The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
When a study from Rice University in Houston, Texas came out last week showing that women were twice as likely to use emoticons in what is increasingly one of the most common ways to communicate – texting – I brushed it off as useless trivia.
But then I started recognizing other habits that women, including me, use when communicating digitally such as multiple exclamation marks and closing off emails with overly touching language. There appears to be a need to go to great lengths to ensure that we come across softly, even in a professional setting. If “language is power,” as the British novelist Angela Carter once said, then what do these smiley faces say about us?
To the uninitiated, they may smack of insecurity but I’m starting to think otherwise. Power plays in business, or even in politics, often involve subtle cues, such as cutting someone off mid-sentence or offering an encouraging nod. But they also rely on fostering influence through carefully developed relationships. Sometimes, it may only take a smiley face to win over an ally.
Still, advancing in the business world as a woman requires some careful maneuvering, and those that “take charge” in ways deemed masculine come across as competent but disliked – a dilemma often referred to as the “double bind.”
The good news is that while the definition of femininity remains the same, the understanding of what it means to be powerful appears to be evolving.
“In business, most people define natural feminine traits as being receptive and nurturing,” explained Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of Wander Woman: How high-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. But she adds that feminine traits should not be mistaken for passivity. Women, she observed, are more likely to demonstrate skills of empathy, collaboration, diplomacy and a deep sense of how systems and people interconnect in an organization. These traits, when you put them all together, create a powerful force.
While girls may be taught to refrain from power in the traditional sense, since it comes with the label of “bossy” or “pushy,” they could be taught other forms of subtle influence, suggested Dr. Reynolds. That could include how to exercise relational power, where others accept your decision because they trust and admire you.
Still, reconciling power with femininity in our current business climate remains an uphill battle. A research report published in January called Women and the Paradox of Power, uncovered a list of external barriers, such as cultural stereotypes, and internal ones that kept women from exercising more influence.
The study’s co-author, Dr. Anne Perschel, president of Germane Consulting in Worcester, MA said the “archetype of femininity appears to be alive and well.” While femininity may still mean exercising empathy, being emotionally attuned and making connections, Dr. Perschel also believes that the business world is beginning to value these attributes more.
But this change remains in the early stages and the social expectation of how women should behave in business, and what it takes to succeed, continues to be a work in progress. A Yale study published last year showed that in order to advance in the workforce, women must know when to turn off and on “masculine traits.”
That requires a carefully balancing act.
“Very few things are actually gender neutral”, explained Dr. Marie-Helene Budworth, associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at York University.
“Since power has been viewed as masculine for so long, it is challenging for us to break from our historical understanding of the term despite our best efforts and objective understanding that women can be both feminine and powerful,” she added.
Dr. Budworth also feels that the business world is more accepting of a broader set of masculine and feminine behaviours as part of successful leadership paradigms, but feels progress will be limited until more role models appear.
Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada, agrees that further role models will help evolve the notion of what it means to be powerful.
“For me, the issue is less about femininity and more about whether people can see women in powerful positions, feminine or not,” said Ms. Johnston, who believes female leaders need to act authentically in the workplace in order to change conventional views.
For example, Ms. Johnston observed at a recent meeting that the CEO left early for a parent-teacher conference. “Twenty years ago, she would have feigned a heart-attack to get out of that meeting,” joked Ms. Johnston. Disclosing that she left for child-care issues showed confidence and authority.
Which brings us back to language and the relational influence one wields with emoticons. If the extra exclamation marks indicate authentic praise and enthusiasm, I saw we stick with our language of power, even if it includes irritating smiley faces.