Opinion | Being feminine and showing it at the workplace might just be more acceptable now

Women politicians like Hillary Clinton keep their feminine side under wraps since they know bias against ‘feminine’ behaviour among leaders runs deep. Photo: AFP

19 Dec 2018 | Anuradha Das Mathur

Most women say when masculine traits are expressed by women, they are treated differently

I was among a group of professional women at Yale in November 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost the American presidential elections to Donald Trump. There was consensus in the group that she wouldn’t cry because American politics and the American society would not accept tears from someone who aspired to lead their country. For me, Clinton tearing up would have been the most natural expression, but my thought process obviously is not what Clinton subscribed to. The bias against conventionally “feminine” behaviour among leaders runs deep and wide.

Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Jayalalithaa, and Angela Merkel—all elected as the first women to lead their nations or states—are universally recognized as powerful women and ‘strong’ leaders. Gandhi and Thatcher successfully steered their countries to formidable military victories. Jayalalithaa was a calm leader known for her steely resolve, and Merkel is one of the last remaining signs of strength in Europe. Listening to popular perceptions of these four women, it becomes clear that their ability to not show any emotion, demonstrate toughness and their “lack of femininity” are commonly accepted as reasons for their success in the male-dominated bastion of politics.

As the 21st century economy places increasing emphasis on softer skills such as consensus building and emotional intelligence, traits that are associated with the “feminine”, many in the Western world are prognosticating a future that is female. Hanna Rosin makes this argument in her best-selling book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, where she looks at data to prove that the post-industrial society is better suited for the feminine. She finds that among 15 job categories expected to grow the most in the US this decade, all but two job categories (janitor and computer engineer) are occupied primarily by women (including nursing, home health assistance, child care and food preparation)

Is the world gearing up for change?

While the wage gap and harassment at the workplace remain salient and important issues, it is becoming clear that the modern economy will be more gender neutral and allow women greater opportunities to succeed as “women”. However, the findings of our survey among highly educated professional women in India suggests that we are still playing catch-up. Even today two-thirds of the women we polled believed they needed to exhibit masculine traits to succeed in the workplace.

Our respondents told us that women needed to be aggressive in approaching work, and be loud when they weren’t heard—traits which are associated with men. The flip side to these responses was that most women admitted when these masculine traits are expressed by women, they are treated differently. One respondent wrote, “Men can snap, throw tantrums, be bossy and rude. Women can’t even complain without being branded ‘too emotional’ or ‘menopausal’.” Someone even mentioned that society views ambition as a virtue for men, but a vice for women.

This is commonly called the “double-bind dilemma,” which refers to women’s struggles when they act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes and are viewed as less competent, but when they act inconsistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered unfeminine. It’s a lose-lose at the workplace and at home.

Fortunately, there is a ray of hope. Listening to successful Indian women at conferences and conclaves you will almost always hear about how many of them are mothers, and that leaving their children at home or day care while a difficult decision, was a preferred one. You will almost never hear a man say the same. These women seek to differentiate themselves from the male-dominated corporate world order by mentioning their motherhood or maternal instincts, and wear their femininity on their sleeve. Many are doing this to almost make a point that you can be feminine and successful. Professor Mala Sinha, associate professor of organizational behaviour and business ethics at Faculty of Management Studies notes: “India has many women top leaders and it would be worthwhile to see not just their leadership style, but also their demeanour. It is there to see that they leverage on exalted feminine qualities, with masculine attributes only as buttress. None of them follow the macho approach.” This brings to mind women leaders such as Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Arundhati Bhattacharya and Naina Lal Kidwai.

This message is an important one to send out to the millennial women, who could do with a lot more women role modelling today.

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Vivan Marwaha.