For everyone to advance at work, we need to teach the value of 'girly' qualities

Last week, Cardiff University released a study finding that -- even after controlling for parenthood and domestic duties -- male academics in the UK reached more senior positions than their female counterparts.  

The headline, "Gender not children 'holds women academics back'", leaves a glaring question. If it's not kids, what is it? 

The report noted 'discrimination against women' as one possible cause, to which women everywhere will respond ‘No duh’. As a parent of three, I know that children and the division of household labour present massive career hurdles for women. But I also know there's something else to it.

In our time, what does discrimination against women look like? Do senior academics believe that feeble female brains aren't worthy? It's rarely that obvious these days. I think the more likely answer lies in the qualities we've all come to value socially and professionally. For example, consider the findings of two recent studies:

1. Narcissists, who have a heightened sense of confidence and entitlement, tend to be more successful, particularly in positions of power. Further, men consistently score higher in the first two of three aspects of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory -- leadership and entitlement.

2. Women are more likely to take on thankless tasks at work that don't lead to promotion.

Of course, not all narcissists are men and not all confidence is narcissism. But what men and narcissists have in common is that they are less likely to be hindered by self doubt or other people’s opinions. Whether or not this confidence is founded or helpful to society, it leads to success.

It's not useful for any of us to value arrogance, blind confidence or self-promotion. Yet many of our attempts to boost the career prospects of women take the existing values of the working world as read. Women need to be more like the people currently succeeding. We need more female narcissists. 

But what if we tried to re-frame our values around hard work, collaboration and humility? Some of the attributes seen as holding women back could actually make everyone more productive. We need leaders who reflect on criticism they receive, as well as those who will put their hand up for a share of the drudge work. The female academics in the study had higher teaching loads than their male counterparts, leaving less time for more prestigious pursuits-- but those classes aren't going to teach themselves. 

Full disclosure: I have struggled for most of my professional life to suppress ‘feminine’ qualities. I am a workhorse who takes on thankless tasks, and I am collaborative to a fault. Needing to ‘play the game’ at work stresses me out. But with the wisdom of old age, I wonder if I’ve been selling myself short.

Yes, confidence and resilience are important, but leadership is also about being sensitive to the needs of a team and getting the best out of everyone. Rather than contorting myself into an uber-confident cartoon boss, shouldn’t there be a bit more room for a leader like me?

Shifting the values of the professional world is no small task, but I think we need to start with the values we teach our children. We hold genetically unfounded but hard-dying stereotypes about what boys and girls are like, and we know that children absorb these early: that girls are 'good' and boys take risks; that girls are more empathetic than boys are; that boys are more naturally be brilliant and girls are harder workers. Most of this is nonsense invented by us. But we first assign these stereotypes to kids, impacting how they see themselves, and then we then show them that ‘girly’ traits aren’t worth as much (and that's before we even start thinking about how we value the qualities we assign to different races, ethnicities and religions). Qualities seen as feminine have long been a hindrance to professional success, regardless of whether they’re actually useful. Female academics who published more research were still promoted less, maybe because they were perceived as being try-hards rather than geniuses. 

Of course we should do all we can to build confidence in girls, but we should also be supporting our boys to be reflective and empathetic. We shouldn't want the female academics to shirk teaching or to get promoted while publishing less -- we should want male academics to be held to the same standard, and to step aside if they don't. But for the next generation to value that sort of humility and self-awareness, we need to start teaching them young.

Perhaps supporting all children to develop 'feminine' qualities will help fight the nebulous 'gender discrimination' found in this study and elsewhere. Even if it doesn't, it will almost certainly make our working world less frustrating and more productive.