Boss Lady

‘Leaning out’ instead of ‘Leaning in’


By now, we should all be familiar with Facebook’s CEO, Sheryl Sandberg. She became famous when her autobiography, titled Lean In, became the new feminist manifesto for women in the office.

Her book famously suggests that, for women to succeed, they need to lean in to the men’s club (aka: act more manly) to be taken more seriously at their job. It certainly worked for her, since she is now the head of a multi-billion dollar industry. Embracing a non-traditional approach helped propel her to the top, and she is certainly qualified for the position.

However, leaning in is not always the best option for career women. Sometimes leaning out (as in acting less like a man, and more like who they are: women) can work just as well. As much as Sandberg’s advice might work well for some women, it is certainly not for everyone. It also forgets a very important tidbit: women in the workplace need to be accepted for who they are, not what mold they can fit.

Of course, not all women are the same. Stereotypes can be dangerous for a reason: they place people into a role that not everyone can or wants to fill. They also can heavily shape the way people are raised or treated, and ultimately influence a large part of their life’s trajectory. The stereotypical traits that are associated with women — nurturing, emotional support, kindness, and an accommodating disposition — are not shared across the gender, and are often seen as points of weakness in the business life. However, even though these stereotypes may be untrue for many women, these “womanly” traits are vital to office culture.

Women are also becoming the leading business owners in the United States, with over 29 percent of American small businesses are owned by women. In the United Kingdom, approximately 17 percent of businesses are owned by women. Although the number is smaller in the UK, the trajectory for growth — as well as the amount of women who are becoming self employed — is increasing sharply. Women are becoming successful business owners as they are and are finding that “leaning in” doesn’t always lead to success.

Let’s look at how women can “lean out” of the typical men’s club of the office, and how these stereotypical women’s traits can actually have a major impact on profits, culture, and success for your career.

Empathy and emotional intelligence

Emotions are rarely seen as a beneficial when it comes to running an office. This is because logic is seen as masculine and emotions are stereotypically feminine. Logic is for level-headed men who can look at facts and numbers, while emotions only get in the way.

Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. As many empathetic people are aware, emotions can be vital to various aspects of a business: from communication, to reaching a wider audience, to hiring and retaining exceptional employees. Emotions allow for understanding and empathy, and emotions are never a weakness in business.

Although not all women are emotionally-driven people, many women are raised to be emotional supports for the people around them. This comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. For one, it forces you to focus on the emotional needs of others while putting your own needs to the side. However, it also allows you to further develop your emotional intelligence: the ability to monitor your personal emotions and decipher the emotional state of others.

Emotional intelligence is vital to business. It is especially vital to leadership roles, where emotional intelligence and effective communication can play a major role in undermining organizational stress and retaining qualified employees. If managers are more able to empathize with their employees, those workers potentially will be less likely to leave the business and more likely to communicate their needs. One study even found that businesses that promoted managers with a high emotional intelligence often saw a 34 percent increase in profits.

If that’s not enough to persuade you, also consider the impact emotional intelligence can have on your personal life. Being more attuned with your personal emotions (and being able to keep them in check when you need to) can help you understand when you need to step away from a situation. It’s essential to prevent personal burnout, as it helps us understand our emotional and mental limits. Having a better grasp on your interpersonal emotions will help you be a better worker and a better leader for your employees.

In your career, emotional intelligence and empathy are traits to feel proud of for anyone: male or female. “Leaning in” might suggest hiding those emotions, but by leaning out — being an unapologetic emotional person — you can make a more powerful impact on your employees and your company as a whole.

Listening and communicating

In business, as in life, there are extroverts and introverts. Oftentimes the most outspoken and extroverted personalities will make their way up through management. Being outgoing is seen as a positive trait. It’s as if being the loudest voice in the room means you are also the smartest, most capable at closing the sale, or getting the job done. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth, as introverted (or quieter) people can be just as smart and capable. They just don’t always need to put a voice to their thoughts.

Both types of personalities have their benefits and disadvantages. However, the favor is often thrown towards the more boisterous side in the modern day office: showing favor for the loud talkers, complete with open floor plans and noisey meetings. Introverts are often swallowed up in this world and rarely have a chance to shine since they aren’t given the space to be more creative.

Women can be on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to personalities, but quiet traits have become stereotypically feminine since so many young girls have been raised to believe that their opinions are less important than that of a man’s.

For some women, this has resulted in a refined ability to navigate difficult situations and change the opinions of others. Essentially, it has made many women successful and influential communicators. Women can listen, formulate a plan, and communicate it effectively. This stereotypical trait that has tried to make many women more submissive has actually made them more persuasive.

In the office, women can listen and absorb the advice of others, and they can find ways to subtly (or overtly) interject their opinions and remain assertive about their plans and ideas. Listening is an important trait to learning to grow, but also an important trait to management. You need to be able to listen to clients, employees, and investors if you want to successfully run a business.

You also need to be open to criticism and self improvement, and have the ability to effectively communicate your needs to others. Emotional intelligence certainly plays a part in how women communicate, but through the way women were raised, they can find ways to be more influential with their message. The business world needs listeners, and many women were given the tools through their upbringing to play that role.

Leaning out

Only in the past few decades have women had a chance to really shine in the working world. A lot has changed since then, but not everything has changed fast enough. This could be because so much of the business world is still catered towards the men, but women are subtly making their own changes. For some, that means “leaning in” and acting more manly so they can work their way to the top.

But this certainly doesn’t work for everyone. Only about 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. That is why “leaning out” should also be embraced as a way for women to integrate themselves more fully into the business world. Already, small businesses are flourishing under the ownership of women, and plenty of resources exist that are catered to the unique needs of female business owners.

The business world is ready and able to shift the paradigm and cater to women too, but that’s not going to happen by “leaning in” toward the men’s club. Instead, women need to also be accepted for who and what they are. Stereotypes can be bad for a reason (they fit people into a preconceived narrative), but there’s no need to shame the more “feminine” side of the business world. By embracing and showcasing certain stereotypical female traits, many women can advance their careers and change the business world — for both men and women — for the better.

About Avery Taylor Phillips

Avery Taylor Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.

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