Women’s Advantages in the Workplace

February 20, 2013

The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Barnard College Career Newsletter.

For most of my grammar school years, I happily pictured myself singing and performing in middle and high school choirs and musicals. My TV role models acted and sang and I would too because I could do anything I wanted to- or at least that’s what my mother had told me. But my life goals changed drastically upon trying out for the middle school chorus. Traditionally, the chorus was a collection of adolescents attempting to avoid taking a language elective. The choir was huge, not particularly distinctive, and to my knowledge, had never won any of the District awards seemingly mass produced and liberally distributed. Yet despite the choir’s poor reputation, the director still awarded me a “three” at tryouts, on a scale of one to three. Three meant tone deaf; it also meant I wasn’t invited to join.

I quickly switched interests and left singing to those naturally gifted. Thankfully for most of us, our areas of interest develop as a result of being considered good at something and receiving positive feedback. Your selection of a major is one of the first significant college-level decisions you make that generally reflects an aptitude in a necessary skill set. Another important decision is the career direction you will take post-college. Ideally you want the job to capitalize on your talents and the particular gifts you will bring to bear at your new office. But, in addition to your specific assets, you may not realize that you have a whole other set of gifts to offer. Those are the abilities that arise from exhibiting that extra X chromosome.

When it comes to the workplace, men and women are wired differently. Women leaders scored much higher than male leaders in persuasiveness and assertiveness, according to a 2005 study by the Caliper group. They were able to “read situations accurately and take information from all sides,” Caliper reflected, which “enhanced their persuasive ability.” In other research, women have proven to be more likely to be team players and to ask their bosses for more challenging work. Additionally, studies indicate that a greater percentage of women work longer hour days than their male counterparts and women show a greater willingness to work on vacation. Listed as among the few negatives compared to men, are women’s levels of self confidence at the office.

Examples of the assets women bring to professional work were highlighted in recent media coverage of the Golden Globes. The day after Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for portraying the female CIA agent involved in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, CBS This Morning interviewed two former top female spies regarding their gender’s unique contribution to the Agency. Valerie Plame Wilson, a 20 year veteran, stated that “…in many cases women do make better operations officers [as a result] … of being able to listen and of being more nurturing.” Jonna Mendez, a 27 year veteran, adds that operative work is “something that women are particularly good at…; taking a lot of small facts, putting them together, finding the patterns, finding the connections.”

These are women who have been trained to pick up the most minute details and cull through important information. They have noticed that women have a special ability as operatives, arguably an ability that would be useful in any work environment. So how can you take advantage of your gender-specific talents? First you have to realize that you possess them. As the Caliper study suggests, women read situations accurately and collect information before they act. Perhaps this innate tendency, plus their relative lack of confidence in the office, prompts women to become more prepared before voicing an opinion or proceeding with a decision. So despite our gender’s relative lack of professional confidence, when we act, we have already researched the information required to make the decision and therefore, as the study suggests, enhanced our ability to persuade others. So go ahead, be the most prepared person in the room and feel free to be assertive because you have done your homework. Your arguments will be compelling.

Now for the gender-related caveats. You’re well prepared, you’re insightful; just don’t take on too much. That’s a problem with our gender. When I was a young investment banker, my boss would brag about me to clients. “She has two children in diapers, goes to the gym before work and is carrying more deals than any of her peers.” Guilty as charged. I didn’t say no, which is a common problem with women. In my case, I started to see my work product slide because I didn’t have enough time to do the projects I took on. And it was my fault. Of course my boss was happy to give me work; I needed to be the one to say, “Enough.” It turns out my experience was somewhat typical, at least according to research reported in the WSJ in January. In a study involving undergraduates, females were 50% more likely to comply with an implicit request for a favor than were male students. Females were reportedly more concerned with the consequences of saying no.

So when you start your career, leverage those assets that you’ve had since birth. But don’t let the female tendency to agree to help, bury you; your company could use a leader like you.