Let’s face it. We’ve been battling the “how do you do it all?” question for a very long time. I suspect that I’m not the only one out there who has to admit that, quite frankly, I don’t do it all. My kids have eaten more than their share of takeout, I’ve hunted through the dirty laundry for the least-dirty item, and to this day I don’t eat anything that’s fallen on the floor unless I can specifically remember the last time I mopped it.
Sheryl Sandberg in her very popular book and subsequent movement, Lean In, talks about a world where half the companies are run by women and half the families are run by men. Maybe if I had that kind of a life, or if I could afford all the household help I need, then maybe my floors would be a bit cleaner. But they’re not, nor do I expect they ever will be. And besides, that’s the wrong question anyway.
Balancing work and home doesn’t work because it’s impossible to balance those two things. As a career women I want to dedicate a ton of time and energy to my career. I know I have to put the hours in if I want to get the results out. But that means fewer hours than I’d like to spend at home and with my family.
The same is true the other way around. If I want to be that amazing super-Mom, then that leaves less time for community work or any other passion I might choose to explore. I can’t give my full time and attention to these two major components of my life, no matter how much I’d like to. So this is an issue of choice, not balance.
If figuring out how to balance work and family is the wrong question, then what is the right question?
The right question is, “How do I balance competence with caring?”
Women leaders must balance the need to demonstrate competence, with the expectation that they be caring. The root cause of this issue is the double bind. Let me explain.
The double bind is the very real phenomenon where women and men are judged very differently for exhibiting the exact same behaviours. For example, good leaders will be decisive, assertive and confident. These are typically considered masculine characteristics. Women are expected to be caring, collaborative and nurturing. These are typically considered feminine characteristics. When people behave in a way that someone perceives as inconsistent with expectations, that’s where the trouble begins.
Women face a no-win situation where they are considered inadequate if they display feminine leadership skills, and unfeminine if they display masculine leadership skills. That’s the double bind.
The solution to this issue is multi-faceted. First, women need to be aware that this is happening because it often happens at a subconscious level. Second, women need to be able to recognize when it’s happening and call it out so that everyone realizes it’s happening. We can only fix it if everyone is aware of it. Third, women need to have a strategy to avoid or reduce the negative impact this may have on them when it does happen.
So, what’s a girl to do?
Be assertive, but not overbearing. Be friendly, but not submissive.
When we want to assert ourselves, we need to find ways to do it so we don’t come across as aggressive. It pains me to have to say this, but we’re still at a point where we need to find ways not to p**s people off. This is easier said than done, and it’s just not fair that we still have to do this. But perception is reality, and if we want to have a successful leadership career, we must manage perceptions.
Sometimes we’re direct communicators, and our tone of voice can be perceived as aggressive or rude. Sometimes we’re unafraid to disagree with authority, and we can be perceived as pushy or insubordinate. Sometimes we’re confident that our way is the best way, and we can be perceived as stubborn or dictatorial. Men, in these same situations, are not perceived the same way.
The right question is “How do we balance assertiveness and friendliness.” This question takes us deeper into the specifics of figuring out how we balance our competence and our caring.
You can give someone direct feedback or express a different opinion in a friendly way by smiling while you’re saying it. Okay, I admit it. I’m another one of those people who will tell women that they have to smile more often, but believe me, it works! When you smile while you’re speaking it also changes the tone of your voice. You’ll be perceived as less of a threat, and there’s less of a disconnect between your leadership style and your femininity.
And that’s the key. Your goal is to reduce the feminine/masculine incongruence that others perceive.
But wait. Don’t err too far on the friendly side and appear to be submissive. Apologizing or belittling your opinions (two things we women are prone to do) doesn’t soften your message or make you appear less aggressive; it makes you appear weak. Instead, communicate your ideas and opinions in a concise manner using plain and powerful language. Don’t start with “This might not be right, but…” or “Sorry to interrupt, but…” Instead, say things like, “An alternate way to look at this is…” or “Here are my thoughts on the situation.”
There are other things to pay attention to when balancing competence and caring. Stay tuned for future posts about those ones. Or if you don’t want to wait, pick up a copy of my book, The Ruby Report: How Organizations Can Profit By Promoting Women Leaders.
The Ruby Report is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. Visit my Amazon Author’s Page where you can see other books I’ve written, as well as read a free preview of The Ruby Report.
Until next time, happy leading.