Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Femininity and the Workplace

M. Leblanc of Bitch Ph. D has an interesting piece up about "Acting like a Man" with respect to the workplace. In it, she argues that women need to promote themselves more, to be more self-interested in order to succeed. I have to (mildly) disagree.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm all in favor of strong women, aggressive women, independent women - and any other sort of women; that's the point.

Women - and men, for that matter - should be free to have whatever personality is natural to them, to behave in whatever way they wish (within reason, of course). And people can of course react to that however they want to as well, including not hiring them for being less confident.

But consider this: do one's "self-promotion, confidence, and even occasional arrogance" really have a great deal to do with ability in most careers? I, for one, could do with far less of that kind of thing with the (largely male, admittedly) people I work with. A debilitating lack of confidence is a problem, of course, but most people don't have that issue.

For me, it's quite simple. I like being slightly self-depreciating. I like saying 'sorry' and using tag phrases. I like speaking softly in formal situations. I don't like to appear confident when I'm not, etc. It's just who I am.

It seems like the real trouble is with the employers who are unable to see past the mask of confidence to a persons ability, and who are so used to judging people by specific proscribed attitudes that they can't accept anything else. It's not that women are somehow 'naturally' more sensitive or non-aggressive - as in Ms. Zandt take on the subject (Which M. Leblanc rightly criticizes), but that women and men who choose to be less confident, less self-interested (dare I even say, kinder!) shouldn't be punished for it.

M. Leblanc:

These are natural, human ways of behavior that women are pressured, cajoled, and outright prevented from engaging in, from puberty on. Humans are an ambitious bunch, and we're self-interested and selfish. I don't think we need to jettison that aspect of human nature in order to live in a more just, free, and collaborative society, as Zandt suggests. What about ambition that seeks power and authority in order to bring about justice? That's the kind of ambition I have.

I respectfully submit that ambition, self-interest, and selfishness aren't 'natural human behavior' any more than self-sacrifice, or a desire to live simply is. Surely there's room enough for all kinds!

Don't get me wrong - any woman who is ambitious (especially for justice!) is to be greatly admired. But it often seems as if the presence of strong women is used an excuse for society to continue to discriminate against femininity.

So I suppose I'm not really disagreeing here - Shirky's original article was just so much tripe. I'd just like the feminist response to that sort of thing to be more balanced.

What do you think? Is there something intrinsically good about ambition and self-interest?

1 comment:

Floria_Aemilia said...

Mostly my issue is that women get the message from society that to succeed in the workplace they need to behave more like a stereotypical man.

I don't have any issues with women whose natural behaviour fits into the statistically "masculine" half of the gender spectrum, but it would be nice if a woman believed that she could be successful utilising her statistically "feminine" attributes if that is what comes more natural to her.

The problem seems to be that workplaces statistically were created by men and have men at the top, so the environment is one where you can only succeed on a man's terms. I would like to see this change, where a woman can be seen as successful on her own terms, without having to compete in a statistically male way in order to get ahead.

I guess my advice would be that workplaces need to be advertised to about the importance of statistically "feminine" tools such as empathy (useful for customers), flexibility, encouragement, intuition, etc. I'm looking forward to seeing more examples of women succeeding where they don't feel the need to don a unisex suit and check their emotional reasoning at the door (of course if it was their free choice to do that and not a matter of need then there's no issue).

Note that I am not saying that men don't have these skills, simply that some skills statistically are used subconsciously by one gender more often than the other.