If women could just overcome the obstacle that is their culture, you would see a lot more of them in corporate top jobs. At least that’s what author Shaunti Feldhahn would have us believe.
The February 6th New York Times column, “Cracking a Male Code of Office Behavior” came to my attention because my partner left it on the kitchen table for me in the morning, with a huge yellow circle around the words, “…working with men is essentially like working with a foreign culture.” Knowing that I live and breathe culture at my job, she thought I would find the read interesting. She was right.
Ms. Feldhahn lures us in by asking if the reader is a “talented professional woman who feels a bit stuck or frustrated at work.” She muses, “maybe you simply don’t understand your male co-workers and bosses – or they don’t understand you.” She had me – especially since she mentions that her insights on male office culture is based on direct research – speaking to “unsuspecting” men in airplanes, subways, and coffee shops. She goes on to say that although it’s important for both sexes to understand each other, men hold more executive jobs, which means they typically control who gets promoted. Therefore, it falls on women to learn and influence how men perceive them, so they (women) can adapt to male behavior and avoid the “traps” that prevent them from breaching the glass ceiling.
Here’s where my intercultural sense began protesting.
Now, I am not naïve – I have almost 17 years of experience in corporate America, and I do understand that men largely control the reins. So as women it’s probably good to learn something about how men think in order to jockey for position. But something about this one-way cultural adaptation (aka assimilation) left a bad taste in my mouth.
Ms. Feldhahn continues by recommending adaptation around 3 major areas, in order to get ahead and be successful in the office:
- Shut off feelings and emotion at work. If you don’t, you come across as unprofessional, irrational, and incompetent to men. Examples of bringing emotion to work include getting defensive, taking criticism “personally”, “pushing too hard” for one’s ideas, or having a personality difference with a colleague. She suggests that one way women can manage her male bosses’ perceptions is by “[forcing] a calm demeanor when she is starting to feel defensive” – stating that it’s science, not just she, that supports this strategy.
- Be sensitive to male colleagues’ insecurities. The author cites an example where a female colleague may unwittingly bruise a male superior’s ego by asking him, in front of their colleagues, why he made a specific business decision. This type of question, when asked in public, may cause him to hold a grudge and avoid (rather than promote) the woman in the future.
- But don’t act like a man. Doing so will distract and displease your male bosses, according to Ms. Feldhahn’s subjects. In fact, she mentions that “the advice to be authentic, not artificial, had been nearly universal in my research.”
As seemingly contradictory as the above may appear, I found it exciting that the author compared working with men to working with a foreign culture – especially since culture is almost always complex and often contains contradictory elements. Also, we at LCW identify gender as one of the major elements that define our cultural self.