27 September 2023

How women can work better with men

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Homaira Kabir* discusses how women can manage frustrations at work without getting pulled into them.

It is one of the stickiest, crustiest problems of our time: how do women work better with men without having to twist themselves like a pretzel to be like one?

That approach worked well at a time when women needed to prove that they were as competent and as capable as men because they were entering a world made by men for men.

Now that the proving is done beyond doubt, many high potential women find themselves at a dead-end.

They either feel that they are not living in alignment with their strengths and values.

Or that they are walking the fine line of competence and like-ability, also known as the Double Bind, and losing out on both ends.

Competent women are disliked, and like-able women are considered “too nice” for C-suite executive positions.

These challenges are based on cultural biases that are embedded deep in the psyche.

Manterrupting, mansplaining, and “hepeating”—when a woman’s idea is ignored, and a man repeats the same thing and everyone loves it—are just some of the ways these biases play out.

It’s easier to manage these behaviours when they happen in our personal lives where the playing field tends to be more even, and interruptions generally lack ill-intent.

In workplaces though, it’s not really possible to blow off steam (much as you may love to), or to reclaim credit for your ideas without sounding somewhat petty.

So how can competent and ambitious women contribute in ways that bring out their full potential, manage frustrations without getting pulled into them, and change the playing field while they are at it to one where these frustrations are a thing of the past?

What can they do to change the rules of the game from one where they are “lobbing this ball back and forth with men of power and the women who support them” as Xotchil Gonzalez says, to one where they collaborate across divides and bring out the best in everyone?

Here are three things women can do that are immediately in their control:

Be the adult

I once read somewhere that behaviour is always a reflection of age or stage of development.

And Dr. Robert Kegan, who studies adult human development at Harvard University, has found that most individuals are stuck at an earlier stage of development marked by hubris and pride.

The behaviours of male colleagues that frustrate women are generally a reflection of that stunted adult development.

With this understanding, it’s easier to be the adult, and perhaps easier still if you happen to be a parent.

When you see your co-worker as a child who is acting out of line, seeking attention, or interrupting you mid-conversation, you’ll instinctively know how to keep your cool, discern what the situation calls for, and respond assertively when you need to do so.

You may not do anything differently to what you’re already doing.

But you’ll do so from a place of power.

Fuel your energy

This is one of the areas women tend to ignore, because taking care of their own needs generally falls low on their priority list.

But here’s the reality that underpins all performance: it begins with you.

A mother cannot raise her young one effectively if she doesn’t look after her needs.

An adult passenger cannot take care of a child if they do not have their own oxygen mask on first.

And women in the workplace cannot rise to the incessant challenges in the workplace unless they optimize their energy.

This means not only looking after your physical needs, but also listening to your emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.

How will you stay positive? What will you do to distance yourself from negative emotions while listening to them? How will you set boundaries, so you are not running on empty? And how will you attend to your human needs for creativity and self-expression?

Do it together

We live and work in what has been described as a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous.

Gone are the days when one person had all the answers, and others were simply there to carry them out.

The world that we’ve part inherited, and part created, requires not Superwoman, but all of us working together across divides, where we lift as we rise.

This is what ally-ship is about.

It’s about being a champion for others, for helping them see their own brilliance (especially important for women because of a vile inner critic), and about opening doors for them that help them do their best work.

So find a woman (or more than one) to be an ally to, making sure you include at least one minority group.

This may require you to work through your own biases and beliefs, because we all have them.

And find an ally for yourself too, and ideally a male because we’re all in this together.

Aware and conscientious men know that when women rise, so does everyone.

Let them know what your ambitions are, be open to their feedback and engage them in your growth.

This is how women lift and rise together toward a new playing field that works for everyone.

*Homaira Kabir is a women’s leadership coach and the founder of the Goodbye Perfect Project. Her new book Goodbye Perfect will be available in March 2023.

This article first appeared at forbes.com.

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