By Jenifer Snyder, Executive Director of The mGive Foundation
“I was born this way,” proclaims the anthem of a current pop diva. If you prefer a more traditional expression of that sentiment, consider, “to thine own self be true.” But whether it’s the words of Lady GaGa or William Shakespeare that speak to you, my advice is to embrace that message and be true to who you are and not who others or our culture tell you to be.
And that advice goes double in matters of gender roles in the workplace.
I’ve never let myself be constrained by conforming to society’s norms of how a woman should act in the workplace if it wasn’t consistent to who I am as a person and my own professional values.
Long ago, I decided to shrug off how I was “supposed” to behave. For me, this meant not listening to advice about how I was to ignore what might be considered stereotypical female behaviors. It is more important to me to be genuine and cultivate a leadership style that plays to my strengths and fits the organization and people I lead. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama offer two good examples of women who are comfortable with themselves and who embrace their own distinct approaches to gender roles.
“Which designers do you prefer?” a reporter once asked then-Secretary of State Clinton, to which she famously replied, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” Whereas First Lady Michele Obama has appeared on the cover of Vogue, embracing her influence as a fashion trendsetter without diminishing her stature as a successful lawyer. Both women have stellar careers forged by their own unique personalities and approaches to “traditional” gender roles.
Women in the workplace sometimes face a bias against them as being “weak.” One response to this stereotype would be to fight it by proving we can be as steely and tough as men are thought to be. Or, better yet, this line of reasoning goes, women can get ahead by acting even “tougher” than men.
My advice is be who you are and turn that into your source of power. If you are a good listener, empathetic and compassionate, use those skills. Some of my most successful moments as a leader have come when I’ve been thoughtful and flexible and balanced my priorities among multiple demands.
Flexibility and the ability to juggle multiple priorities is a key skill for any leader of a non-profit organization, especially given the scarcity of resources and the need for non-profit leaders to wear multiple hats. Are women better multitaskers than men? The research is mixed. But many women have developed a unique set of cultivated skills that come from juggling the twin demands of being manager and mom.
When it comes to multitasking in a non-profit setting, modern women have had practice at balancing, prioritizing and making decisions about what roles to fill and when those roles need primary focus. Having a successful career and being caregiver at home teaches us to be nimble. This is an advantage that many men do not have. These multiple demands force us to plan and strategize – a key advantage for women according to one researcher.
Professor Keith Laws from the University of Hertfordshire conducted a study on multitasking and found that, during an exercise to find a lost key while enduring multiple interruptions, women had the edge. “The women have a much better planning and strategy for finding the key. The men tend to jump into it and be far less organized and thorough. It’s as if they don’t stop to reflect and plan for a moment.”
That advantage for women may diminish, however, as the Millennial generation enters the workforce. We typically hear that striking a balance between career and family is a concern for women more than men. Not so for Millennials. According to Boston College professor Kathleen Gerson, there is a greater emphasis on “gender flexibility” among Millennials than other generations in fulfilling roles at home and as breadwinners. A Boston College study The New Dad underscored this point – “more than ever before, understanding a young employee’s belief that that he or she can sufficiently meet the needs and responsibilities of parenting as well as meet the expectations and obligations of the workplace will be paramount to retaining and advancing high quality workers.”
I believe that by being true to ourselves and being unconstrained by traditional roles also means that we can be more open to innovation and useful change. A corporate culture that sticks to a top-down, non-listening leadership style can easily miss bold new ideas. That sort of rigidity is one reason why great companies like Kodak became obsolete – they refused to listen to a changing world and the world left them behind.
Being flexible and unconstrained also empowers you to take risks. Nearly everyone told me that starting a company to empower text donations through mobile phones would never work. They were wrong and today mobile fundraising is making a difference in earthquake recovery to helping the victims of the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon.
We live in a world now where conformity – gender or otherwise – is valued less and authenticity is prized more. Be authentic. Be yourself. The world awaits.
Jenifer Snyder is Executive Director of The mGive Foundation. She brings years of leadership experience in the mobile industry to the position. Previously, Jenifer was a founder and General Counsel for 9 Squared, Inc., a mobile content and services company subsequently acquired by the Zed Group. She left Zed in 2007 and started building the mobile channel for social and charitable effort, later forming The mGive Foundation.