Men’s Guide to Ultimate Power- Strategy #3

Here is the 3rd strategy of 50 strategies from my upcoming book. I am looking for beta readersso email me if you want to read the whole thing!  I welcome any feedback!

“Men’s Guide to Ultimate Power -50 Strategies to Hold Women Back (Or Not)”

Strategy 3. Tell women they just need more courage

A male executive once counseled me to be less direct and assertive because he found that my style offended people. When I asked if he would make the comment to me if I were a man, he admitted that he would not. Therefore, I told him that I considered his comment a compliment.” Susan Solivic,

It drives me crazy when someone says to a woman, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you stand up for yourself!? Why didn’t you negotiate harder? Where is your back bone? Have you no courage?”

Have you ever noticed how often we tell women that they just need a bit more courage or confidence? Indeed Sheryl Sandberg, in her best-selling book “Lean In,” tells women over and over that they lack courage and confidence and without it, they will never be truly successful.  She also suggests many practical solutions such as raising our hands more, and negotiating harder, all of which sound awfully sensible and familiar, yet don’t feel quite right.

If you look more closely at these comments you will see that they are pure rhetoric. They are not only bad advice, but they send women off onto a path of self development, that not only does not work, but actually holds women back. Here is how this trap of “get more courage” rhetoric works.

Stage 1: First we tell women that they need more courage and must act more assertively. So women sign up for courses and read books on self-esteem and assertiveness and begin to employ strategies like speaking up more often and negotiating harder for raises.

Stage 2: As women put to use their newly found skills, they begin to feel pushback. Her colleagues no longer like her, men avoid her and she gets excluded from meetings. Women call her a bitch boss. She is told by her supervisor that she is too tough and that a more gentle approach might work.

Stage 3: She blames herself and hires a business coach to teach her the fine art of being a strong woman in power. The coach (usually a masculine woman)  shows her how to lead from behind, how to stop offending men by appearing too strong, how to be both firm and kind, and do things like, give credit to your boss for your work. And above all else, smile.

Stage 4: So the woman works day in and day out trying to master these very delicate, difficult and often self-effacing tasks.  Eventually she feels like a fraud or cameleon.  People pick up on this and call her untrustworthy. She loses self confidence and decides to lay low, below the radar of attacks. Eventually some boss sees her amazing potential and wonders why she has little courage. He tells her to get some! And the cycle continues.

It is not her lack of courage that is the problem at all. Women have lots of courage. What they don’t have is the strength to put up with continual pressure to be something they can never be. They can’t actually becaoem someone they are not.  When we reject women for who they are (such as caring, considerate and collaborative) over and over, they do one of two things. They either pretend forever and hone their acting skills or they leave.  This is the damning power of “courage rhetoric” and this message is reinforced every single time we hear someone tell us that we simply need to raise our hands more often.

If we looked more closely at research and had a better understanding of women within our cultural settings we would quickly come to the conclusion that women do not need more confidence, nor are they spineless or passive. It only looks this way to most men. Rather women are masters at relationships and assessing complex interpersonal situations. Many have high empathy, high sensitivity and are intuitive.

Many women who rise to the top actually play “the game” perfectly, otherwise they get shoved out. They state their assertions as if they were questions, not wanting to make others feel stupid. They offer their brilliant ideas as if they were just randomly contemplated to allow others to feel part of the process. They say things like, “That’s a great idea Bob” knowing they mentioned it to Bob last week.

Women have learned all their lives exactly how to behave to get things done. From the day they are born, girls learn who has the power and how to use their somewhat limited power to persuade others to listen and follow. They are not stupid. They learn very quickly what to say and when to say it. They learn early on that it is inappropriate to seek or wield power particularly in relation to boys or men.  They learn not to yell, learn not to be seen as too pushy or bossy and they never get physical. They learn how to include everyone, to like everyone, and also to put others first.

As a result most women have learned precisely when they have the power to push and when they do not. They eventually learn the exact point at which they will be perceived as too aggressive. And even more importantly, women know the high cost if they don’t get it right. If women speak too loudly they will not be invited out to lunch. If they embarrass a man in public, they will never get a promotion again. Indeed, one male author advises women that if they dare to make a man feel bad about himself she will be “deep sixed” and her career will evaporate!

Many women I know have told me of situations where they inadvertently “burned bridges” or damaged relationships with men so badly, they could never be repaired. Yet men often trash relationships with other men with apparently little impact. To men its all part of the game – you win some you lose some. To women, losing is simply too costly and must be weighed out carefully or avoided. And because so few women succeed, we have come to know that we are very lucky if we can dance this dance without being tossed off the dance floor for stepping on someone’s toes.  All of this explains why so many women do not want to take risks and do not want to raise their hands.

Indeed in my opinion many of the women who succeed in business the ones that actually have less courage or not concerned with asserting their power. Whether naively or with disinterest they stay silent, don’t rock the boat and viola- they get promoted. This may be great for them, but not usually for all the other women who spoke up and got left behind.

The bottom line. Too many people tell women that all they need is confidence to get ahead. They tell women to be assertive and raise their hands more. This advice is killing women for the following reasons.

  • It assumes that women are to blame for their lack of success and that the solution is within their individual power and very easy.
  • It suggests that women are naïve, unskilled and weak-minded. Women are so dumb that they have not learned that all they need is courage or are so weak to have not obtained some by now.
  • This advice often backfires as women get rejected for trying too hard. This results in women feeling even worse about themselves, feeling like frauds and suffering self-doubt and low self-esteem.
  • There is absolutely no research showing that women who act more confidently are actually more successful, more likely to get promoted or more happy. If confidence were such an effective strategy for women why has it not worked over the last hundred years at getting women into positions of power?

What appears to be a lack of courage in professional women are actually well-crafted behaviors. Women are masters of navigating a world where women not only have little real power, but are put in their place if they try to assume too much power. They are brilliant at navigating the land-mine filled world where men control the game.

So let’s be clear, women are not sabotaging themselves when they put themselves down or put others first. They are simply smart in assessing risk. And to tell women that there is no risk, would be foolhardy and put women in danger. Women know all too well, just how easily they can be knocked out of the game and just how hard it is to get back in.

What to do. Do not fall for the rhetoric that says women’s lack of confidence is holding them back.

  • Stop telling women that they simply need more courage to succeed.
  • Stop blaming women, stop asking women to jump off cliffs and stop putting them in jobs where only an Olympian would succeed.
  • Understand how confidence- building techniques often backfire, when women are rejected and feel even worse about themselves.
  • Honor the skill and brilliance of women as they assess risk and navigate the work and business world of hidden power-laden land mines.
  • Understand that the epidemic of lack of self-esteem can only be cured by accepting women for their true strengths and stopping the constant pressure to be something else (like tougher).
  • Give women many chances and tell them you have her back if she wants to do something risky. Don’t crucifying them for making mistakes.

If we really want women to be more confident, we need to stop rejecting them and making their lives so difficult. We need to truly accept them for who they are and stop telling them to meet impossible expectations. END

copyright Maureen F Fitzgerald PhD please copy only with permission.

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