By now, society might assume that women in the workplace have finally earned the right to become something that was long discouraged: themselves. However, it can be hard for women to be authentic in the workplace, especially if they’re just starting out. Research shows that women in predominantly male settings often feel pressure to conform to long-entrenched cultural norms of behavior and gender stereotypes–and to conceal aspects of their identity in order to get ahead.
Gender bias is especially glaring in the technology sector, long characterized as inhospitable to women. Studies find that hostile environments and a feeling of isolation often drive women in mid-management to leave the tech industry. In fact, more than 50% of women drop out of the industry by mid-career.
Consider what once happened early in her career to Amy Weaver, now president and CFO of Salesforce. She was preparing to lead a meeting involving a tough negotiation. A man she considered a friend and mentor pulled her aside to advise her to avoid being too nice and just lay down the law. Amy realized he was describing what he would have done and what would have worked for him. But she knew that if she went in swearing and slapping the table, she would have been inauthentic. Luckily, she had enough confidence in her ability to connect with people and rejected his counsel to, in effect, “act like a man.” She stayed true to her own style and won the day.
These issues inspired me to conduct several interviews to probe whether women leaders in tech have managed to remain true to themselves, and if so, how. I also sought insight into why the field has largely failed to attract and retain women in leadership positions.
My biggest takeaway is that authenticity is a skill that, over time and through experience, can be developed–and that women can indeed succeed by being themselves.
I carried out one-on-one interviews with nine women senior leaders at six technology companies to analyze how they perceive–and confront–the ongoing challenge of being authentic leaders. Eight of the women worked at Fortune 500 companies. They averaged 26 years in the tech industry. Respondents ranged from a C-suite executive and six vice presidents to a managing director and a global director.
To that end, I found that women can “practice” authenticity, ironic and contradictory as this sounds. Surely, you can no more practice authenticity than you can rehearse spontaneity? However, the study participants revealed that individual authenticity was a capability they developed over time. Still, it took practice, patience, and persistence. The better the women leaders understood themselves, and the more they stayed true to what they valued in life, the more authentic they became.
Maintaining authenticity is a balancing act. Being a successful leader requires having enough emotional intelligence to understand not only yourself but also your audience, because only then can you adapt to a given situation without compromising your authenticity. The women I spoke with reported demonstrating such adaptability, mainly through a knack for tailoring communications to the audience being addressed.
In fact, the women reported that different authentic versions of themselves existed and that by applying emotional intelligence, they knew how and when to bring forward the version that best fits the occasion at hand. True authenticity entails embracing both your professional self and your personal self and recognizing that these identities can–and should–co-exist. Integrating these identities establishes authenticity and creates connections with others.
All nine of the women leaders I studied left companies at one point due to feeling they were unable to be authentic. But most reported that currently, they’re able to be themselves. That’s because they understand themselves better now, they know what they value and believe in at work, and they feel free, at least in most situations, to say and do exactly what they want to say and do.
As it turns out, being a woman can be an advantage in the male-dominated tech industry. The women I spoke with reported strongly believing that it helped them stand out favorably in the workplace, especially if they played to the strengths that made them unique. True, some of the women felt compelled to downplay traits perceived as stereotypically attributed to women, such as being too emotional or too talkative. However, eight of the nine interviewees indicated that by being themselves and freely expressing ideas and opinions, they were able to get ahead.
Being more collaborative and empathetic than directive and autocratic may be the greatest superpower a woman can harness. The more authentic a woman can be at work–the more she gets and stays real–the more likely she will be to flourish long-term as a leader.
Samantha Dewalt is the managing director of Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an exclusive education-industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco.
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