Women who exhibit "masculine" traits at work can be hurt by what researchers for years have called "the backlash effect." Research has shown women who have stereotypically masculine characteristics, like dominance and self-confidence, are sometimes sanctioned for behaving in ways that are incongruent with the feminine stereotype of supportiveness and submissiveness.
But according to a recent study, women who self-monitor their so-called masculine behavior use it to their advantage and get more work promotions than both men and other women.
"Masculine women who are able to turn on and turn off these masculine traits were more likely able to succeed above female counterparts and male counterparts," said Olivia O'Neill, assistant professor of management at George Mason University. The British Psychological Society has just published research by O'Neill and her co-author, Charles O'Reilly, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
The two professors followed 132 business school graduates, 43 percent of whom were women. The professors first assessed the participants from 1986-1987, the first year of their two-year business school program. Then they assessed the participants again seven to eight years after graduation.
O'Neill said "masculine" women who were good at self-monitoring, or able to accurately assess social situations and project appropriate responses, received more promotions than others.
In fact, the results showed that "masculine" women who were high self-monitors received three times as many promotions as women who were low self-monitors. And assertive women who were high at self monitoring also received one and a half times as many promotions as "feminine" women, irrespective of whether those women were high or low self-monitors.
O'Neill said she tried to see if other factors contributed to the higher number of promotions, but none were as significant.
"We know everything about these people, like birth order and attachment style to their mothers," said O'Neill. "There are a lot of possible explanations that do not seem to be leading to this."
O'Neill said the participants underwent extensive observations and questionnaires and found, for some reason, self-monitoring did not make a difference in the number of promotions men received.
The results showed that "masculine" women who were high self-monitors received one and a half times more promotions than "masculine" men and about twice as many promotions as "feminine" men, regardless of whether the men were high or low self-monitors.
O'Neill said one possibility is that self-monitoring is especially important for women because they face a double edged sword with gender stereotypes and workplace success. Women often have to display characteristics that are "masculine" which can be associated with competence, but risk losing "likeability" if they behave against gender stereotyping.
She said both men and women exhibit non-conscious biases regarding gender stereotypes, including even punishing men for acting "feminine."
O'Neill said some media outlets have misconstrued the research by concluding that women should act more feminine in the workplace to receive a promotion.
"That was exactly not what we're saying," O'Neill said. "Nobody is saying act like a lady. The point is to learn to assess the situation and act accordingly."
Janet Hanson, a former Goldman Sachs executive, said assertiveness was a very important trait in her finance career, but equally important were an awareness of company culture, common sense, and confidence.
Hanson, who first joined Goldman Sachs in 1977, was the first woman to be promoted to sales management there. She said aggressiveness was crucial when she worked on the trading floor, or what she called "the Wild West."
"You have to have a tougher exterior. There's a lot of money on the line and trades happen very fast. If you can't survive in that culture, whether you're male or female, you're out," said Hanson, who started a network for female professionals and students called 85 Broads. Named after Goldman Sach's former New York City address, 85 Broad Street, the organization now has 25,000 members.
But what worked in the sales and trading group at Goldman Sachs would not necessarily work in every circumstance, said Hanson -- for instance, in the boardroom, with the investment banking division, or in diplomatic conversations with clients.
"You also have to know how to discuss the market with your clients without any four letter words," said Hanson. "The key is to understand your work environment."
Hanson said she was able to earn the respect of her peers because she extensively studied the firm's history even before her first day.
O'Neill agreed that leadership coaches and successful executives are already aware of the importance of self-monitoring.
"People have been probably doing this all along, but not in such simple terms. There's no blanket rule for how to behave. It's not better to be aggressive all the time, or be kind all the time."
But can people learn how to monitor their behavior like assertiveness and dominance?
Yes, said O'Neill.
"There is some evidence people are genetically born with some traits. Only 25 percent of variance in behavior is related to genetic factors, which is not trivial," said O'Neill. "But the rest is learned, absolutely."
Hanson said she hopes other women do not attempt to emulate men to be successful in the workplace.
"Being able to tell dirty jokes or talk about your escapades at a bar, that doesn't garner you respect, ever," said Hanson.
O'Neill's advice to women who want to be successful in the workplace is: don't disguise your true self, but learn to read situations.
"There's a great demand for women leadership," said O'Neill. "Women may have certain traits that may predispose them to be great leaders. Part of their socialization is to be attentive and aware and advocates of others. In combination with assertiveness and aggressiveness, it's a dynamic combination."
O'Neill said aggressiveness is not a trait women should hide.
"The trick is learning when to use it," she said.