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feminity and power

When a study from Rice University in Houston came out last week showing that women were twice as likely to use emoticons in what is increasingly one of the most common ways to communicate – texting – I brushed it off as useless trivia.

But then I started recognizing other habits that women, including me, use when communicating digitally, such as multiple exclamation marks and closing off e-mails with overly touching language. There appears to be a need to go to great lengths to ensure that we come across softly, even in a professional setting. If "language is power," as British novelist Angela Carter once said, then what do these smiley faces say about us?

To the uninitiated, they may smack of insecurity but I'm starting to think otherwise. Power plays in business, or in politics, often involve cues such as cutting someone off mid-sentence or offering an encouraging nod. But they also rely on fostering influence through carefully developed relationships. Sometimes, it may only take a smiley face to win over an ally.

Still, advancing in the business world as a woman requires some careful manoeuvring, and women who "take charge" in ways deemed to be masculine may come across as competent but they're often disliked – a dilemma referred to as the "double bind."

The good news is that while the definition of femininity remains the same, the understanding of what it means to be powerful appears to be evolving.

"In business, most people define natural feminine traits as being receptive and nurturing," explained Marcia Reynolds, Phoenix-based author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. But feminine traits should not be mistaken for passivity, she said. Women are more likely to demonstrate skills of empathy, collaboration, diplomacy and a deep sense of how systems and people interconnect in an organization, she said. Together, such traits create a powerful force.

While girls may be taught to refrain from power in the traditional sense, because it comes with the label of being "bossy" or "pushy," they could be taught other forms of subtle influence, Dr. Reynolds suggests. That could include how to exercise relational power, where others accept your decision because they trust and admire you.

Still, reconciling power with femininity in the workplace remains an uphill battle. A report published in January, called Women and the Paradox of Power, uncovered a list of external barriers, such as cultural stereotypes, and internal ones, such as a lack of confidence, that kept women from exercising more influence.

The study's co-author, Anne Perschel, president of Germane Consulting in Worcester, Mass., said the "archetype of femininity appears to be alive and well." While femininity may still mean exercising empathy, being emotionally attuned and making connections, Dr. Perschel also believes that the business world is beginning to value these attributes more.

But the social expectations about how women should behave in business, and what it takes to succeed, continue to be a work in progress. A Yale University study published last year found that to advance in the work force, women must know when to turn off, and on, "masculine traits."

That requires a careful balancing act. "Very few things are actually gender neutral," explained Marie-Hélène Budworth, associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at Toronto's York University.

"Since power has been viewed as masculine for so long, it is challenging for us to break from our historical understanding of the term despite our best efforts and objective understanding that women can be both feminine and powerful," she said.

Dr. Budworth believes the business world is more accepting of a broader set of masculine and feminine behaviours as part of successful leadership paradigms, but feels progress will be limited until more role models appear.

Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada, agrees that additional female role models will help develop the notion of what it means to be powerful.

"For me, the issue is less about femininity and more about whether people can see women in powerful positions, feminine or not," said Ms. Johnston, who believes female leaders need to act like themselves, and not try to put on a strong persona in the workplace to change conventional views.

For example, Ms. Johnston recalls a recent meeting where the chief executive left early for a parent-teacher conference. "Twenty years ago, she would have feigned a heart attack to get out of that meeting," she joked. For the CEO to disclose that she had to leave for child-care issues showed confidence and authority.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.