Stop Telling Women to "Man Up" at Work

When the Ottawa Citizen asked me to be a columnist, my first response was pride. My second response, after the adrenalin wore off, was complete and utter insecurity.

I sat across from a male friend at brunch, picked sadly at some smoked salmon and asked "why me?" There were smarter people more qualified to opine. He sympathized but couldn't relate. He'd never questioned his intelligence.

We were the spitting image of the gender stereotype du jour: women are less confident than men and that's holding them back in the workplace.

The TVO host Steve Paikin said as much in a recent blog post about how female guests won't come on his show. The Atlantic just ran a long piece titled The Confidence Gap, in which the authors remind us that because of self-doubt, women make less money, receive fewer promotions and rarely land top roles. The message is clear: grow a pair, or enjoy your crappy view from the bottom rungs.

I'm glad we're having this talk. It is no good that insecurity and anxiety are the reins holding back a woman at work. But I'm tired of being told the key to success is to change. Man up. Woman down. Instead, corporations could join the 21st century and see "female qualities" as virtues.

Biology isn't going to change. The jury is out as to whether our brains' physical differences account for gendered behaviour (she has great social skills, he's good with directions), but with hormones there is no debate. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of the Atlantic article, explain how estrogen supports the part of a woman's noggin that encourages "bonding and connection, while discouraging conflict and risk taking ..." Testosterone, meanwhile, is the fuel to confidence's fire, and men have about 10 times as much of it as women do. (Of course there are exceptions to these stereotypes).

The workplace is still a man's world. The oft-cited characteristics of employees who rise to the top like perfectly cooked ravioli are confidence and fearlessness. So women try their best to squeeze into an unnatural mould. UK telecommunications firm O2 recently found that 42 per cent of senior women take on male qualities to be successful, according to their colleagues.

Obviously, some jobs call for certain personality types. You probably shouldn't go into sales if you prefer computers to people. You're not the management type if you hate making decisions. But alpha-male qualities are still the gold standard across most industries, despite the fact that women make up almost 50 per cent of the Canadian workforce.

It's time we update the kind of behaviour that is really best for the workplace.

Paikin wrote that some women decline to appear on The Agenda if they aren't experts on a topic. So? The last thing we need is more people pretending to be knowledgeable on topics they know nothing about. That's what the Internet is for.

Shari Graydon, the founder of a non-profit that encourages women to speak publicly, has an anecdote about how sexes respond to the spotlight. On the day Pope John Paul II died, she was walking in Montreal with her husband when a reporter asked her for comment. Graydon declined. Her husband, on the other hand, said "It's a very sad day for Catholics everywhere." While she uses the memory as a reminder that women should speak up, I think it's a reminder that you shouldn't speak to hear your own voice.

Charles Darwin said "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." And it's been scientifically proven. Unless you're trying to build a career as a commentator, shutting up when you have nothing valuable to contribute is something men should do more.

While the impulse to be the centre of attention may help build a personal brand, it creates an unpleasant work environment. I spoke with one female political commentator and strategist who described sitting around a table with men while working on a campaign. They can be so overpowering that she often shuts up. In her words: "It ends up being a dick-waving contest."

Confidence is good, but it can also be extremely alienating. The traditional corporate structure encourages people to act like robots -- emotions will only get in the way of making the hard decisions necessary to grow the bottom line. But the best bosses and colleagues I've had show emotional range.

Why does the audience love when actors on SNL break down laughing? It shows they are human. For many of us, the corporate world is a straitjacket we don't fit into and a boss or colleague who shows vulnerability is a relief.

When I had to negotiate my salary, my female boss and I spent a few minutes lamenting the awkwardness of playing hardball with each other -- and then we got down to it. Maybe women would be better at asking for more money if the process wasn't so unnecessarily intimidating. And maybe fields like politics and science would be more appealing.

Insecurity is wrongly viewed as a workplace weakness. My self-doubt has made me better at my job. It has rarely stopped me from pursuing a scary opportunity. I'm eager to fill the many gaps in my knowledge, a losing game of Whac-A-Mole. I'm industrious because I know there are many competent and hungry people who could do my job.

Admitting that doesn't make me feel weak, it makes me feel motivated. Imagine an economy based on curiosity and hard work rather than aggression and ego.

That's something I could feel confident about.


*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.