Why we shouldn't need to modify our behaviour to 'get ahead'

Promoting authentic power means valuing not just quotas of women at top levels, but their own way of doing business.

Promoting authentic power means valuing not just quotas of women at top levels, but their own way of doing business. Photo: Erin Jonasson

Last week, Forbes published a how-to guide for lady workers called The 9 Top Ways Women Give Away Their Power. Written by career coach and author, Bonnie Marcus, the article echoes the spirit of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In by urging "ambitious women" to "understand their leaky power pipeline". Among the bullet points are the usual instructions to stop apologising, stop qualifying your ideas, start promoting yourself, stop using "weak words" and stop caring about who likes you.

For those women who are struggling with socialised self-doubt at the office, (ie, most of us) these sorts of articles are empowering and beneficial. If we can't change our environments, we can at least work on ourselves. It's true that we don't need to beg when we, as managers, can demand. Nobody needs to begin a sentence with an apology. But, without the necessary implementation of structural and systemic change, there are only so many tweaks we can make to our own personalities before we burnout just below the glass ceiling.

See, the problem with these sorts of guidelines is the insistence that if women would just assimilate and act more like men, the entire mechanism of misogynistic bias against them would collapse. Now, we know there's this entrenched sexism thing (please compare and contrast the last two political spills, for example.) And that is not going anywhere. Besides, since when did emulating corporate suits become synonymous with liberation?

Germaine Greer decried this type of feminism; the idea that freedom is found in mimicking men. After all, men are already trapped in a narrow straitjacketof patriarchy. And, as we know, part of the West's grand theology around patriarchy is that, while men are called to be many things, the role they must first submit to is that of worker. It's what your average Chomsky-quoting hipster might dub corporate slavery. And who wants that?


But just as bad as this ideal of the pursuance of work above everything else, is the 21st century model of how to go about it. No apologies. No fluffing around. No questions. Don't ask for permission – take what's yours! Promote yourself! Always be closing! It's a corporate culture where Gordon Gekko is no longer the villain; he's the hero. Is this what women should strive for? Workplaces filled with self-seeking, cortisol-addicted, aggressive animals, emptied of all humanity? Should we all surrender our authentic, at times doubtful, even timid selves so that we may rise again as wolves of Wall Street?

Greer also said that hierarchal patterns were fundamentally linked to patriarchy. So it follows that even if a woman achieves status and wealth, she's still sacrificing it at the altar of dehumanised, sexist corporations. Sandberg wanted the word "bossy" stricken from public use, yet she finds it "painful" to turn her phone off so she can sleep.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Myer, currently pregnant with twins, took two weeks off for maternity leave with her first child and worked throughout it. She plans to do the same thing again. Meanwhile, former CEO of Westpac, Gail Kelly, once confessed that male executives had advised her to be "tougher" and "more distant" from her staff – advice she rejected. See, even if you achieve traditional, (read: masculinised) corporate power, can it really be considered authentic power?

Promotion of authentic power, the kind that doesn't "leak" out of a woman (hey, she said it) means valuing not just quotas of women at top levels, but their own way of doing business, as well. In practical terms, this means not demonising a woman for wanting to be liked. It takes a deeply ruthless person to feel nothing at the prospect of disciplining or even sacking an employee. That shouldn't be a bad thing – it's a sign of empathy. Hey, guess which character trait makes for a successful boss? That's right – it's empathy. And guess which gender -- generally speaking – possesses more of it?

It means accepting that, when it comes to emails, the word "just" or the use of question marks or even an exclamation mark (or four) does not automatically denote powerlessness. It might signify humility– a necessary trait of great leaders, by the way. It might even be a strategy to make an employee feel safe and supported. Novel, huh?

It means that when a woman says "I feel" it's honestly no different to saying "I think" because every thought – and ergo every business decision - is imbued with emotions anyway. Besides, only those who are overcompensating for their own sense of powerlessness feel the need to use forceful language.

So let's stop telling women to modify their behaviour to "get ahead". Because the quagmire is not with women's behaviour at work, but the denial and repression of it. Excuse me, I was modifying my language. I meant to say that the way women do business, with humility, empathy and feelings, is already powerful, it's just that most people are scared s--tless of it.