Women: Want to Get Ahead in the Business World? Act Like a Man -- Sometimes

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 3:06 PM EDT

By Joseph Conway
Women often face a double standard in the business world: In order to excel in aggressive environments, they need to exert more masculine, dominant behavior; if they want to be liked, society expects them to be passive and more compassionate.

But the double standard is not always a disadvantage. According to a new study, women who can selectively turn on and turn off masculine, aggressive behavior in certain situations have more success in business than men with the same qualifications.

Building upon an earlier study, Olivia O'Neill, assistant professor of management at George Mason University, and her co-author, Professor Charles O'Reilly of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, observed 132 business school graduates over the course of eight years. Their findings: "As a woman, you need to know when to be aggressive," O'Neill says. "If you can master the art of turning it on and off, you'll be even more successful than anyone else."

The merits of "self-monitoring"
Certain women in business exercise a high degree of what O'Neill and O'Reilly call "self-monitoring." "They come into an environment and essentially adapt their behavior to what is called for in the situation," explains O'Neill. The chameleons of the workplace, these particular women can turn up the boardroom machismo to 11, or terminate an employee with an extra degree of care and tact.

"[Self-monitoring] is a very practical mechanism for advancing without really altering the social order or totally morphing your personality," says O'Neill. "It's not the same old dire picture of discrimination in the workplace."

O'Neill's and O'Reilly's previous work had already suggested that both men and women tend to align themselves with jobs and career paths that reflect their own relative masculinity. This time around they found that amongst the more assertive, dominant MBA students drawn to high-power, high-stakes jobs post-graduation, masculine women who excelled at self-monitoring were a force to be reckoned with. They were promoted 1.5 times more than masculine men, two times as much as feminine men, and three times as much as masculine women who lacked the same capacity.

Finding a balance
The findings are in-line with the conclusions Michelle DeKinder-Smith, founder of JaneOutoftheBox.com, an online resource for female entrepreneurs, has drawn from her own research. DeKinder-Smith groups women business owners into types, one of which she calls "Jane Dough."

"Jane Doughs often say they do business 'like a man' -- focusing on financial performance and return on investment. They are very confident in directing a team to achieve specific results," says DeKinder-Smith.

However, for most of the women in the category, drive and assertiveness alone don't guarantee success. "The most successful Jane Doughs we've interviewed exhibit the 'best of both worlds.' They're not afraid to show their feminine softer side, and easily express their compassion and commitment to their employees and customers."

After interviewing more than 4000 female entrepreneurs, DeKinder-Smith has found that Jane Doughs who can master the balance are five times more likely to own businesses with revenues over $1 million.

Tapping the inner "Jane Dough"
If you're a female entrepreneur or a woman looking to get ahead in a competitive, aggressive business environment, O'Neill has some advice for you:

First, "Don't believe the hype about men versus women, because it's important to look at differences within men and women." And second, "it's really important for you to be extra savvy in terms of how you conduct yourself in order to succeed."

With high self-monitoring women ascending the ranks of management today, the next generation of women in business will have an example to follow. If they learn when to flip the switch between aggression and more community-minded behavior, they too will advance faster than their male peers -- shifting the balance of power in the business world.
  • Lindsay Blakely

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