Why does the workplace masculate women?
The first time my former boss and dear friend Suzanne Villeneuve saw me at work she thought I was Lady Godiva. No, I wasn’t riding a horse naked down the hall protesting corporate taxation, but I had long wavy blonde hair and was wearing a pastel blue suit with a long fitted skirt and a bolero jacket with a white frilly blouse that spilled out of my jacket like a salad of Boston Bibb lettuce. I was, in a word, unabashedly feminine. That’s two words but everybody knows that women are wordy.
Fast forward fifteen years to my final year in the corporate world. Lady Godiva had disappeared. My long locks were shorn to a splash-and-dash cut, my pastels were victims of a hostile takeover by fifty shades of banker, and my curves and frills had been replaced by straight lines and sharp angles.
What happened? Why did I discard virtually every vestige of femininity? Nobody told me the corporate environment was a no-frills zone. Nobody said there was a ban on pastel colours. Nobody said it wasn’t okay to look and act feminine. But I sensed it. I sensed it when my boss (not Suzanne) took my direct report to a strip club for a birthday-suit lunch. I knew I didn’t want to look anything like what they saw on stage. I sensed it when I looked around and saw successful women who looked and behaved like one of the guys.
So slowly I changed. I knew I had the uniform right when I spied a successful colleague (she had reached the blue chip director level in finance) who was wearing exactly the same outfit as me–black dress pants, black pumps and a black blouse with little yellow specks that on a black backdrop no longer looked like jaunty polka dots, but stark data points on a scatter diagram.
My curves turned into angles shortly after the company moved to a new location that featured a state-of-the-art fitness centre. My next-door neighbour marched to the gym each lunch hour in her navy blue suit and sensible shoes, gym bag in hand and a fiercely determined look on her face. I resisted her example and the pull of the rowing machine until I saw Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
I wanted Linda’s muscular machine-gun-toting arms. I thought that being able to arm wrestle my colleagues might give me a competitive advantage if the selection process ever began to resemble an NFL combine. So I started working out. The day Lady Godiva died was the day I looked in the mirror and saw deltoids. A colleague said that my direct report who could have played professional hockey and I were the top corporate jocks.
Hooray. My sex change was complete.
A Stanford study backs up my empirical observations. Masculine women–providing they can turn off the testosterone and play nice when necessary–receive 1.5 times more promotions than feminine women or masculine men and 2 times as many promotions as feminine men.
“There is no evidence that ‘acting like a lady’ does anything except make women more well liked.”(Olivia O’Neill PhD co-author of Stanford Study)
Many of you will read the above quote and say “Duh”. Of course frilly frou frou won’t get you anywhere in the corporate world. But who decided frilly frou frou was wrong? What if men had to strategically behave like women to get ahead–act like women most of the time, but when it’s time to roll out the spreadsheets act like men? What a bizarre notion.
We wring our hands and wonder why women leave the corporate world in droves when the reason is in plain sight. The only way women can succeed in the corporate world is to behave like men except when it’s best to behave like women. The workplace masculates successful women. Many women either can’t play gender chess or refuse to override their feminine tendencies so they “leave Dodge” as Sallie Krawcheck so succinctly put it.
I left Dodge. Since then my long locks have grown back and my closet looks like a cotton candy explosion of frilly frou frou, but I haven’t lost the sharp angles. The experience has made me stronger…
This post was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse 24th February 2015
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