Weak. Meek. Soft-spoken. Nice. These are just a few of the descriptors that have been used to isolate and diminish women’s roles in corporate environments, pushing into stereotypes that are expected of them. If women are too opinionated at work, they’re pushy. If they’re too aggressive, they’re bitchy. If they don’t speak up enough in meetings, they aren’t bold enough. And forget showing any emotion at work.
But the tides are changing, as emotional intelligence becomes more desired in professional environments and the pursuit for workplace equity is slowly forcing companies to reframe these traits as assets. Someone weak, meek, or soft-spoken might actually be thoughtful, considerate, and strategic in a negotiation. Here’s how women can start to flip the script in professional environments:
Reframe “soft” as “compassionate”
In the age of quarantines, scrambling for vaccine appointments and changing plans on the fly as childrens’ schools shut down, compassion became a vital trait in leaders. Even the most cutthroat bosses had to adapt to the changing times, where real-life bleeds more and more into work life.
“When you’re working from home and your internet goes down and you have three kids that you’re trying to get online to do homeschooling, it’s someone with soft skills and compassion who is going to be like ‘You know what, I’ve been there,’” says Angelica Gianchandani, a professor of marketing and leadership at the University of New Haven. Gianchandani hopes to see leaders embody this trait and lean into their employees’ need for additional support.
Normalize taboo topics
In most male-dominated corporate environments, talking about things like fertility treatments and periods is far from the norm. But, it is essential to embrace these topics as part of a healthy culture, as 80% of women suffer from period pain (sometimes so severe that it disrupts their everyday lives). That’s why Kristel De Groot, CEO and co-founder of Your Super, a plant-based health supplement company, created “moon days” for her employees. Up to 12 times per year, her female-identifying employees can take a moon day, which can mean anything from taking the day off or canceling all meetings.
“It might mean you don’t do anything, or you take a half-day, or you say ‘Hey, I don’t really want to talk to anyone because I’m not in the mood’ or ‘I feel creative and just want to do my own work,’” De Groot says. Ultimately, the flexibility of these days helps to eliminate the taboo of periods impacting women at work and increases male colleagues’ awareness of the impact of periods.
Show emotion at work
From a young age, society teaches women that showing emotion at work—like, say, crying in front of your boss—is career suicide. So women hide in bathrooms, in their cars and in their cubicles to get their feelings “in check” in order to not show weakness. But mental health challenges during the pandemic have forced companies to step up as an additional resource rather than another system of judgment.
“If they say you are being emotional because you are being compassionate, that really your emotional intelligence. It’s your ability to connect and be there for an employee,” Gianchandani says.
She explains that workers who are heard and seen have less burnout, leading to lower (expensive) turnover rates. In fact, if employees are crying at work, that’s a sign of toxic workplace culture.
“I think the range of acceptable emotions at work has widened, which is good as long as the emotions are not destructive, are utilized and processed to advance the team and organization, and are not indicative of mental health issues that should be addressed by a mental health professional,” says Laura Freebairn-Smith. Freebairn-Smith is the co-founder and partner at Organizational Performance Group (OPG) and helps leaders create strategic plans through organizational development guidance. She also helps her clients—which includes organizations like The New York Times and ESPN—view “acceptable emotions” in a less gendered way. “In the Western developed countries, these behaviors are not as tied to gender as they used to be,” she says. “This is good. We want to exhibit the right behavior for any given situation, not the behavior-box that societal norms enforce.”
Women are far from equal in the workplace, as seen in the pay gap that continues on, with women earning just over 22% less than men in 2021. But beyond this, companies need to make a concrete effort to ensure they include and value women’s voices and traits. Here are a few steps companies can take:
Increasing transparency by communicating clear targets, milestones, and progress
Supporting women in more senior roles
Implementing gender-neutral recruitment processes
Reviewing salaries and gender pay discrepancies
Providing training on unconscious bias
Having a no-tolerance policy on discrimination
Normalizing flexible working and de-stigmatize shared parental leave
Selecting a diverse board
Ensuring you actively provide support and tools for women to progress
Promoting a culture where ideas are embraced by all team members
Reviewing, revisiting, and readjusting for success