How Sex Plays Out in the Workplace

What women still do wrong as they try to advance their careers

I love Mad Men, the AMC serial drama about Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1960s. It offers a great story line, but more fascinating to me is how gender relations played out in the workplace just 40 years ago.  Have we come a long way? Sure. Do we still have a far way to go? Absolutely!

I was reminded of just how far we still have to go when I recently sat on a panel offering career advice to a room of more than 300 corporate women of color. The male panelist suggested that women regularly compliment their male managers (to satisfy their ego) as well as “play footsie with their bosses under the table” in an effort to advance their careers. His comment was met with an eerie silence, and then uncomfortable laughter, before the moderator moved the session along to more palatable strategies for career advancement.

In all the side conversations his comments generated after the meeting, it was obvious among that group how much effort women expend trying to fit into the workplace. Some of us have mastered it, for sure. But here’s what I’ve learned about what women still do wrong.

Focus on Emotion vs. Passion Knowing the difference makes a world of difference in your business environment. Passion is all the energy, enthusiasm, and zeal you bring to your work. It’s what fuels the creative part of you to drive innovative ideas in your organization. Emotion is the attachment you have to the outcome of any result of your work. That’s not to say that you can’t be happy or even angry about a situation on the job. The problem is when you let those situations continue to fester and/or define you. Business is in constant motion, and so should you be. Emotion diverts your focus and distracts you from your goals because you can’t get past what someone did to you or didn’t do for you. Men fully understand the adage “All is fair in love and war.” Liken the workplace to a chess game and keep it moving.

Thinking They’re Not Ready I once heard a politico say that if you told a woman she had five of the six traits needed to win a campaign, she would head off to work on that sixth item and then consider running. Tell a man he’s got two of the six things and his response is, “When do I start?” People of color have been groomed to believe that they have to be twice as good as their white counterparts, and as a result, women of color tend to think that they are never quite ready for the position. Of course, you have to be qualified; but men tend to rely on their network–mentors, sponsors and professional relationships–to assist in their advancement. Women have to stop thinking that they can do it all alone by cranking out great work from their cubicle. Retire the Superwoman jersey and solicit your network. You’re more ready than you think!

Acting Like Men There’s real power in being a woman in the workplace. Studies continually show that inherent feminine traits such as intuition, compassion, and being process-oriented as opposed to outcome-oriented (a male trait) offer great managerial benefits on the job. Our intuitive nature makes us better forecasters of trends and our empathetic leanings provide more flexibility in directing teams. Men are uncompromising in who they are in an organization, which means they get to operate from a very authentic position, which makes it easier for them to naturally build strong business relationships. Emulating behavior and traits unnatural to who you are will only cause more frustration and disappointment. Go ahead, be a girl!

See tips for overcoming sexist attitudes at work.

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