Is Charm the Most Powerful Business Tool Women Have?

Last Updated May 17, 2011 2:55 PM EDT

By Harper Willis
Back in 1984, Susan Spencer took up the post of general manager for the Philadelphia Eagles. She is still the only woman to have ever served this role for an NFL team. Since then, Spencer has run three companies in the overwhelmingly male-dominated food distribution and meat processing industries. In a world where women make up 66% of the work force and only 15% of senior management positions, Spencer is an outlier.

She is the author of "Briefcase Essentials: Discovering Your 12 Natural Talents for Achieving Success in a Male-Dominated Workplace," in which she argues that if women want to get ahead in their businesses and industries, they're better off embracing, not repressing their femininity. Here's what she had to say in a recent interview with BNET.

BNET: What can your book teach women about surviving in a male-dominated workplace?
Spencer: The most powerful tool that women have is being true to themselves. I see too many women trying to survive in male-dominated workplaces by trying to be one of the guys. They wear pants and ties, engage in sports banter, and tell dirty jokes. But this strategy backfires, because they'll never truly be one of the guys and they lose touch with who they are. I know a lot of these women and they are all miserable.

I've thrived by embracing my femininity. As a woman, I find I have a set of natural tendencies and abilities. They include listening, asking questions, following through on commitments and communicating non-verbally. Relying on my innate feminine strengths has been the cornerstone of my success.

BNET: Could you give me an example of when this has worked for you?
Spencer: When I started my first company -- a tennis clothing store -- I had no idea where to begin. So I sat down with my manufacturer, a Russian Jew who spoke barely any English, and I hashed it out with him for three hours. He told me that first I needed to find a pattern maker and then choose the fabric, and taught me how to go about it. I got him to talk to me by being an attentive listener -- something I am naturally good at. I've found men love to answer questions, partly because they get to talk and be listened to. Everyone likes being listened to, but I've found on the whole it's particularly true of men.

BNET: What's the craziest experience you've had working in male-dominated industries?
Spencer: One time I wound up doing shots of vodka with the chair of a Polish company I was trying to convince to move to Michigan. He spoke no English, so we had to use a translator. I had to use a lot of body language to convey what kind of person and businessperson I was. I made sure to smile, make eye contact, keep my head up and engage him in an animated way. Even before we reached the bar, he had linked arms with me and I knew I had won him over. That's another lesson: Don't be afraid to use your feminine charm. It's gotten me out of some sticky situations.

BNET: Don't women risk not being taken seriously if they flaunt their feminine charm?
Spencer: It's true, if a woman wears a shirt with a low neckline and a short skirt to a dinner-and-drinks business meeting she's liable to garner unwanted attention from the men in the room. On the other hand I've even turned that type of situation to my advantage by teaming up with another woman. We play any unwanted attention we receive off the other and often the two of us are just too much of a good thing for the poor guy and he turns to putty in our hands.

BNET: What's the better path to success for a working mothers: climbing the corporate world or starting a company?
Spencer: It's all in the numbers -- women are more likely to be discriminated against, passed over for raises and just passed over even when they're not asking for flextime and a maternity leave so they can raise a family. I think women who are raising a family are better off starting their own company than working for someone else. I find that men are attached to having their employees physically present. Male bosses don't like it when their employees are not within shouting distance, even if they are still working from home. They feel a loss of control. It shouldn't be this way -- it's total BS -- but I'm not the one who gets to decide.

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