Walking the thin line

A few years ago I worked on an extensive leadership development exercise. A significant portion of my work revolved around developing a leadership development program specifically for women leaders. Highly interested in the topic, I probably did way more research than I needed to. My readings left me both amazed and frustrated.

There is absolutely no shortage of data supporting the case for women leaders at every level of the organization. Sadly, there is also no shortage of studies documenting the additional load of challenges women in particular face in the workplace. It was also eye-opening to learn how gender differences can dramatically affect areas like negotiation, applying for promotions or taking credit for work. 

However, what I found most troubling is the advice we give women to deal with this. There seems to be an underlying assumption that for women to thrive in the corporate world, they have to adapt their behavior to the predominant norms. 

It makes perfect sense to teach women the current “rules of the game” and suggest ways to better manage their careers in the present state of affairs. However, from a more strategic perspective, how can we call for diversity then expect everyone to act the same? What is the point of including different people if we are going to require them to behave to a preset standard?

Diversity, culture and expectations

I think the issue goes far beyond gender. As a matter of fact, I think viewing the problem as primarily that of malicious discrimination against women is a limited perspective. I believe it has more to do with how we approach diversity in general.

I heard passionate and, I believe, earnest speeches from managers advocating diversity and expressing their plans to recruit calibers from different industries and educational backgrounds. I also heard the same managers a couple of years later attribute the failure of these work relationships to the fact that the calibers were not “culturally aligned”. As Greg Satell writes, “All too often, culture becomes an excuse for uniformity.

Diversity adds value because of the differences, not despite them. 

To reap the benefits of diversity, we have to truly honor it. We have to understand that people are different and learn to leverage this fact, not fight it. The differences in the way people view and do things might very well make it more challenging to work harmoniously, but they are the reason why teams work better. Diversity adds value because of the differences, not despite them.

But what are we to do now?

Until we get to this place, the question remains about what women can do today.

I had the privilege of discussing this with a number of amazing women. In addition, when I told Sherine Clarke (Corporate Trainer and Facilitator) that I was writing this article, she graciously offered to raise the issue in her management seminars and share the feedback.


Everyone had different experiences and very different input, but they all seemed to agree on one thing: not faking a persona at work.

While several women acknowledged gender as a factor that influences the way they approach things and interact with others, they were very clear that they do not forge themselves into a character they are not.

A manager of learning at a financial services organization who described her style as nurturing at home said that, at work, “I do not leave who I am at the door”. On the other side, Carley Inglis (Learning Development Consultant at Clearly Learning Solution) has no clue why she has always been considered “one of the boys” despite engaging in a lot of traditionally feminine activities. While she realizes that she is perceived differently as a woman, she is clear that she does nothing different to project an image.

“It is about leveraging your strengths,” says Executive Coach Amrita Garg. Everyone has their own style, and if are not functional you need to revisit your style regardless of whether you are male or female.

Look beyond appearances

Surprisingly, a lot of the responses reflected the sentiment that there might be too much divide around gender.

We tend to focus so much on visible differences like sex, color or race, while other invisible differences like personality types might actually carry more weight.

“It is all about the temperament of the people involved,” says Nina Penner (Leadership Transformation Expert and Founder of BluHelium Consulting). You need to know more than just the surface of a man or a woman, and you cannot walk in with assumptions that may or may not be true.

Social intelligence

There may be a lot of wrong ways people interact in the workplace, but there definitely is not one right way. Every group sets its own dynamic, and the ability to read and respond to this dynamic appropriately is one valuable skill to develop.

In a perfect world, the objective of every interaction in the workplace would be to collaborate to get the job done. But we do not live in a perfect world. We can lecture people all we want about the value of diversity and the virtue of teamwork and inclusion, but people do not change their behavior when they are told to. Not even when they are given the data and numbers to prove it. Learning Specialist Nanyamka Robertson gave me a reality check, “It is about persuasion and influence, not showing people the facts.”


There is a reason why advice like “be confident” and “know your worth” is ever-present in women’s responses to this kind of questions.

A few years back, I would have included confidence in the list to remind myself and other women to project confidence to the outside world. Today, I am glad a lot of respondents brought it up but I believe it is even more important for women to project this confidence to the inside, to themselves first and foremost.

We are not always fortunate enough to be surrounded by fair objective managers or colleagues. If you wait for validation for your abilities and hard work from the outside, you might wait for long and lose perspective in the process. Do not undermine the value you bring and never forget that it is your own responsibility to stand up for yourself.