Guest post by By Catherine Kaputa
Author of The Female Brand: Using the Female Mindset to Succeed in Business
Ever since a certain assertive female decided she wanted to eat from a certain forbidden tree, influential women have been loved, hated, glorified, vilified, and misunderstood.
Our modern time is no different.
Yes, we've come a long way from the fifties and early sixties, when career women were viewed as a lesser version of men, and urged to pursue service-oriented "pink jobs," such as nursing and teaching. However, today our ranks in the corporate workforce still thin out above midlevel. Today, women comprise less than 3 percent of senior executives in Fortune 500 companies. So, whether we are boomers, Generation X, or Gen Y, we're still not where we want to be.
Do you know this woman? She could be in your office, she could be a friend, or she could be you. She doesn't lack talent or work ethic, but her life and career aren't on track. It can be hard for her to strike the right tone in the office. If she's too nice, she's viewed as weak and not up to the job. If she's too assertive, she's criticized for being severe. She seems to work harder than the men—for less rewards. She's suffering from an ailment that mainly affects women that I've dubbed "Female Behavior Confusion Disorder."
So what's a woman to do? Well, for one, we have to stop trying to act like men in the workplace. Strong brands—products or people—are always built on authenticity. Don't fight your nature. Instead, build on your innately female strengths and inclinations.
Research in gender studies points to key aptitudes that can propel career success for women —what I call "The Top 5 Female Aptitudes for Branding and Business Success." Not all women have these qualities, and many men have these qualities as well. However, these are areas in which women tend to be stronger. You can use these five aptitudes to help you in the workplace.
Aptitude # 1: Social Perception. Women are wired for empathy, the ability to read and identify the emotions and feelings of others through a sense of similarity—to walk in their shoes, as it were. MRI studies show that most women use both hemispheres of the brain to process emotional messages, while most men use only one hemisphere, giving women an advantage in picking up subtle non-verbal clues. Many women are also strong in intuition—it's called women's intuition for a reason.
How to use it in the workplace. Intuition can give you another source of information beyond rational analysis. Pay attention to what's going on behind the scenes. In meetings, for example, if something feels incomplete or not talked about, act on your hunch and initiate a follow-up, clarifying phone conversation. Empathy can be particularly helpful in business during tough economic times. Work on listening to others and asking questions. When people feel listened to and understood, they will pay you back by liking you and supporting you in return.
Aptitude # 2: People Power. A lot has been written about the fact that women have the social gene, and it's something that starts early. In one study, even one-day old baby girls were more fascinated by faces (or organic things) and boys more fascinated by inorganic things, such as mobiles. Playground studies of boys and girls point to interesting differences in how boys and girls play and relate with each other. Girls tend to pair off and play together one-on-one or with a small group. Boys tend to play with one group and then move to another larger group.
How to use it in the workplace. Women are born to network and make strong emotional connections. Use your social skills to build as many professional alliances as possible. Leverage your "social gene" to get well-known around the office. Be a mediator and an influencer. In terms of your personal career goals, you can use your strong people skills to land new opportunities and positions in your company—and get noticed, recognized, and rewarded.
Aptitude #3: Communication Agility. The female verbal edge is strong across the board. Girls, on average, start talking a month earlier than boys. Girls use a larger vocabulary at an earlier age, are better spellers and readers, score better on verbal memory or recall of words are markedly stronger writers. Women generally have better listening skills.
How to use it in the workplace. Use your wordsmith mastery to develop a virtual identity for yourself and for your company: blogs, websites, wikis, online newsletters, and so on. Solicit feedback early and often at work, and find mentors with whom you can discuss your ideas and development. Be an idea bridger and a meetings facilitator. Become known as someone who can grasp—and restate—others' points of view. Get practice as a presenter, and use your communications agility as a valuable business tool for promoting your great ideas and accomplishments.
Aptitude # 4: Vibrant Visual Identity. Brand managers use product design and packaging to develop a strong visual identity for their brands, and women have more tools available to them than men do for creating a strong visual identity in the workplace. While men wear a relatively boring uniform to work, women have a variety of "imaging tools" in clothes, colors, accessories, hairstyles, jewelry, and make-up.
How to use it in the workplace. Michelle Obama is the poster girl for what a powerful tool visual identity can be. She has a casual, American elegance, yet her clothes convey subliminal messages too. Her striding self-confidence, fit body, and clean American designs with bold colors result in inspirational magic. She favors immigrant American designers, a choice that reinforces the President's political message. You can do the same. If you don't have the body of a fashion model, then do something wonderful with your hair and clothing. Work on your posture and gait. Think about what your visual image conveys, and find visual "props" that add originality and a confident, powerful statement.
Aptitude # 5: Leadership that Includes and Empowers. One study of male and female group dynamics involved groups of pre-pubescent boys and girls, segregated by gender and given tasks to accomplish cooperatively. The girls used their social skills and worked together and formed a kind of committee. The girls all took part in discussions about how to accomplish the task, while the boys jostled about and picked a leader, who then directed the group on how to get the job done. Both had positive outcomes, but each gender used very different models. Women's inclusive, collaborative style of leadership is increasingly valuable in today's complex and interconnected global business environment.
How to use it in the workplace. Recent episodes of Celebrity Apprentice pitted women against the men—and displayed how their unique group dynamics gave the women a decided advantage. In the real workplace we can see the effect of these different leadership tendencies, too. Men tend to have a more directive management style, and women tend to have a collaborative style with shared decision making. Leverage your more inclusive leadership style so you can lead in a way that doesn't seek to have power over people, but empowers others instead. Consult others on important decisions. Create teams and a "personal board of directors" who can advise you—and be sure to include men too. Conduct brainstorming sessions. Give public credit to people when they contribute. Such a leadership style will result in loyal, committed, hardworking colleagues and employees and will give you a distinct advantage and reputation as a problem solver.