Professionally, When Should a Woman Act More Like a Man (and Vice Versa?)

Women have made great strides in the workplace over the last several decades, but continue encountering a glass ceiling when it comes to landing top positions.  Demonstrating the right mix of behaviors at work is a delicate balancing act.  Researchers from Stanford and George Mason Universities found that women who exhibited traits considered "traditionally male," were perceived negatively for not acting in a feminine way.  The traits considered successful  for managers include self-confidence, assertiveness and dominance, yet when these traits are displayed by women, there can be a backlash in the workplace, according to the study.   Women who fall victim to this "backlash" effect are less likely to be promoted because of a perception that they are less socially skilled---even though they are viewed by co-workers as competent.

The secret lies in a woman's ability to modify and adjust behavior for each situation, using the right mix of "male" traits with the ability to tone it down in order to appear less aggressive.  "The key," explained researcher  Olivia O'Neil from George Mason University, " is to have an expanded repertoire or a tool box of traits that you can call on in professional situations.  People get the mistaken impression that there's something desirable about being consistent in all contexts."

The research came from personality studies of 132 MBA program graduates, first as students, then as business professionals.  The study participants were re-surveyed  seven years into their careers.  The study indicated that women displaying male characteristics in the work place who adapted their behavior by paying close attention to how they were perceived by others, were more likely to be promoted than women who did not self-monitor and adjust those behaviors.  "Working women face a real dilemma, " noted  O'Neil, "if they are seen to behave in a stereotypically male way, they may damage their chances of promotion, even though these traits are synonymous with successful managers.  These findings suggest if these women learn how to self-monitor their behavior, they have a better chance of promotion."

On the other side of the coin, men in the workplace are perceived negatively during interviews if they display modesty.    Researchers at Rutgers  found a backlash against men who were more humble during interviews.  This same trait in women had no negative perception.  The researchers conducted mock interviews using candidates who were equally competent.  The men displaying modesty were viewed as weaker, a trait that could adversely impact their employability and earning potential.

 Sources:

CNN: When a Woman Should Act Like a Man

ScienceDaily: "Macho" Women Face Backlash at Work, Researchers Find

ScienceDaily: Male Modesty Not Appreciated by Female or Male Interviewers, Study Suggests