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IWD 2023: Can women always take their true selves to work?

To celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2023 I teamed up with my buddy and partner, Emma-Jayne Broadway the founder of Talent Partnership Consulting for a coffee and to record us talking about a topic we often find ourselves discussing. Can women be their true selves in the workplace? You can view the video here or below.


'Fitting in' at work


How we show up in a social context, including at work, is most often driven by social norms and expectations. In the workplace, these manifest themselves through organisational culture. If we are working in an environment that is counter-cultural to how we naturally identify and behave, this can be difficult and stressful.


Women can feel compelled to ‘fit in’ and conform to attitudes and behaviours that may not be consistent with their true selves. This can be particularly true when the culture around a woman is relatively masculine which leads to a feeling that she has to become “one of the boys” and hide her authentic self.


Examples I have heard women talk about include feeling obliged to drink beer with men when out socially; learning to talk about male sports such as football; removing personal photos of their children or families from their desks in order to reduce the ‘mother’ identity; reducing their natural voice pitch in meetings or presentations; or becoming unnaturally feisty in conversations in order to be listened to.


Adapting behaviour to workplace environment


It particularly becomes evident when we look at women adapting their behaviour as they move into leadership positions. Our traditional view of leadership aligns with a male style which has been referred to as “agentic’. This sees the leader being in control; authoritative; independent; individualistic, and competitive. This is in contrast to leadership traits most often associated with women which include being more collaborative and collective in their approach; task-focused; compassionate and caring and good at relationship building within their teams.


How can women 'get it right'?


Women are often faced with conflict when moving into leadership positions. To be recognised as an effective leader do they align to the more masculine approach to leadership or remain true to a more authentic approach that fits with their natural traits? If women align with the more traditional male form of leadership women risk being viewed as bossy, aggressive or difficult given the stark contrast these traits have to the traditional female image. On the other hand, sticking with a female image can lead to women being viewed as unable to take the cut and thrust of senior management; not a serious player and insufficiently ambitious so overlooked for promotion.


Loss of talent


We are seeing evidence of a worrying rise in the number of women quitting as they move into mid to senior levels of management. The most recent ‘Women in the Workplace’ 2022 report by Lean In.org and McKinsey identifies this worrying trend which is creating a loss of female talent pipeline at senior leadership level. This loss of female leaders reduces our ability to make changes to the traditional male leadership model from within organisations and also removes important female role models for younger women.


How can change happen?


Organisations should recognise that there is enormous value in female traits. Leadership styles that encourage collaborative, compassionate cultures can be as effective in terms of productivity and performance. It can be effective a building and retaining people in organisations. Changing internal cultures that make it ok for us all to show our more human, collaborative, caring side is a way of getting the best out of employees which improves organisational performance. Both men and women should start to look at and dismantle cultures that require anyone to go to work and feel they have to act a part that is inconsistent with their true selves.


I'd love to hear about your experience of being a woman in a male-dominated environment and how you have managed or been impacted by this, please get in touch!




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