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Natasha Koifman Headshot

Does Being 'Feminine' Make it Harder to Be a Leader?

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For women in business, there's always a fine line to be walked between being persistent and being tough. People tend to say, for a woman to make it to the top, she has to be ruthless...but then she gets judged harshly for being too aggressive. A Stanford School of Business study called this the 'double bind': an unwritten rule that women who act in feminine ways are unlikely to be seen as leaders, and women who operate like men are often judged as unladylike and disliked.

I believe it is possible to be feminine and successful without being too tough, but I agree that this is a balancing act that can be challenging. It's not about conforming to men's or society's labels, although being aware of them can be useful in understanding relationships or expectations. What's important is making the most of what -- and who -- you are, and being true to yourself.

Femininity is not passivity; it is confidence and empathy.
Like Jackie O once said, "I am a woman above everything else." And with being a woman comes a sense of femininity. Softness in manners or in the way you approach a situation can be a good thing. Everyone knows the saying that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar! ...which is a bit of a weird saying I know...because who wants flies anyway...but I digress. Anyway, I believe in being kind, caring, confident and nurturing; you don't have to be crude or cruel to exert authority or be a successful leader.

You can still be 'girlish' and lead like a lady.
In the Forbes article, "Can 'Feminine' Women Make it to the Top?", the author writes about ways to be 'feminine': through looks, behaviour and actions. She negatively associates 'acting girlish' with seduction: being flirtatious or cute. However, I prefer to embrace this side of my personality; I never want to lose it. It's not about dumbing yourself down; I see women do this around men too often. You can be feminine and still be smart, and you'll gain much more respect this way. In a recent interview with Women's Post, I described myself as having the maturity of a woman but the playfulness of a girl; it's a frame of mind that helps me work hard and have fun doing it.

The 'Erotic Capital' debate: is this a tool we should be using?
A few years ago, British author Catherine Hakim released a controversial text called Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. It created a divide between supporters and opponents, and I was part of a debate on the topic with Carrie Kirkman, CEO of Jones Group Canada, and Carolyn Lawrence, CEO of Women of Influence, on CBC's The Current. Hakim defined this 'sexual' asset as similar to economic, social and cultural characteristics, and as something that we should be using to get ahead. As I stated in the CBC discussion, I was actually against Hakim's theory. When I first started out in my career, I remember going out of my way to downplay my femininity by wearing masculine pant suits, turtlenecks...sure it was trendy at the time but I think that style came as a result of women rejecting the 1950s-esque 'housewife' limitations. I wanted to ensure my success was about my brains not anything else. The flipside of this position is that old adage: 'if you look good, you feel good; if you feel good, you do good.' Hakim says men use our sexuality to hold us down, so why shouldn't we use it to raise us up? I think it's a fine line but her basic argument is...if you've got it, use it.

Embrace femininity; it provides a unique skillset for women.
When you think of 'feminine' characteristics in the workplace, other than our appearance, what comes to mind? Collaboration, support, sharing, encouragement, caring... all positives. Even using emoticons in texting and emails has been shown to be an effective use of 'feminine' behaviour. I personally love using emoticons! I feel it helps me keep that girly playfulness in my correspondence, and allows me to be more expressive. McKinsey & Company actually calls these feminine behaviours 'centered leadership'; but it's a success model meant for both men and women to follow. It may be a 'man's world' out there, but as emotional women we bring unique skills to the table; let's embrace them.

Big girls don't cry...but sometimes we get hurt.
The downside to being an empathetic woman is we're also sensitive creatures. And unfortunately there are people out there who will use this against us. Recently, I found myself in a situation where I was being judged and treated in a way that a male counterpart would not be subjected to. I was hit where it hurt, on a very personal matter, and that was the intent. It's not that I wish I behaved in a tougher way -- to be honest, the man who set out to hurt me is the one who should be changing his behaviour -- but there I was in the midst of that 'double bind'! It's hard to balance being sensitive and 'feminine' with having a thick skin sometimes. But being able to -- and knowing when to -- turn on and off those 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities is what will get us ahead.

I am a big believer in female mentorship and in helping women succeed. We can all use some support as we evolve and grow and learn to embrace our true selves. In the end, it does take a bit of brawn in addition to brains to get ahead in this life, but knowing the difference between 'necessary roughness' and commitment to be one's best is an integral part of achieving success. This great quote from Estee Lauder sums it up perfectly: "Toughness is not dependent on being crude or cruel. You can be feminine and tough. I love my femininity as much as I rely on my toughness. What others call tough, I call persistence."

xo Natasha

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