Monday, April 18, 2005

Amazing We Can Dress Ourselves

by Liz Ryan (

I feel okay today, inexplicably. I got up, got dressed, charged my cell phone, made it to my morning event and spoke reasonably coherently there. I guess I'm functional - right? But then I stopped at the bookstore and had to think again.

There on the shelf is a lineup of books devoted to helping women fix what's wrong with them. We can succeed in business, if only we perform radical plastic surgery on our personalities. Look at these titles - clearly we need help! We don't know how to negotiate. We don't speak up. We act like girls. We don't know how to play the game. We're flawed, we're bad, we need intervention! We need to buy a lot of books and fix ourselves up so we can succeed in business, and fast!

Boy, isn't it weird that men are so naturally equipped to be businesspeople? I don't think I've heard of one book that seeks to help men correct their natural deficiencies when it comes to the professional world. Men are so lucky. They're in power; privileged with a history of business leadership; and naturally endowed with just the characteristics the workplace demands, to boot.

Women need to shape up! Otherwise, we won't make it in the business world. If we're not thriving professionally, it's our own fault - we're not built right! Much of what we do, think, and feel is unsuitable and must be repressed, corrected or hidden. Is this song starting to sound familiar?

Wait a second here. Could it be that because it's a man-built business world, it happens to work best for men? Is that possible? Could it be that the logical/analytical/forceful/direct tendencies most often associated with business have that association because men built the business world in their image? Must the business environment be static? A fixed system, put in place before women ever arrived, and destined to stand unchanged forever? Is business culture perfect, so that women must shoehorn themselves into it without changing an atom?

I don't think so.

Look - women are amazing. They are strong and resilient. They communicate, collaborate, and persevere. They've done what they needed to do to survive and raise generations for, well, generations. Can it be that in the business arena they are suddenly completely unequipped, deficient, flawed?

What women bring to the table is what the business world desperately needs: passion, intuition, non-linear logic, insight, pluck.

Today a man wrote to me (in response to my snarky article about women in leadership posted at saying that women are risk averse. Risk averse? Dude, we go on dates. Risk averse? Women for millennia have been pioneers - we are still pioneers. We are not risk averse. We have a different way of viewing the world and some different ways of dealing with it. Labeling those different skills as negative is a lie that women can see right through - that they can feel in their bones.
I don't buy into the fiction that women need to change everything about themselves to succeed in the male-architected business world. In fact, the business world and the world in general will be healthier when women as they already operate are respected and valued at work. It's not enough that we do the work on our desks - we also have to have another task ladled on top, called Changing Our Natures? That's absurd.

Scanning the shelf of what's-wrong-with-women book titles, you'd be amazed that we can dress ourselves. Talk to a real woman, and you'll hear about multi-tasking on an amazing scale, about determination, creativity, humor, patience and fortitude. Given what women see and experience every day, why would we support an industry of books that seek to teach us how to not be ourselves?

"In order to succeed here at XYZ Company, Ladies, you need to stifle your instincts and behave according to the following standards, many of which will feel unnatural to you because, as a woman, you are sorely lacking in several or many of these fundamental business skills."

Fundamental to whom? Give me a break.

If, in the nineteen-forties or fifties, there had been a book (or a whole shelf of them) advising African American people how to act and speak in order to get along in a society designed by and for white people, would that have been the right answer for them, or for the world? Do you find the idea offensive? Good. Isn't the idea that women should change their communication styles and personalities to make it in a man's business world equally offensive?

Amy Herzberg, a professor and theatrical director/coach at the University of Arkansas, gave a wonderful workshop at the recent ArkWIT/U of A Women in Technology conference. Amy spoke about making presentations, and her talk was unusual in that she never mentioned creating a Powerpoint deck or the usual how-to-present advice. Rather, she talked about being in yourself. Presenting from yourself, connecting with the audience. She said, Don't lead off with a joke if it will take you out of yourself. Don't get outside of yourself, observing and judging.

But look! This slew of "fix yourself" books seeks to do just that - to take you out of yourself in order to judge and correct your workplace behavior. Screw that, ladies - and forgive the indelicate expression. Be in yourself, and speak from your gut. Do what feels right to do, say what feels right to say, at work. There is nothing wrong with the person you already are. Setting out to be more forceful, more logical, more like a guy, is exactly the wrong answer. Wrong for you. Wrong for your company. Wrong for society.

Women already rock. It's the business world that needs to change, and it's actually changing as we have influence on it, thank goodness. Changing our natures and overlaying a fake 'business-y' persona on our powerful instincts will only slow down the amazing positive power that women bring to business. So put down the book. Listen to your gut. Get centered - you're fine right now, sister - and go knock 'em dead.

Liz has over 20 years experience in managing high-growth organizations, she lectures nationally and writes about working and managing in the digital economy. If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at