The Office

12.09.135:45 AM ET

Do Guys’ Girls Succeed at Work?

Women who prefer the company of men report being harder on coworkers perceived as ‘girly.’

Jackie, an upper-level manager at a large tech firm, had a difficult time making female friends. This had always been the case. “Since childhood, I’ve just felt more at ease around men,” she told me. “I was never very ‘girly.’ I didn’t like to share secrets. I don’t like drama.” As an adult, her closest friends were men though, she told me, she wouldn’t exactly describe them as the sort of pals she’d call up and cry to when, say, she found out her mother was sick (and she didn’t). They were friends with whom she talked about work, or politics, or sometimes the opposite sex. She felt heard, though perhaps not quite supported.

Though she often lamented the dearth of female relationships in her life, at work, Jackie felt her ability to better connect with men—her identification as a “guys’ girl"—had helped ensure her success, in a certain way. She had never felt as if she needed to prove herself as being “good enough” as a man, because she’d earned the respect of so many of them through her friendships.

But it also meant that her own respect was more easily given to men, and that, as a manager, most of the people she was drawn to hire were male. By her own design, she was almost always the only woman in the room. And when she did find herself working with a woman, she was hard on her, especially if the other woman was what Jackie considered “girly.” Jackie admitted this was something of a strategy of self-preservation: “Because I had for so long assumed I just wasn’t the sort of woman that other women liked, I always had my guard up,” she said. “I found reasons not to like them first.”

The term “guys’ girl” has been used to describe women—typically adolescents and younger women—who relate better to or feel more comfortable around men, or who simply have more male friends than female friends. As an adolescent, a girl might make a conscious choice to identify as either a guys’ girl or a girls’ girl, depending on what sort of attention she’s after. If she wants to appear emotionally controlled or powerful—“tougher”—she may take on a masculine attitude or strive to be part of a largely male group. If she’s interested in attracting boys romantically—or if she believes that beauty equals power—she may lean towards the side of girlishness, spending more time on her appearance and even holding back the stronger aspects of her personality. This is something many girls grow out of as they become women.

Or do they? With each new study offering proof that women are getting more freedoms, more job offers, more money, and the like, there also come the inevitable suggestions that women are becoming “more like men.” They aren’t of course; if anything, women are becoming more like modern women. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps these women share some common ground, and to ask: Are guys’ girls more likely to succeed in the workplace?

Consider the Queen Bee phenomenon, defined as successful women opposing the similar rise of other women, most typically in male dominated fields. In some cases, this opposition is unconscious, and the result of a patriarchal work culture that creates a situation in which the few women who rise to the top become obsessed with maintaining authority at any cost. In others, however—as in Jackie’s case—this opposition is driven by women who come into the system predisposed to criticize their female counterparts whom they may deem “too girly,” too weak—or “girls’ girls.”

If this is true, it’s a shortsighted approach, given there’s ample evidence to believe that, at work, it’s the girls’ girls who can really make a difference. Studies show that women have an essential need—personally, but also professionally—for other women in their lives. At work, close intrapersonal relationships are what help form bonds, foster loyalty, and encourage people to be team players; these relationships often have the potential to be stronger, and more essential, between women. What’s more, friendships between women have considerable health benefits. A 2009 University of Michigan study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, for example, found that when women feel emotionally close to other women, their bodies produce more progesterone, boosting mood and alleviating stress—a handy workplace survival kit if ever there was one.

That’s not to say girls’ girls will win out over guys’ girls, but that women should embrace working together no matter how they identify—especially since in many instances whether you’re a guys’ girl or a girls’ girl is less about reality than about self-perception. As Jackie found out, once she opened herself up to the possibility of working with women—and even enjoying it—she appreciated those relationships on both a personal and professional level. “In the end, when it came to working together towards a common goal, we really weren’t so different,” she said. “I still feel more comfortable around men. But maybe I’ve got a little girls’ girl in me after all.”