Do women need to act macho in the workplace?

The workplace should have changed radically with a twofold increase in women in the workplace compared to the ’60s. But has it, asks Andrea Mara. Or are women acting like men to get ahead?
Do women need to act macho in the workplace?

Do women need to act like men in order to succeed at work?

Apparently many feel they do, with UK research showing that women are deliberately changing their behaviour at work to assume ‘male’ characteristics to be successful. According to a 2013 survey carried out by O2, women are consciously hiding emotions, dressing in a more masculine way, exaggerating assertiveness, and even mirroring the behaviour of male colleagues.

But is this macho culture also prevalent in Ireland? And first of all, do men and women behave differently at work?

There’s plenty of evidence to say that generally yes, there are differences in workplace attitudes.

Confidence, for example, is a key differential, as described in ‘The Confidence Gap’. In their now famous essay in The Atlantic, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote: “There is a particular crisis for women – a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

Studies show that women are likely to apply for promotion when they have 100% of the requirements, whereas men apply when they have 60%. Research by Linda Babcock in her book Women Don’t Ask shows that when it comes to salary, women ask for 30% less money than men, and men initiate negotiations four times as often as women do. “Sometimes they don’t know that change is possible – they don’t know that they can ask,” writes Babcock. “Sometimes they fear that asking may damage a relationship. And sometimes they don’t ask because they’ve learned that society can react badly to women asserting their own needs and desires.” Of course these are generalisations and there are many exceptions. But men and women tend to have innate differences that carry through to the workplace.

Non-executive director and strategic management consultant Julie O’Neill ( agrees. “Men and women have different natural talents and innate characteristics. I think women tend to be better at reading non-verbal cues, more collaborative and more emotionally sensitive and empathetic.

Strategic management consultant Julie O’Neill
Strategic management consultant Julie O’Neill

“Women also have a tendency to apologise – men don’t, they’re more likely to just get on with it. And men are good at being succinct.”

Literature on the differing behaviours goes back to how men are socialised from an early age – skills they learn through team sports, for example, are brought to use in the workforce. “Men can be robust with one another on the pitch, then go for a pint afterwards,” says O’Neill who is a non-executive director of Ryanair and Permanent TSB. “I learned from working with men that it’s OK to have fairly confrontational encounters without personalising it.”

Catherine, who didn’t want to give her full name, works in the clinical trial industry. She sees differences in how men and women operate at work. “I think men are far better at standing up for themselves and getting what they deserve. When looking for promotion or pay rises, they have no qualms discussing it with their managers – they can make the argument based on facts. Whereas I think women feel guilty asking for promotions or pay rises.”

She believes that qualities innate to women – being good listeners and communicators – are so important that they could never hold them back, but she has observed less positive differences too.

Former Deputy CEO of ESB Brid Horan believes that qualities innate to women – being good listeners and communicators – are so important that they could never hold them back, but she has observed some less positive differences too.

“What I do see is a certain lack of confidence in some women, which is particularly surprising given their achievements and qualifications. I also think that women can sometimes impose unrealistic and unnecessarily high standards on themselves – for example, it is widely acknowledged that women may be less inclined to put themselves forward for advancement.”

So yes there are differences, and yes, there are more men than women in leadership positions – does that mean women should act like men to get ahead?

Julie O’Neill doesn’t think so. “There are differences but it’s a positive, not a negative. We can all have equal skills and training and qualifications but at the same time have respect for different insights and perspectives that we bring to the table. Any group lacking diversity runs the risk of groupthink. You get something different if you’ve a mix around the table.”

Catherine has a slightly different perspective. “I try to ‘think like a man’ throughout my working day, to help detach from feelings and emotions that get in the way of getting the job done,” she says. “For me it’s purely about keeping emotions out of the equation. It’s about not taking things personally. I work in an office that is predominantly female and there have been times when I wish there were more men present to diffuse tensions that build up, and to break the personal conflicts – men do have a knack for laughing things off and forgetting about disagreements.”

Former deputy CEO of ESB, Brid Horan
Former deputy CEO of ESB, Brid Horan

Brid Horan, who is a member of the 30% Club Steering Committee, is not surprised that women may feel they should act like men in order to succeed, given the current imbalance in the gender mix in leadership. “There are more US CEOs named John than there are female CEOs. This pattern is repeated around the world. It has created a stereotype of leadership which is seen as male, and this affects both conscious and unconscious decision-making.”

But she is very clear in her view that women should not act like men to get ahead. “I believe that women should be true to themselves and their own individual strengths. Each of us has unique talents, experiences and perspectives and it’s by fully exploiting and developing the rich mix from this diversity that organisations can unleash the range of talent available to them.

Julie O’Neill sums it up. “I do occasionally think, ‘How would a man handle this situation?’ You can learn a lot from watching how men operate, and men can learn a lot from women too.”

The message is clear: watch and learn from both women and men at the top, but most importantly, stay true to yourself. The business case for diversity is proven and an organisation run by people who all behave as one gender is no more effective than one made up of only one gender.

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