Sacha Bonsor, a writer from The Telegraph, recently wrote an article on the hot topic of women in the workplace. In it, they posed the question, "But what if our desire to be liked – and other feminine traits – are not a hindrance, but a new route to professional power?" By comparing findings in The Athena Doctrine and Lean In, they concluded that feminine skills are an asset in any business setting. Read the full article below:
‘The other thing about Sacha,’ concluded my former boss in a goodbye speech a few months ago, ‘is that she is the nicest, most likeable person I have ever worked with.’
Twenty-odd colleagues and I were in a restaurant in South London and I’d just been given a right royal send-off. Having worked at a national newspaper for eight years, I was moving to Harper’s Bazaar.
When I went to bed that night, I felt a number of things: sad to be leaving so many friends, excited about landing a great new job and proud that I hadn’t entirely messed up my career. And yet two little words nagged me. Nice? Likeable? Ninety-five per cent of the speech had been about my professionalism, I had no reason to doubt myself and yet I did.
If I was nice, I wondered, could I be that good?
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, would have had a lot to say to me. In case you have been asleep these past few months, her book, Lean In, has initiated a global catfight.
Her advice to women to ‘lean in’ to our careers has galvanised female columnists: a ‘PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots,’ according to The New York Times; ‘I don’t care if she wears Birkenstocks,’ replied The Sunday Times, ‘she has a valid point to make.’
I liked Sandberg’s book. She spoke directly to that niggling voice in the middle of the night. ‘If a woman is competent,’ she writes, ‘she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. This creates a huge stumbling block for women.’
She goes on, ‘Less than six months after I started at Facebook, Mark [Zuckerberg] and I sat down for my first formal review. One of the things he told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone you aren’t making enough progress. Mark was right.’
But is Zuckerberg right? Is niceness, wanting to be liked, a hindrance for women professionally – not to mention for men – or is it, as Sandberg also writes in her book, ‘a key factor in both professional and personal success’?
The cliché of the powerful woman is that she must also be a ballbreaker – and there’s no doubt that in the past women had to adopt this role to be heard.
But have we reached a tipping point? Is it now the case that those who subscribe to what is essentially an old-fashioned (male) idea of corporate power and success are out of date and looking backwards?
John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, the authors of a new book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, argue that the balance of power in the workplace has shifted decisively. ‘We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent, and transparent,’ they write. ‘And in this world, feminine values are ascendant. Powered by these values – like co-operation, communication and inclusiveness – institutions, businesses and individuals are breaking from old masculine structures and mindsets to become more flexible, collaborative and caring.’
Gerzema, a data analyst, surveyed over 60,000 people from 13 countries and found that two-thirds supported the statement, ‘The world would be a better place if men thought more like women.’ He writes, ‘Feminine values are the operating system of the 21st century.’ The message is clear: get with the programme, boys, or get left behind.
All of which is music to the ears, even if things on the ground aren’t yet as cut and dried as Gerzema might suggest.
Competence and professionalism come first, of course. We have all experienced the very nice, very useless colleague who is going nowhere. But researching this article, I talked to some extremely powerful women – from Arianna Huffington and Martha Lane Fox to a criminal barrister and former Goldman Sachs executive who wanted to remain nameless.
Almost all agreed that at times they’d worried about being too nice (one said she had removed all kisses from her texts and emails due to this fear). But they also agreed that the portrayal of women as ‘pushovers or ballbreakers’ was outdated, offensive and, in the Goldman Sachs woman’s words, ‘complete crap’.
Whether we call it niceness or likeability, it all sits under the umbrella of confidence. If it is because we’ve had to fight harder and are still outnumbered in most workplaces, or because we are simply built differently, or (most likely) both, women still suffer a greater lack of confidence than men.
What is important is to admit it – because what we think makes us less successful might in fact do quite the opposite.
Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, thinks that social and cultural ideals are to blame. ‘Women have specific work-related fears that centre on the paradox of maintaining relationships and remaining “feminine” while still doing a good job,’ she says.
‘Deeply ingrained ideals of femininity make it harder for women to own up fearlessly to their ambitions and express them and pursue them without apology. When we do, we’re met with negative labels that are seldom applied to men doing the same thing. So we internalise that, and pay the price.’
In this regard, men have an easier ride. They may be just as likeable, but the traits that make them so sit happily alongside their open ambition.
‘I am not sure that niceness is a female trait. I can think of lots of my male colleagues who are nice,’ agrees Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton, currently Britain’s only female broadcast political editor. ‘But what I think is different is that no man frets that niceness will be taken as a sign of weakness. I do think women sometimes feel the need to flare our nostrils, to go out of our way to show we’re tough enough.’
This need to ‘flare’ is stronger in male-dominated workplaces. ‘At the criminal bar,’ says a barrister friend, ‘the women are even more competitive and possessive of their work than the men because they have had to fight so hard to get anywhere.’
Stratton agrees that in politics, ‘when you step into the Commons chamber and see what things are like for female MPs, it is more intense’. But, she says, ‘Newsnight is still a very female place. Jeremy [Paxman] once called it the “gynaeocracy” – which we suspect he quite liked.’
Similarly, having moved from a male-dominated environment at a newspaper to an almost exclusively female one at Harper’s Bazaar, I have found that I am surrounded by tough women, but so far I have yet to hear a raised voice.
Moreover, in areas considered to be female-friendly due to flexible hours and less doctrinaire attitudes, figures paint a positive picture of female participation in the workplace. While women hold only 14 per cent of board seats in Britain, and seven per cent of executive directorships, female entrepreneurship has risen by 15 per cent in the past 10 years (male levels remained relatively consistent). Forbes Magazine says women will be behind over half the 9.72 million new small-business jobs expected to be created in America by 2018.
‘I’ve probably worried too much about wanting to please people in the past,’ admits Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com and now the government’s digital adviser. ‘But I am not sure if that’s because I am a woman. I am lucky in that I’ve run my own businesses, so it is rather different. You need the troops to like you, because you are asking them to jump through all sorts of hoops, so trust is a big thing. Let’s face it: nobody is going to go above and beyond for someone they don't like.’
She makes a valid point – I found myself baking cakes for my new digital team within my first two weeks of working at Harper’s Bazaar. Show me a man who would do that. The point is that the very traits we worry about – that make us ‘nice’ – such as empathy and compromise, are the same ones that make women good managers.
A former senior Goldman Sachs executive points to another female trait that, she thinks, makes for success: ‘I think it is damaging to keep on about bully-boy cultures. If you work in a competitive environment, you are going to get very tough, competitive people, regardless of sex. But there is one caveat: when it comes to nurturing or looking out for other staff, I think women are better. In my experience, men look out less for those around them. Women are naturally more nurturing.’
Another friend, who worked on a trading floor and is now an entrepreneur, agrees: ‘It may just be that I am no longer young and pretty, but I think that, in general, women are less hostile to and insecure about other women, and there’s less pandering to men.’ (Women also help men – not always in a fair way, says another friend, a teacher. ‘Four of us share one assistant, and she spends a disproportionate amount of time helping the male teacher “because he needs it more”. He is a bit hopeless! I don’t see men helping the men at all.’)
There may be a long way to go, but the days of women climbing the ladder and hastily pulling it up behind them seem to be diminishing. Feminine expertise in empathy and persuasion are strong tools, and ones we should maximise without – pace Zuckerberg – fear of being too nice. (It was notable that, in all the eulogies for Margaret Thatcher, there was not one account of the former Prime Minister’s readiness to help other women into positions of power.)
‘In the workplace, in the media, everywhere, we’re seeing a shift that is granting more value to what were traditionally considered feminine traits,’ says Huffington. ‘Men and women are tapping into these traits, which will lead us into a more compassionate future: more heart, more nurturing, more collaboration.’
‘I agree,’ says Lane Fox, ‘but I think we need to get to a stage where men help women as much as women do. It’s a crude analogy, but whites needed to help blacks in apartheid, otherwise nothing changed. I am all for women helping women, but I have had a string of men who have backed me and helped me along the way, and until men help women in equal measure, we will be stuck.’
We also need to be more honest, and therefore less cowed, by our own anxieties. Even the Iron Lady admitted her anxiousness ahead of every visit to the dispatch box. This struck Lane Fox who, the day I spoke to her, was to take up her seat in the House of Lords for the first time.
‘I am nervous to the bottom of my stomach about today,’ she says. ‘It’s not about my likeability, niceness or anything else, I just am terribly nervous. If Thatcher felt nervous, and I do, and you do, we can all feel more relaxed about the fact that everyone feels it. It is important to get that message across, because the more we talk about our anxiety, and the more we deal with it head on, the more powerful the debate.’
The key to women’s success in the modern workplace is surely our ability to admit our weaknesses, and invite debate, rather than shrink from them. It is, in fact, this very openness that is named niceness, or likeability, or charm, and it is, thank goodness, helping shape the environments that were created by and for men over generations.
After writing this piece, I was asked to a lunch held in London, for Sheryl Sandberg. At the end of it, a high-powered businesswoman thanked her for talking, and said she’d been jogging home from the school run not so long ago, and bumped into one of her investors. Her instinctive reaction was one of mortification – she should be in the office, and had instead been caught jogging near the school gates.
But then, she said, she gave herself a ‘Lean In Talking-To’. She reminded herself that she had every right to do the school run and be a high flier, and that her guilt was self-inflicted. Consequently, she had the power to change how she felt. She jogged home feeling much better.
So next time someone tells me I am nice, I will do the same: reminding myself that their compliment enhances, rather than diminishes, my professionalism. And then I will offer them another piece of cake.