Why your ‘feminine’ traits might be your ticket to success
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
A lot of leadership qualities required right now happen to be in the wheelhouse of women. - Stephanie Buscemi | Chief Marketing Officer, Salesforce
Whether you believe it to be outdated or not, there is a longstanding view in our society that some characteristics fall under the masculine realm, whilst others fall under the feminine. Traits such as empathy, intuition and flexibility, to name but a few, typically fall under the female domain; whilst assertiveness, independence and strength under the male.
It also seems true that our society perceives success and leadership as bi-products of male traits. Whichever gender you identify yourself as, it seems that working on developing masculine characteristics is the ticket to success - but is that really so?
On the other hand, feminine traits have often been regarded as weaknesses meant to be overcome, or hidden away in order to get ahead in our professional lives. What seems worse is that these traits are often cited as reasons for ill-regarding or overlooking those in possession of them - she's way too emotional to handle that responsibility - does that ring any bells?
However, the tides do seem to be shifting. With more people emerging as leaders and into positions of power whilst exhibiting these traits, societal opinion seems to be changing in favour of them. As we see more people succeeding whilst displaying characteristics such as empathy and interdependence, we might be also be thinking - is there something to them?
I'm willing to bet so. In my opinion - and based on the opinion of the experts and leaders in the list that follows - society has been overlooking these traits to its own detriment. It is time that we dismantle the myth behind feminine qualities being weaknesses, and instead, acknowledge them for the immense stores of power they really are.
So, what are some of these so-called feminine traits and why might they be your ticket to success?
One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak... I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.
Jacinda Ardern | Prime Minister of New Zealand
The assumption: Society seems to think that being empathetic means women (or whoever displays empathy) are too soft, and not assertive enough, to lead or to to be able to succeed. There has also been a long held belief in our society that those who win, do so at all costs, including at the expense of other people.
A new take: Far from being a trait that makes you weak, empathy is essential for forging authentic connections with other people.
It is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings. And in your professional life, it can take you a long way.
Mahdis Gharaei, co-founder of the female factor, recounts how empathy has led to her career success: 'while I first learned negotiation lessons from mainly male decision-makers, I tried to adapt to their highly assertive way when leading business talks.
However, I soon realised that my authentic style of creating win-win situations and negotiating business deals is strongly tied to my empathetic personality and the ability to listen/understand my counterparts needs. Today, empathy and intuition are the two strongest traits I rely on when leading tough business talks. These 'feminine traits' have certainly shown me better financial results than before.'
A study done by Google in 2013 seems to confirm the power behind empathy. Google was searching for the key ingredient behind their top performer's success, and found that what they all had in common was having empathy and being supportive of one's colleagues. This seems to debunk society's myth that to succeed, one must do so at others' cost.
Another study conducted by Google (Project Aristotle), found that the teams with the most innovative ideas within the company were the ones who showed high levels of empathy to their fellow teammates.
Business.com confirms this connection between empathy and good ideas. They say that empathetic leaders can accelerate company growth and innovation, so hiring empathetic employees and building a culture rooted on empathy is excellent for businesses' bottom-lines.
According to The Wall Street Journal, empathy has become such an essential trait (for both for leaders and companies) that many organisations now even offer empathy training.
Chief Marketing Officer at Salesforce, Stephanie Buscemi, attests to the power of empathy and how women are well-equipped to face the challenges our society faces today: 'women are great readers of people and with the shifting times in which we are living in, this is (now) more important than ever'.
Although assertiveness is what has been long valued in our society and in the workplace, empathy seems to yield equal, if not better results. Furthermore, although anyone can possess empathy, women seem to naturally be equipped with the trait. So, next time someone mistakes this in-born talent for weakness, you can remind yourself of what is true.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
Albert Einstein | Physicist
The assumption: As a society, we believe that strong and powerful leaders are born with a firm hand and strong convictions. Anything less is seen as wishy-washy, and therefore, not leadership material. Furthermore, rules, rigidity and regulations are tenets of the society we live in, and this has arguably left nearly little margin in which to account for people's differences.
A new take: We, as individuals, inevitably contain some blind spots when it comes to our thinking. The best leaders seem to know that, and to allow for flexibility, both in leadership style, and when it comes to leaving space in which to grow and evolve.
Furthermore, allowing for diversity in people and employees seems to incite trust, ingenuity and more productivity from one's followers.
An instance that happened to one of inner circle members, who is also a leader, seems to confirm this. She recalls an incident with one of her employees, who was experiencing physical discomfort at work due to their menstrual cycle and wanted to get off early. Her male counterpart believed that the person in question needed to push through the discomfort and pain and carry on working, in order to not lose any productivity.
However, she was willing to be flexible, and to meet her employee's condition with understanding and allowed her to go home. Later on, she recalls that the employee more than made up for in terms of productivity, and that a bond flourished between them as a result of her being flexible with her productivity standards and what they must look like.
In the same vein, Mary Barra, CEO of automotive giant General Motors, says of her one of the tenets behind her company's success has been to always encourage diversity in their employees and the diversity in their thinking. Flexibility in leadership seems to be paramount to allowing for this inclusivity.
The Harvard Business Review goes on to add that the traditional approaches to strategy don't work as well anymore. That seems to be because they assume a relatively stable and predictable world, which is simply not the case anymore considering our current world's climate. The answer for leaders, then, as well as for people who want to thrive, seems to be to remain flexible and adaptable.
Flexibility allows a leader to adapt to shifting situations, which is imperative in the fast-changing world we are living in.
Shelley Zalis of Forbes explains why women are so well-equipped to do this: 'we’re poised to look forward, think outside the box, and find solutions. When the world zigs, we zag.'
Women are crisis managers by nature. We are intuitive and pay attention to our emotions and to the emotions of others. During a crisis, we can leverage that talent into leadership. And right now, people are looking for leaders.
Dr. Cindy McGovern | CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting and expert in organisational communication
The assumption: Along with characterising intuition as a feminine trait, our society seems to think intuition is unconvincing at best, and woo-woo at worst. Intuition is not really valued in decision making, instead, facts and figures are how we have tended to decide as a collective.
A new take: Albert Einstein has called intuition a sacred gift which our society seems to have forgotten about. Steve Jobs, famed co-founder of Apple adds don’t let the noise of other’s opinion drown out your own inner voice. But is intuition as powerful as they say?
An account from Magdalena Materzok-Weinstabl seems to suggest so. Magdalena is a senior physician in accident surgery and orthopaedics, and she says that she does not follow a textbook recipe to treat her patients, and instead, always trusts her intuition. Surprisingly, perhaps, she says that this is especially true when she is performing an emergency operation.
Even though society may not value our small, still voice we are born with as a gift, some very powerful women seem to suggest that it has been their ticket to success.
Michele Buck, President and CEO of Hershey says of her intuition and how it has been linked to her success: 'one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to weigh the perspectives of those around me with my north star. Then, I listen to my gut, which to me isn’t just natural instinct, it’s been built through years of experience, successes, failures, and everything in between.'
Moreover, decisions made from only our heads may not be the most reliable, since our egos tend to get involved, leading to fear being triggered. This often results in us over-analysing and second-guessing ourselves. Even with all the right data, input, and knowledge in the world, we may still be at a lost for what to do, which is why we arguably need to rely on our inner source of guidance and power - our intuition - in order to find the success that we crave.
People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together.
Michelle Obama | Former First Lady and Author
The assumption: The tale of the lone wolf has been long glamorised in our society. The self-made entrepreneur - or any self-made successful person for that matter - is revered in our culture. The hidden assumption seems to be, that self-made is synonymous for absolute self-reliance, without any help or support offered by others on the way of finding and achieving success.
Moreover, due to the deep inequalities prevalent in our society, less seats are featured at prominent tables are offered to women and other groups of people. High-levels of competition have often -understandably - come as a result, with many people operating under a scarcity mindset, believing one must go at it alone if one is to succeed at getting a seat at those tables.
A new take: We are now coming to realise the gross misconception behind the assumption that those who have achieved high levels of success, have done so completely alone.
As we come to realise, more and more the interconnectedness of all people and things, we come to the realisation that those who manage to find true and lasting success, rely heavily and often on those around them.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Billie Jean King - arguably two of the biggest female role models of the recent past - are said to depended on other strong women throughout their entire journey on their path to success.
Roosevelt is said to have had Amelia Earhart and Lorena Hickok as part of her support system for most of her life, and King is said to have relied on the support of the other women on the Women’s Tennis Association, in order to soar to the heights she did in Tennis.
Another account of the collaboration (and reliance on others) needed in order find success comes from Anna Richards, member of Senior World Cup winning women’s rugby team the Black Ferns Sevens.
She says of the team: 'The New Zealand Sevens call themselves the New Zealand Sisters… It’s very family orientated. It’s about looking after each other on and off the pitch and working for each other. We never leave anybody by themselves we’re always looking after each other. It’s like an extended family.'
In her New York Times bestseller book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how supporting female colleagues enables women to go even further. She encourages women to look for ways in which to help one another, including listening to, encouraging, celebrating, advocating, soliciting and mentoring.
She says that 'a good professional relationship is based on honesty and mutual support and that mutual support means valuing other people’s goals as well as your own.'
Wanting others to succeed, other than oneself, seems to be one of the tickets to success. It can lead to whole organisations being better off for it.
Gail Boudreaux, President and CEO of Anthem, says of it: 'organisations can accomplish extraordinary results when they leverage the power of their collective strength working together.'
What humility does for one is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come but who may be here and needs me.
Maya Angelou | Novelist and Civil Rights Activist
The assumption: Our culture tends to see confidence as a mark of success. Big personalities (as well as big egos) have long been associated with successful people; it is even often conflated for a show of competence and even merit. Humility, in turn, is often mistaken for meekness, reticence, and even for a lack of confidence.
A new take: Tara Mohr, leadership expert and author of Playing Big (a guidebook for women to find more success in their professional lives), says that 'incredible leaders are made from their humility. Their awareness of their own weakness. Their consciousness of the great responsibility that comes with power.'
Often mistaken for modesty - the downplaying or shying away from one's talents and accomplishments - humility is rather a willingness to recognise and learn from one's mistakes, being able to recognise and credit other's contributions and taking others' views into account. It is also taking the view that one can learn from anyone (despite the ranks).
Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture encapsulates this sentiment perfectly. She credits her success to being a 'continuous learner and understand[ing] that it is often from unexpected sources and places that you learn the most.'
Gladysmay Ilagan-Regalado, HR Advisor at Microsoft takes the same view. She says that 'Microsoft's complexity as well as the steep learning curve keeps me humble. I have a lot to learn; and you can learn from everyone – from New Joiners and Interns to Returners and Leavers, to name a few.
Ultimately, life is about making a difference. You are never really done, you are only as good as your last day. Each day, I commit to stay focused on what I am trying to accomplish whilst remaining grateful and grounded in my own purpose.'
Business.com adds that humility allows a leader's humanity to peek through, and that inspires people to follow. They add that when things go off the rails, humble leaders can openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility, which shows others that being human and imperfect is acceptable.
Jim Collins, in his famed business book, Good to Great, notes that the two common traits among successful CEO's are both humility and determination.
Humility seems to be related to gratitude, and with recognising that one's own efforts often comes accompanied by the efforts of several other people. It is arguably what allows you to remain grounded, the throes of success and even failure. One study, done by Caliper suggests it is even linked to persuasiveness.
The study, done into women leaders from major firms around the world, suggests that women tend to be more persuasive than men - and that is due, in large part, to their humility.
Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.
Brené Brown | Vulnerability Researcher, Author and Professor
The assumption: At best, society seems to believe that vulnerability is a weakness that is meant to be overcome, and if not, masked. At its worst, vulnerability is seen by many as a sign of mental or emotional frailty, or instability.
A new take: After researcher-storyteller Brené Brown came into the spotlight with her famous Ted Talk - The Power of Vulnerability - vulnerability has since started gaining a new meaning in people's eyes.
She says that vulnerability is about showing up and being seen (for who we truly are). She says that most of the things we want to experience in life, namely connection, joy, creativity and even success; are wrought with uncertainty. That is why one must be willing to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability, and let others see you, as well as taking chances when nothing is certain.
Furthermore, a survey done by Tara Mohr has found that women thought that having more courage is what was missing for them to be able to achieve success in their careers. Having more courage featured more prominently than having more time in which to dedicate to their careers, having a better team and even acquiring more knowledge or further training.
Understood in terms of courage, then, as Brown suggests, vulnerability might be what we are really craving, and even be might the secret ingredient to success.
Far from being a weakness, vulnerability - or the willingness to be seen as vulnerable - allows one to be seen by others as a fully-fledged human, and paves the way for the many wonderful things we want in life, including success.
7. Deep Listening
If I could tell the world just one thing, I wish that we taught listening. I wish we had structures in our families, in our marriages, in our friendships, in our companies, in our nations where people knew how to listen... When someone shares herself, that is a gift, that is to be respected.
Glennon Doyle | Author and Activist
The assumption: Our society has long prized talking - and talking in a way that demands others' attentions - as a way to attaining success. The thought behind it being that whoever talks the loudest can bring light to their ideas and more easily achieve success. Either way, deep listening, as well as the more introspective ones amongst us, have long been undervalued and underrated.
A new take: Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, took the company from the brink of failure to new soaring heights, after being put at its helm. She credits her success - as well as the wider success of General Motors under her leadership, to 'listening intently to our customer's needs. She says each interaction matters.'
Barra us said to be known for her excellent listening skills. Apparently she will ask for and listen to every opinion in a room, encouraging diverse input from her colleagues. She will do that before gauging for the efficacy of ideas and providing honest feedback. This, in turn, is why she is credited for being extremely approachable as a leader.
Michele Buck, President and CEO of Hershey adds that being a great listener has long been one of my hallmark leadership qualities. 'I find immense value in seeking diverse perspectives when I’m making an important business decision. I want to hear from people who are deep in the organisation, closest to the work, as well as those outside the decision domain who may see things a bit differently.
As a leader, it’s important to set direction and impart your knowledge to others; but, you have to balance that with listening to the expertise and point of views of those around you. Intentional listening, and the learning associated with that, has undoubtedly been key to my success.'
Mirroring this belief, Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President, and CEO of Lockheed Martin credits deep listening to being the key ingredient to her success. She says it all stems from a 'focus on effective communication - and it all starts with the ability to really listen. Listening to your customers leads to a customer-focused vision. And listening to those you lead creates a climate of understanding and trust.'
She adds that listening intently can 'help you to more quickly identify those times when it is critical to step forward and reach out directly to customers, shareholders, or employees, which means listening leads to effective decision making, at every level.'
Beth Ford, President and CEO of Land O’Lakes adds that when it comes to finding success, ;asking questions, then really listening to the answers is key.'
This seems to be confirmed by Project Oxygen, a study conducted by Google into their top employees to find out why they were so successful at Google. The study found that deep listening was amongst the skills most essential in order to attain success.
No matter who and where you are on the journey to finding your strengths and to finding true success and fulfilment, we want you to remember one thing: your uniquely feminine traits should be embraced, because they're your real-life superpowers.
Ready to advance your career and create business opportunities? Join the inner circle!
About the author: Brunna Pimentel is the Blog and Community Lead at the female factor. Get in touch with her on LinkedIn.
This blog post has been written with the important contribution from Philia Kleeman, Content Marketing Intern at the female factor. Get in touch with her on LinkedIn.