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Politics Pitfalls for Women: Modesty and Femininity Misused?

As covered in recent blogs, many women under-estimate how their attitudes and actions about power and how their traditional sex-role socialized behavioral patterns can impact their career, influence, and team’s credibility. We’ve discussed how they may define power differently, dislike traditional power versus collaborative power, slip into language conventions that attract disparaging labels, or allow other stereotypically female habits to marginalize or plateau their careers. Today’s blog shares more friendly reminders so you don’t unwittingly step on a “corporate buzz” (aka, grapevine) mine-field.

Keeping a Low, Modest Profile

imagesMen tend to more naturally speak about their accomplishments, to the point of sometimes bragging or taking credit in more territory-building ways–– and often they are not censured, but rewarded for doing so. As “tadpoles,” little boys are scripted to be assertive and more active in putting themselves out there. Women, on the other hand, typically receive childhood messages about modesty, avoiding too much self-promotion, and nurturing others’ image. While certainly less true in recent decades, there is still some truth to this generalization. So female executives are more apt to under-promote and to even discount focus on their own contributions (even more than males when their parents may have transmitted these same societal messages of humility).

Some women may avoid letting others see their hand print on their work, for fear of being perceived as “strutting their stuff,” being “aggressive,” or appearing too boastful. This is problematic given that Kathleen Reardon, in her book, The Secret Handshake, and Deborah Tannen, in her research and book, document that men are often promoted based upon their future potential, whereas women are more likely to be promoted based upon their past track record! This ironic trend means that women receive the very messages that muffle their efforts to engage in those very politically astute actions needed to ensure proper documentation, fair notice, and company knowledge about what they’ve accomplished. We called this Balanced Self-Promotion in our workshops on Shattering the Glass Ceiling. We offer non-crass, appropriate tactics for getting the credit and recognition you deserve without appearing pompous or overly-political. For instance, when talking about your accomplishments, instead of framing them as “results” and “achievements,” you can express excitement about what your team has “learned” that might help the company or someone else’s similar task force. This way, you’re not bragging, but just enhancing organizational learning, which is a burgeoning, valued culture-building trend in corporations.

Overdoing Femininity?

Some corporate settings frown on overly feminine norms for dress, such as long, dangling earrings or certain hairdo’s. Also, being too responsive to feelings, too “touchy-feely,” relationship-oriented, or expressive with emotions can go against the current. When discussing the negative impact of an idea, women might place too much stress on morale, fairness, or personal concern about a colleague, whereas a man might matter-of-factly note, “it’s just business.”

On the other hand, fear of being perceived as too feminine, or even misinterpreted as being coy or coquettish should not trap you into ignoring company norms. After all, many organizations do NOT require adopting more male standards, ignoring fashion, or sacrificing caring feminine traits. When Carly Fiorina was CEO of the Silicon Valley’s Hewlett Packard, for example, she nurtured many alliances by actually sending flowers and grateful messages in ways that honored her own gender, also helping her career.

A Grain of Salt

As we suggested in the overview to this blog series on Politics Pitfalls for Women, it’s great to be aware of gender-based workplace politics and differences between males and females, but let’s keep perspective. It’s counter-productive to be so worried about such dynamics that women curb or muffle the influence strengths that their gender-based tendencies actually create.

For instance, women are well served when Respecting Ego and Turf, Addressing Hidden Agendas, and using Ethical Lobbying skills that demand getting on the other’s wavelength and sensing agenda so you link your agenda. Because of their social skills and empathy, women more readily handle hyper-sensitive egos and avoid  “career-limiting moves” that many more combative, oppositional men commit. Women’s familiarity with issues of image and appearance may also better equip them to dress for success or be more aware of perceptions and how they come across.

The bottom line message is: Don’t overreact or overdo things! Don’t fall into the trap of being so self-conscious of the Women’s Politics Pitfalls in the last four blogs that you over-emphasize the role of gender mistakes and their impact. Simply starting to ponder these questions is a large part of the answer. We hope this blog series and our Organizational Savvy: Shattering the Glass Ceiling workshop might be intriguing and relevant.

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One Response to Politics Pitfalls for Women: Modesty and Femininity Misused?

  1. Orfilio Pelaez November 21, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    Dr. Brandon,

    Good to see this blog up and running. Finally a blog that gives genuine insight into this important and sometimes overlooked topic that is critical to career management. I have bookmarked it and will be visiting it often to keep my “org savvy” quotient where it should be.

    Thanks again.

    Orfilio Pelaez
    LDC Resources, LLC

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