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Men are the default standard in most workplaces. That reflects history – a sad history – but needs to be confronted today.

In Let Me be Frank, Canadian writer and actor Tracy Dawson catalogues some of the women in the past who succeeded because they dressed like men and were allowed to do things otherwise blocked to their gender. You know about Joan of Arc, but are probably unaware of women such as 18th-century British soldier Hannah Snell (known to her fellow officers as James Gray), red-haired judo champion Rena Kanokogi (known as Rusty to male competitors) and war correspondent Dorothy Lawrence, who made it to the trenches in 1915 disguising herself to look like a man. Many classic books were written by women hiding behind anonymity – Jane Austen and Mary Shelley are but two examples – or a male moniker, like George Sand for Amantine Dupin.

These days, women don’t wear male clothes to work or hide their names (although the latter would improve their chances in job hunts, studies have shown). But they still face barriers and biases because they don’t live up to the male ideal. That has led consultant Cindy Gallop and Manpower Group chief innovation officer Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic to suggest we need to stop criticizing women as if getting them to behave like men would represent some form of progress and instead start questioning men.

“Our recommendation to anyone who’s genuinely interested not just in helping women succeed, but also in helping society prosper and evolve, driving social and economic progress for everyone, is to stop applying sexist criticisms to women, and start applying useful criticisms to change the behaviour of arrogant and overconfident men, since it is men who have long led the system and the status quo,” they write in Harvard Business Review.

“Men need to more thoroughly examine their own behaviours and ask themselves some questions about whether they rely on outdated, privileged, or even toxic, practices to excel within a system they built.”

Not all men. They are all individuals, as are women. But there are patterns by gender, as masculinity and femininity over the years has ingrained itself in our behaviour. That shows in the research on which the two authors base their arguments.

Women can be criticized for their voice – too shrill, or too quiet, or just sounding insecure. Or many women succumb to upspeak, ending sentences as if they were a question. But the alternative – being loud, overconfident, and never in doubt – is not preferable either, even if associated with far too many leaders, usually male.

The authors note that decades of scientific research show no correlation between the loudness and confidence of one’s voice, and one’s actual talents or capabilities. They believe the world would benefit more if many men lowered their voices, spoke less loudly, shouted less and started to ask more questions rather than give unsolicited opinions even in the absence of expertise. “In short, it is men, rather than women, who should be mindful of how much space their voices take up in meetings and discussions,” they declare.

A lot of women have been told to watch their words: Stop apologizing or repeatedly saying “sorry” or using the word “just” as a modifier to their statements. But the alternative, never apologizing or blaming others for your mistakes is hardly exemplary behaviour.

Mansplaining, interrupting and undermining colleagues at work is a bigger issue than women’s meeker approach. “The world will be a happier place when men start saying sorry a whole lot more, and when men increase their use of ‘just’ and other qualifiers to sound more accommodating and collaborative,” they insist.

Some women have been told to be more likeable. Smile more. Display more warmth. Be more self-effacing. Instead, the two authors counter: “Since the majority of anti-social, toxic and immoral behaviours can be directly attributed to men rather than women, and in light of society’s inability to censor, sanction or mitigate such behaviours, we say to men: Please be kind and humble.”

They hope that humility would lead more men to be more open to influencing others with social skills and manners, as opposed to power or privilege.

Assertiveness by many women can be interpreted as aggressiveness or abrasiveness. But the duo argues that because many men are generally more openly aggressive than women, and aggression is generally undesirable in the workplace, it makes more sense to ask men to be less aggressive.

Women are often told to avoid displaying ambition. But if ambition is bad, that negative appears to be raised more often with reference to women. Men are hardly ever called overly ambitious and in some situations are even complimented for such behaviour. “Any society that rewards men for their assertiveness, but encourages women to repress their aspirations and motivation, is not just perpetuating the underrepresentation of women in power, but also selecting leaders on the basis of their greed and perceived confidence, as opposed to their humility and actual competence,” they warn.

They argue a leader who aspires to develop people and build great teams is far more valuable than one obsessed only with advancing their own status and career success. And they say the research shows prosocial and altruistic values are more often found in female than male leaders. Thus, it’s time to tell men to focus their ambitions on bringing other people with them.

Their argument may be perceived as harsh. But it’s based on research. More importantly, it jolts us into thinking about areas where many women run into hurdles while we ignore behaviour by many men that has its own flaws. Women don’t have to dress as men these days to succeed, but they still face many ingrained biases we need to overcome.

Cannonballs

  • Studying polar expeditions with leaders who faced “a perfect storm” before that phrase became commonplace, author Brad Borken concluded that everything they did was accomplished in teams and, crucially, there was always a strong second-in-command, often delegated to lead a key team’s exploits. One advantage of a trusted second-in-command, he adds from his own workplace experience, is people can take ideas to that individual first before approaching the ultimate boss.
  • If your office is hybrid, consider pairing each remote meeting attendee with an in-house buddy who can advocate for them if there are technical glitches or other confusion, journalist Michelle Lodge reports.
  • A LinkedIn Global Talent Trends study found an 83-per-cent increase in job postings mentioning “flexibility” since 2019 and a 147-per-cent increase in “well-being.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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