Women and Success: Do You Write Like a Man or a Woman?

Erica van Wyngaarden
Women and Success - Do You Write Like a Man or a Woman?

One of the biggest take aways’ from the One Young World Conference in Zurich was the panel on Powerful and Successful Women, in which top professional women in leading roles laid out the importance of gender equality in organizations.

This is when I decided to turn to the women of Mindthis and create a new series focused on providing the right tools and advice to empower women to lead at at the boardroom. Across the world, women are consistently underrepresented in senior and leadership positions.  Women, reports the Economist, “are half the population but only 15% of board members at big American firms, and 10% in Europe” and there are numerous studies which reflect the same findings in all facets of high-ranking positions.

We kick start this series with an article on the “Writing Style of Women” by our Director of International Affairs, Erica. Her articles have focused so far on broad international policy issues but will now also encourage debates on a pressing international issue affecting all nations, the lack of women in leading roles. 

My goal is to have women around the world using Mindthis as a platform to enrich themselves with empowering content in the quest to become leaders in their field. 


Women and Success - Do You Write Like a Man or a Woman?

A turning point in my academic and professional career occurred just last year, during the exhausting process of applying to Master’s programs.  I had a meeting with a very supportive and successful professor, to review my application and letter of intent.  After reading just the first paragraph, he told me, “you’re writing like a woman”. This was rather shocking to me, as I am indeed a woman, but that this was made to seem like a bad thing!? However, he showed that in throughout my letter of intent, rather than saying I will do x, I have done y, or I accomplished z…. I would say: I will aim to do x, I have been fortunate to have done y, or my accomplishments have made me z…!

Gendered Success

In this way, my professor explained to me a common and contemporary dilemma: we have gendered success.  Through my language, tone, and approach, I was performing ‘female’ traits, docility, humility, and graciousness, rather than ‘male’ traits, strength, resolve, and confidence. In today’s academic and professional world, what the world has defined as success or a successful person is defined as and attained by male gendered traits.

This is reflected within all facets of the international community. Numerous statistics reveal the consistent structural divide between men and women in both professional and monetary success. Men continue to dominate leadership posts in almost every facet of the professional world and this has been entrenched and performed by a gendered idea of success. Given that this is a statistically proven fact, what do we do? This article focuses on what women can do on a micro level, revealing what barriers lay before us and asking: how can we represent ourselves better? There are limits we are placing on ourselves which can be reverse by simply becoming conscious of them.

Sheryl Sandberg on How Women Can Achieve Success

Sheryl Sandberg echoed these same concerns in a TED talk she gave last year.  Sandberg says, not only is success thought of and sought after differently by women, but it is harder to succeed as a woman.  She brilliantly points out that women, through our actions, approaches, and mentalities, result in women dropping out of the workforce or leadership positions.  She focuses on what individual women can do to implicate ourselves and re-define the ideas of success and achievement in the world.  Essentially, women continue to be held back by a gendered idea of success and Sandberg observes how women can work within this world.  She observes the barriers we have to success and what we can do to ensure that women represent themselves and resolve inequities and barriers within the professional and academic world.

Sandberg begins her talk by presenting some shocking statistics, all demonstrating the sad reality that there are too few women leaders in the world.  To name some: 13% of women hold top positions in governments, 15-16% in the corporate sector, and 20% in non-profits.  So, what do we do about this? She address three points, but two are most appropriate for this article.

Women and Success: Keep Your Hand Up.

First, She Urges Women to Sit at the Table.

Sandberg points out numerous examples of women who chose not to implicate themselves, demonstrating a lack of confidence that we hold in ourselves.  Women will choose to keep their hands down or to sit at the side of the table rather than involve themselves at a sales pitch.  Similar to my professor, she observes that men attribute their success to themselves, while women credit external factors.  But why does this matter?  Sandberg explains that you do not receive a corner office or top position by sitting on the side and no one gets the promotion if they do not understand or take credit for their success.

Second, Women, Keep Your Hand Up.

My favourite example from this section, and thus worth noting, is the Facebook presentation story.  Given the limited space for questions, women willingly lowered their hands during a Q & A session even though all the men, and more than had been directed, kept their hands up and had their questions answered.  Since listening to this, I noticed myself and other women around me in classes, meetings, or presentations who would lower their hands or choose not to ask a question if there were few spots or little time left to present or ask a question.  Next chance you get, I urge you to look around you in similar situations and to keep your hand up.

Her Third Point for Women is: Don’t Leave Before You Leave.

While young professionals are all at different stages in their lives, married, single, with children or not, Sandberg’s last point either provides a current or future challenge to women in the professional realm.  Rather than focusing on pursuing our opportunities to the last available second, women will think too far in advance. Whether this is about children, marriage, or a partner, Sandberg points to the irrational lengthy time frame women devote to planning out either a current or potential future for ourselves.  What happens when you start quietly leaning back?  We stop looking for new opportunities, we thus stop receiving promotions and new challenges which result in boredom at the work place.  We need to keep our foot on the gas pedal and keep this up until the very day you need to take a break for a child.

Sandberg’s talk powerfully points to the reality of what women as individuals can do to break into the top of a male dominated world and reveals the messages to tell ourselves, the women we work with and for us, and our daughters.

Women and Success: Don’t Leave Before You Leave.

So what do we do?  Sandberg accurately points to the responsibility of each women to take a seat at the table, put our hands up, and not to leave before we leave.  Yes, this world is dominated by a gendered idea of success and men at the top; however, we must implicate ourselves.  Yes, it will be hard and sacrifices will be required; however, women as individuals must choose to own our success and push for the next promotion.  We have this choice, let us not merely get our seat at the table, let us lead it.

Women, let’s take credit for our own successes and implicate ourselves, we worked for it.