THE BLOG
12/13/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Telling Women to Be Like Men Doesn't Work

It was frustrating to read the recent opinion piece by Fiona Murray, a professor at the prestigious Sloan School of management at MIT and co-director of its Innovation Initiative, advising young women entrepreneurs that "playing by the rules" is the way to win at the venture capital game. Murray told young women pitching to venture capital firms to: (1) wear a uniform; (2) use a confident voice and assertive language; (3) network as if it's your job and (4) watch sports. By the time I got to her suggestion that young women watch sports to better bond with the men who dispense the money they need to fund their initiatives, I didn't know whether to be outraged or depressed.

I don't want to pick on Professor Murray particularly, because every woman who's spent time in the professional world has received this kind of advice at some point. Essentially, it amounts to this: try to look, act and speak as much like men as possible. (Lest you think I'm attributing "maleness" to gender neutral qualities, Professor Murray is very upfront that the attributes she'd like to see young women adopt are typically male, and she has the numbers to prove it.) Well meant as I'm sure this advice is, it is identical to what my generation of young women were told 25 years ago. If it worked, by now the professional world would look far more coed than it actually does. 

A video that ran not long ago in The New York Times, "Great Expectations for Female Lawyers," poignantly explores what happened to women who "played by the rules" of their chosen profession. It follows several women profiled in the Times magazine 12 years ago, when most were new law school grads starting out at a major New York law firm. Watching these women -- both their young and confident younger selves and the older, more sobered present versions -- you can't help but be struck by how very well they embody the ideal suggested by Murray: They are confident and direct; their clothing is professional, feminine but not distracting; and they are all clearly comfortable with their masculine sides. By all rights these brilliant and self-assured young women should have taken the legal world by storm. And yet we learn that these women did not succeed as they hoped. Only a handful remain at the firm and became partners, surrounded by their mostly male counterparts.

So why doesn't Professor Murray's advice work? Shouldn't it be enough to go to the best schools, work hard at our jobs and fit in to the culture of our workplaces? I'm sure there are myriad reasons why adopting male behavior doesn't work for women, but I have two I'd like to talk about.

First, focusing our advice on the young women who are trying to break into a mostly male profession leaves out the most powerful part of the equation: the men who are gatekeepers. Murray seems to accept uncritically the idea that young women entrepreneurs must meet VC representatives who are "male, mid-40s, married with two kids" entirely on their terms. In this scenario, perhaps being able to throw around a sports score or two could help a female entrepreneur on the margin, but as long as men's subjective preferences and dominance of the venture capital world are taken as a given, there will be absolute limits on how many women-led ventures will be funded. 

If as a society we want to truly change the way our working world looks, men must be part of the conversation.  Apart from the obvious unfairness of asking women to solve the problem of fully integrating into male-dominated professions entirely on our own, aping male behavior in an effort to fit in to a single-sex work culture is ineffective. The guys aren't really fooled, and in a pinch -- say, when only a few companies can be funded, or during layoffs -- the numbers show that they favor their own.

In short, if stereotypically masculine behavior remains the standard for success in the workplace, then as a group women will always come in second. Young women would be much better served if those in positions of power took a break from offering them advice and instead sought to influence male decision-makers who are in a position to open huge possibilities for them.

Finally, telling young women to focus on the ways in which they are different from men is profoundly disempowering, both at the start of their careers and over time. There's nothing as undermining as constantly comparing yourself to a standard you cannot meet. It's confidence destroying, and no way to win a game of any kind.

Perhaps worse, suggesting that young women consciously adopt artificial behaviors to succeed sets them up for huge difficulty in the long-term. Imagine the young women entrepreneur who takes up watching sports as a project and pretends to be one of the guys. If she connects with one of the VC representatives and gets an investment, then what? She now has an investor who will be her partner for years, and who doesn't really know her or understand her instincts. What will happen when her company hits a rough patch? And how will she ever exercise genuine authority if she thinks she has to hide behind a mask to appear powerful?

Far from undermining young ambitious women when they deviate from the stereotypical masculine norm, we should be validating them when they choose to express a leadership style that comes naturally to many women: one that is inclusive, open, consensus-building, collaborative and collegial. Those of us with some experience of the world should be advocating for young women who embrace this leadership style. We've had enough life experience to see how effective this style can be (think Janet Yellen, Eileen Fisher or Mary Barra), and we can see how badly the world needs more leaders with the courage to openly embrace these qualities.

And with the recognition that advice is only part of the picture, the best advice I have for accomplished young women preparing for the challenge of operating in a male-dominated industry is this: get to know yourself, and learn to act from that place.

In my view this includes having a meditation practice. I've written earlier about the benefits of a regular sitting meditation practice for women with big ambitions; here I'll just say that it is the simplest and best way to learn how your own mind works. Sitting with yourself also gives you the space and quiet you need to hear the voice of your heart. The more you know your own mind and heart, the less you'll worry unnecessarily about what other people think. Then, focus on your strengths -- they are what you have, and they will carry you.

Knowing yourself will support you in interacting with others straightforwardly and sincerely. If you speak from an authentic place, it will show, and the confidence that gives you will be appealing. Perhaps that will mean talking sports, if that's what you honestly love. But maybe it will mean projecting poise, elegance and verve.