back at their mothers, and frequently touched the object even as their mothers shouted 'no'!
This constant reaffirmation, needing to be polite, and lower doses of testosterone that seem to stem from how women are biologically wound up could be what leads to various female character traits in the professional world: being more self-aware; being conscious of other's perceptions; asking for forgiveness more times than necessary; taking the backseat in discussions, arguments or debates. These can all be good things in moderation, harmful in abundance.
Many women counter these traits and force themselves to "act like men", but they do so to such a degree that they come across as "bossy" and over-aggressive in situations, the same situations their male counterparts will not. It can be unfair and it certainly makes it difficult if you are a woman in the corporate world to figure out how to act, how to self-market, how to be assertive in a non-obtrusive way.
For me, the learning process on how to act in the business world is constant. At this point, I believe it is best to be who I am, and act like myself rather than putting on an act. By defining my own personality I feel I have been able to create my unique brand image in contrast to other colleagues. With this in mind, I also take extra special care to be assertive and not aggressive, speak up in meetings, and not take it personally if my ideas are shot down.

I don't want to be self-aggrandising, because while being obnoxious may help to get one noticed, many over-aggressive male executives fare terribly in managing teams and working in cross-groups. Here, you actually have to listen and be considerate to others. In the end, I believe it's hard to cross a certain ceiling in any professional context if you are unable to motivate, be liked by, and effectively manage a group of people -- consisting of both men and women. 
The last point I'd like to make is to disagree with Shirky's statement that because women do not behave like men, "women are neither as successful nor as famous as their male equivalents".

I believe this way of thinking is far too narrow. Many women stop wanting to be successful and famous after they have children as they place a higher value on work/life balance, and becoming a CEO doesn't mean much if their home lives are in disarray. And others are perhaps just more aware than their male counterparts that the ego validation resulting from rising to the top doesn't provide any real happiness.

The author is a teacher, entrepreneur and expert on communications and soft-skills training.

Nasha Fitter