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Lead with success > Leadership And Life > Balancing the Yin and Yang

Balancing the Yin and Yang

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

A very senior professional services provider posed us a poignant question:

“How do you keep your ‘shape’ as you advance through an organisation and face increasing pressures to ‘fit in’ (whatever that means)?”

Fitting In

As you advance in many organisations there are constant pressures on you to adapt or to change your behaviour in various ways.  Comments such as, “try being more/less assertive in client meetings” and “you need to show more commitment to the firm” are common.  The collective wisdom suggests that ‘the powers that be’ probably think they have your best interests at heart. But what is the personal cost to us as we move away from who we are?

A substantial proportion of the pressure to fit in is to become, somehow, more masculine in a ‘socially acceptable way’.  Let’s face it, we have to be at least a little competitive, assertive/aggressive and know how to hold ourselves to succeed in male dominated environments and there’s nothing wrong with that unless, and this is a big unless, we lose our feminine selves along the way. Perhaps that’s what our intersenior professional services provider meant when she said ‘holding our shape’.

The Boxer versus the Ballerina

Like most psycho-social constructs, masculinity and femininity lie on a continuum.  Some women can be very masculine and have always been that way, and the same holds true for some feminine men.  But if you, like me, have a son and a daughter who are pretty much bang on the middle of that continuum, you see the differences between them emerge very, very early on. My daughter is feminine but she also enjoys her brother’s rough games and is very competitive. I ask myself whether she’ll be able to retain her wonderful femininity if she chooses a professional career or will she be subtly, or not so subtly, pushed to lose some of it to become ‘tough’ and ‘someone who can take the pressure’?

Perhaps in male dominated environments we are moulded into more ‘masculine’ versions of ourselves or perhaps it’s as simple as being rewarded for more masculine behaviours which in turn results in us being more likely to display these behaviours. In either scenario we often lose track of our more ‘feminine’ side.

This was further brought home to me when I was having a coffee with one of our staunchest Professionelle supporters.  She works in a very male-dominated environment and we were talking about how we were both dealing with two very traumatic personal experiences. We both felt pressure in the professional setting to put on a brave face, to ‘be staunch’, and to hold most of our anguish inside. The thing is, does this then make it harder for us to let go in personal settings? Once you are in this mind-set, it does pervade into all areas of your life.  So when do you let go?  How do you allow yourself to be kind to yourself?

Being Kind to Ourselves

For many women, being kind to themselves is a really hard thing to do.  Working in male-dominated environments means that they never really do it.  They think of being kind to themselves as a ‘soft’ thing to do, a waste of time, right down the bottom of their priorities.  Working all nighters, well, that’s true grit, that’s what real (wo)men are made of.  Being kind to myself?  That’s for women who just can’t hack it and who are soft!

Implications for Work

I think that being aware of who you are, and making sure you stay true to yourself, is the core of self-awareness.  A big part of it for women is being mindfully feminine.  Retaining your femininity in a way that works for you, is an important part of your authentic self, something that will enhance your career and not diminish it and the research supports my views.

One 2011 study from Stanford called “Overcoming the Backlash Effect: Self-monitoring and Women’s Promotions”  found that women who were agentic, that is in control of their careers, assertive, etc but who also self-monitored how they came across, i.e. had self-awareness, were the most likely to be promoted. Specifically, they got one and a half times more promotions than masculine men, or feminine women, and twice as many promotions as feminine men.  But here’s the crux of the matter, these women were three times more likely to be promoted than agentic women with low self awareness, women who were perceived as too ‘masculine’.

How Do You ‘Retain’ your Feminine Self?

Make it a priority.  That’s the first lesson.  Find your role-models, those ‘agentic’ women who are very professionally successful but retain their femininity and learn from them. Discussing this topic is as important as discussing ‘serious’ work and your professional career aspirations. And in the immediate term?  Be kind to yourself and book yourself a treat.

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