Women

06.07.13

How Should Women Act in the Workplace?

Cheerful? Aggressive? No consensus seems to exist.

I’ve always been an assertive person. I got it from my mama. In Girl Scouts, I once led a rebellion with just a 10-year-old’s willpower, an arsenal of white lies, and a now-vintage Nokia cellphone. Every time I start a new job, I’ll receive a speech from my parents along the theme of, “Remember to bite your tongue.” But at the same time, I’ve been told by friends that I am “too funny to be taken seriously.” How can an aggressively funny (or funnily aggressive) girl succeed in this world—especially in the workplace? As it turns out, when it comes to leadership and a woman in the office, the whole world—from scientists to computer technicians—has absolutely no idea.

A recently-published article from The Economic Times of India advises us that doormats lose out at work: “Women who give a cheerful impression are judged to be less willing to undertake leadership roles than men who display similar emotions.” Win for me. But then a Forbes article, headlined “Why Aggressive Women Can’t Win at Work,” says that assertive females hurt their promotion chances because they’re held to a different standard than men. If a guy speaks up in a meeting, he’s just being forceful and decisive—but if a woman does, she’s either a hot, emotional mess or a straight-up b**ch. These two contradictory ideas, published within hours of each other, put my brain in knots.

So what is the rest of the media advising? Surely in the age of Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda Gates, and Hillary Clinton, someone has to know the formula for success.

The Telegraph, for one, takes The Economic Times’s tack. “Even the most competent and hard-working female employees may struggle to break the ‘glass ceiling’ because they are stereotypically seen as friendly and sociable.” On the other end of the spectrum, The Harvard Business Review agrees with Forbes. In a blog post last year, it advised female workers to “[a]void emotions, remain calm while being yelled at, and be respectfully feminine in your response.” Other ways to supposedly win at work: “Claim your ideas, make statements rather than ask questions to open dialogue, and avoid being seen as pushy or aggressive.”

Use statements rather than questions. Got it. But, wait a second. Didn’t Forbes just tell me the exact opposite? “Don’t make statements, ask questions,” it advises women. “The person who asks the questions holds the power. How? She directs the conversation along without having to actually disagree with anyone. Next time someone says something you want to push back on, piggyback, agree, and redirect with a question.”

So beyond being both not cheery and not too aggressive, I’ll have to somehow manage asking questions and not asking questions at the same time. What?

Mix all of that with my long, blonde hair and apparently overaggressive ’tude and I am destined to fail.

And then there’s the issue of what to wear. The Daily Muse said ladies should cover up their cleavage if they want to see the corner office: “Many women still show too much skin, and probably don’t fully understand the damage that those low-cut tops are inflicting on their careers,” one (female) writer opined. “Feminists may skewer me for this, but yes, I am placing the responsibility for this situation on her. While we may not be able to control every gender bias or sexist comment out there, we certainly can control how we present ourselves.”

Over at AskMen, a writer pointed out that, perhaps unfairly, men do in fact judge women in terms of what they wear: “Now although some women in certain circumstances have used ‘their assets’ to get what they want, the majority of women have worked hard and stared adversity straight in the face to achieve their desired success … Perhaps it's less that women use their beauty, and more likely that men judge them based on their physical beauty.”

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Harvard Business Review pushed the über-corporate look: “The right look is the corporate appearance, assimilating this accords familiarity and respect. Be attractive. As you grow older, your hair should be cut shorter, as it conveys professionalism. Dress for the job you want, not what you have.”

Stumped? Join the party. I have yet to figure out how I, someone who has never been blessed with cups overfloweth of lady lumps, have the ability of ruining my career just by wearing a V-neck. And, according to the Daily Muse, it would all be my fault. But also the fault of the men who looked—how interesting. Mix all of that with my long, blonde hair and apparently overaggressive ’tude and I am destined to fail.

But there’s hope. There’s hope for being just Kelsey—the sassy, funny, boobless, long-haired one. CNN reported that this “what to do” dilemma is actually exactly what we need. No one, in fact, knows where a working woman should fall on the spectrum. A woman who is gentle will always be told to be more aggressive and vice versa. Finding the equilibrium is not as effective as learning how to act in different situations, said Olivia O’Neill, a professor at George Mason University at the time the article was published.

“Sometimes you need to be more extreme, depending on the situation. It’s not that aggressive women need to scale it back and act like a lady—in certain situations they need to call on those behaviors,” she said.

So, while everyone struggles with this extreme identity crisis, I’ve just learned to adjust. “Pick your battles,” I’ve told myself. Not everything is worth a fight—and sometimes the best choice is just to sit back with my mouth tied shut. Be Switzerland. But if it’s something where I need to turn on my sass-a-licious nature, prepare for me to come in guns hot.