Why is career advice for women still sexist?

'Man up' and 'talk about football' probably won't get you that far.

by Jo Allison
Last Updated: 09 Apr 2017

A recent analysis from Google reveals that while some might think women spend all of their time on YouTube watching beauty tutorials, they’re actually watching more business-focused content. Just another step in the right direction for gender equality in the workplace, right? But what’s so wrong with women brushing up on how to nail an ombre lip? What’s intended to demonstrate females’ increasingly prominent place in business feels more like sexism dressed up a bit differently.

Being a woman and having worked in a variety of both big and small, female and male dominated offices, I’ve been handed a lot of advice on ‘how to make it in a man's world’. One of which happened to be not to talk about ‘frivolous’ topics such as beauty around male colleagues. And while I agree that my days in the office shouldn’t be spent scrolling through the sidebar of shame, I’m from a generation that believes being at work doesn’t mean you stop being who you are.

The majority of ‘constructive advice’ I’ve received can be boiled down to being told to act more ‘like a man’; be more decisive, take on more risk, be more assertive, act more confidently, seek out more p&l responsibility. And while these could be viewed as being asked to act more ‘alpha’, they’re actually also helpful pieces of advice on how to progress. But some other tips I’ve been handed are offensive, laughable and just plain sexist.

Swear like a boss

Since I first stepped foot on the career ladder I’ve been told that I should try and come across as ‘not quite as nice.’ Don’t do things that are ‘too nurturing’. Don’t show emotion. Don’t make anyone coffee, and don’t become ‘the office mum’. Historically having a ‘feminine’ leadership style means you’re too soft and not capable of making the tough calls. But being told by a colleague to ‘talk louder, swear in meetings and try to make people a bit scared of you’ is just counterproductive. After all, studies time and time again show that employees who perceive their leaders as ethical tend to be more engaged in their work. Happier employees are also proven to be more productive.

Blokey banter

At a recent event dressed up as a talk on empowering women in the workplace, one of the ‘strategic workarounds’, recommended for gaining respect from male colleagues, was to ‘become one of the lads’ and to brush up on football (of course, only men are interested in football). But considering that the ability to be self-aware and act ‘authentically’ is positively correlated to numerous outcomes, such as greater personal happiness and more effective leadership performance, why would you set yourself up to be quizzed on an upcoming match that you might not have any interest in?

Don’t dress like a woman

If I can’t change my personality, what about my outfit? Several recruiters have suggested that what I wear could damage my chance for employment. And that if I want to be taken seriously I should wear sedate colours, tone down makeup and not even think about wearing a pink dress. While 80s power dressing might be a few decades outdated, the connotations of colour and fabric still hold: a delicate peach silk shirt would never win a fight against a grey wool suit, for example.

But one of the most invasive ‘tips’ in reference to my physical appearance, was a suggestion to change my Linkedin photo. Apparently, my smiling face and bright, floral jumper made me appear too immature and lacking in authority. But with 79% of Gen Yers saying they want their boss to serve more as a coach or mentor, I’m not sure that looking approachable is such a bad thing.

What’s a girl to do?

Being assertive and powerful are two of the qualities that we’ve been lead to believe are markers of great bosses. Why? Because they are typically exhibited by male business leaders and are seen as the qualities required to be successful.

However, in her recently published book The New Alpha, Danielle Harlan describes a new breed of leader that prizes emotional intelligence and empathy and as a result are more motivating, engaging and achieve greater results. ‘Soft’ or ‘feminine’ attributes such as being caring and compassionate are actually quantifiably impactful. And considering that a global study by John Gerzema, co-author of The Athena Doctrine, found that two-thirds of the population thought the world would be a better place if leaders demonstrated more feminine characteristics – everyone could benefit from closing the empathy gap.

In the words of Dame Carolyn McCall, "Don’t de-feminise the way you are, just be yourself. You need to be comfortable with yourself to be confident." And with the vast majority of Gen Yers saying they want a job where they can be themselves, it’s a shift in mindset that I hope is also going to shift the status quo.

Jo Allison is editor at behavioural insights firm Canvas8.

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