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Five Myths About Women and Success and What You Can Do to Squelch Them

Stop these five myths that hurt women's opportunities and happiness.

One of the greatest surprises and frustration I found when I did my doctoral research on today's women in the workplace was how long it takes for research and literature to catch up with societal trends. In particular, in 2005 I found little had been written about the emerging numbers of strong, smart, goal-driven women in the workplace. As a result, many women felt, and still feel, misunderstood and mismanaged.

Today, more speakers, articles and books give smart, strong, goal-driven women solid encouragement and useful tools. Yet I still find lingering myths about women and success that affect both their opportunities and their sense of well-being. Here are five of those myths.

Some of these myths may still reflect reality in your workplace. Some are based on fading assumptions. You need to question if they are true for you today so you are free to make healthier choices for yourself.

1. Women need to work harder than men to prove themselves. In a recent survey of working adults conducted by Accenture, 68 percent of the women thought it took hard work and long hours to advance in a company. Almost all of my female executive coaching clients tell me they need to work harder than men. The result leaves them feeling burned out and resentful for the lack of appreciation for their efforts.
When I interview their bosses (male and female) and their colleagues, they all wish my clients would lighten up. No one has ever suggested my clients should work harder.
There is a danger that if you work twice as hard as everyone else, you set up the expectation you will work twice as hard forever. Also, if you are working later than everyone else, does it appear that you have to work harder to keep up? Although this myth may be a truth in some workplaces, be careful you are not making these statements up because someone told you this when you first started your career. Your good results speak for themselves.
2. Women can't make mistakes while continually proving their value to the organization. This myth is the sister belief to the first myth. Yet being creative, innovative and an inspiration to others requires you make and learn from mistakes. You will stunt your growth if you only do what you know you will easily master. You will miss opportunities if you don't take some risks.
3. Women can't joke around or they won't be taken seriously. Victor Borge said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people" Laughter is multi-cultural and never gets old. All people laugh at all ages. When we laugh with someone, it is hard to judge them negatively.
Giving people hope and a vision of what is possible helps people move forward. Laughter can also accomplish this. In fact, laughter can be more contagious than encouragement to those who are resistant. It's hard not to smile when someone around you is laughing. Plus, the chemical reaction in the brain increases creativity and productivity. Having a good sense of humor should be on all lists of leadership traits.
4. Feminine traits make women better leaders (or the reverse-women lack the killer-instinct and masculine skills to survive in top positions). A recent HBR blog found that although men account for nearly two-thirds of all leaders, the data Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman collected suggests female bosses may be outperforming their male counterparts. Women were rated higher than men by peers, bosses, workers and direct reports, with the most senior female business leaders being ranked a full 10 percentage points higher than the top male CEOs. What were these "good-leadership" traits? Examples include taking initiative, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.
We should no longer claim these traits to be "masculine." They indicate traits of a good leader regardless of gender.
And, no matter how many books or articles declare feminine qualities as essential to corporate success, traits such as compassion, insight and nurturing must be balanced with the stronger traits mentioned above. Even companies that want these more collaborative traits in their employees still only promote people into upper management positions if they demonstrate they are confident, assertive and can speak with both brevity and clarity.
5. Women don't support each other in the workplace. Yes women do bad things to each other ranging from ignoring people to outright backstabbing. I question if only women do this. I have experienced men who do this as well. I believe this type of behavior reflects the lack of trust in the corporate culture more than the habits of gender.
On the other hand, I know lots of women who give their time and energy to mentor other women and to create opportunities for women to help each other inside and outside of the workplace. I would love for people to quit perpetuating the "cat-fighting" myth.
You can help make this myth go away when you quit repeating a related myth: I don't have time to make friends at work. Friends open doors and connect you with other people. They also can talk with you and sometimes just be silent with you when work is overwhelming or discouraging. Coaches, mentors, and colleagues can provide critical eyes to help you stay on track. Biologically, when you socially connect with others, you activate the brain regions that improve health and increase creativity.

Take time to create your positive conspiracy of change. The more women stand together to remove these myths, the better off we all will be.


You can find more results from my doctoral study and tips for women in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, June 2010).