Modeling ourselves after men continues not to work

Apparently, I grew up in Corporate America.  I was one of two children. My older brother received most of the parenting – he got much more guidance than I did on who to be and how to succeed. He received much more corrective feedback (for better and worse) than I did. I think my parents saw him as having greater potential than I and thus invested more heavily in him. Naturally, I wanted to be successful in my parents’ eyes. So I adopted the only guidance available – that which they gave my brother. I became all the things they wanted him to be: driven, achievement-oriented, competitive, sports-oriented and vocal.

Big mistake.  An old family friend once confided in me.  “Leslie, your parents always said that you weren’t the girl they wished you’d become. They always thought you were too tough and forthright.”  But they had neglected to give me any input on how to succeed in their eyes as a girl.  I had given up a lot of myself (maybe the best of myself) to conform to a male image of success, and it backfired.  A long, hard slog to nowhere. Sound familiar?

The dynamic that existed in my family continues to exist in organizations today. In the absence of skilled and explicit feedback, women still model their behavior after men in order to succeed.  And it continues to backfire: not because women can’t do male behavior, but because it’s not what organizations want or expect from women.  Like it or not.

One of the current truisms in corporate life is that women are paid less than men because they don’t negotiate as well as men.  So the follow-on conclusion is that women need to negotiate more aggressively for promotions and pay increases, because that’s what works (for men).

God bless research. Catalyst, one of the premier research organizations on women in the workplace, has found that, in fact, women DO ask and negotiate for what they want – and that it has little positive effect on their careers.  In their recent book, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? Catalyst discovered that men tend to be rewarded for perceived potential (just as my brother – and probably your brother – was). So men’s career success comes from changing organizations often and negotiating hard at each move. What seems to get women ahead is proven performance. So the key to women’s success (using promotion and pay as metrics) seems to be staying with an employer, accumulating achievements, and letting those achievements be known.  Proactive negotiation had very little positive impact on women’s success, just as the broadcasting of achievements had little impact on men’s success.

Myth by busted myth, we continue to learn that women’s path to success is different from men’s.  We can rail against it or we can embrace it.  Does it make me mad that the rules are different for men and women?  Yes.  Do I fear that ‘different’ expectations can too easily equate to lower expectations?  Yes.  But I think there is also tremendous hope in these findings.  They invite women to shed a male model of success and claim their own path.  At the same time, these findings also invite organizations to examine their different ways of relating to men and women and to root out conscious and unconscious inequities.

7 replies
  1. Trisha Burton
    Trisha Burton says:

    I so relate to this! I was raised with two brothers and became unhappily successful. Trying to be someone I wasn ‘tt comfortable with made me very ill. Keep the inspiration /information coming!

  2. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    As one who was called too independent by my mother (I always figured because I didn’t do what she wanted me to do) I was sad to read that a friend told you that you were not true to what your parents wanted. I hope now you are true to yourself. Remember one life (that we know of) make the most of it 🙂

    On a less philosophical note, I agree for the most part. I heard an employee tell his HR to hire a woman because they work twice as hard as a man and I can pay her less. You would think that would give us an advantage LOL. Sigh.

    Keep fighting the good fight 🙂

    • Leslie
      Leslie says:

      Joanne, thanks for your great comments! Amazing the messages we get from others about who we’re supposed to be. I have no doubt that men receive plenty of those unwanted “you-should-be’diffeerent” messages as well, so women don’t corner the market. But I think each gender’s experience is unique and difficult in its own way.

  3. Patti Miller
    Patti Miller says:

    This is really great Leslie. I climbed the Corporate Ladder in the early part of my career…and have been self employed for 25 years now. My experience of being on that ‘edge’ in Corporate America – where there were only of few of us women in management (the men referring to us all as ‘girls’ and feeling justified in their treatment of us as if we were small children) – was quite an experience. Let me just say, the same things can be true for the self employed, trying to navigate the business world for our companies with Banks, Insurance Agents, Government Regulatory Agencies and within local government politics.

    You have given me some exceptional food for thought…how your observations and suggestions apply to those interactions. I’d love to see this discussion continue.
    Many thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Leslie
      Leslie says:

      Patti, thank you so much for taking the time to read and provide such thoughtful comments. it sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience with this! I agree with those same principles still applying in self-employment. Would love to see the dialogue continue. And I hope to be blogging more in the coming months!

  4. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and the world in general is honoring our gifts as women, in whatever way that is appropriate for each woman. Trying to be like men robs our communites of the strengths of women.

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