Career & Success

The Impact of a Woman's Personal Style on Career Success

New research suggests that ambition and assertive behavior from women may set them back at certain firms.

January 01, 2005

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso


Are women still at a disadvantage when it comes to attaining career success? Yes and no, says a new study. Women across the board seem to be enjoying greater parity with men—except in “good-old-boy companies,” where a woman’s personal style and needs for work/family balance may clash with organizational expectations, values, and demands.

Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Charles O’Reilly and doctoral student Olivia O’Neill have been able to tease out this subtle distinction by looking at the relationship of careers not only to people’s biological sex but also to their preferences in workplace environment and work style. The researchers looked specifically at gender “identity”—that is, how “masculine” or “feminine” subjects’ goals and behaviors were. Previous studies have ignored the fact that gender behaviors might not correspond with one’s biological sex, and this confusion has led to conflicting findings about women’s professional status and career trends.

In the brave new world of business, destiny may no longer be the result of biology, but rather of subtle interactions between sex and learned gender behavior. It may also be the result of how such characteristics are viewed in particular organizational settings.

To test this hypothesis, in 1987 O’Reilly and O’Neill separated out more than 100 MBA students from the University of California at Berkeley into four “gender” groups: women who were “masculine” or “feminine” identified, and men who were “masculine” or “feminine” identified. “Masculine-identified” people were defined as those who wished to work for firms characterized by aggressiveness, while “feminine-identified” people were those who preferred companies that valued supportiveness and solidarity. Trained researchers observed the subjects and affirmed that individuals tended to exhibit behaviors similar to those they said they desired in firms, said O’Neill.

The two researchers then checked in with the MBAs four and eight years after graduation and compared them on salaries, promotions, and major life changes such as marriage, divorce, health, and shifts in employment status. Those who fare the best overall are masculine-identified men. This is not surprising, say the researchers, given that the business world in general still tends to promote and reward aggressive behavior by males.

Women who sought cooperative, supportive “feminine” firms and career paths seem to do pretty well across the board. Although their salaries start out lower overall, this group eventually ends up earning as much as masculine-identified men—even while they work 13 percent fewer hours. This suggests that there are now working environments that not only validate women’s preferences for supportiveness and flexibility but also reward women financially.

It is widely assumed that ambition and assertive behavior always win out in the workplace, regardless of an employee’s biological sex. However, the researchers found the lowest salaries were earned by masculine-identified women. O’Neill cautions that the correlations in the study cannot necessarily be used to determine causes, but she does hazard an explanation.

“Gender incongruity—that is, acting more like the opposite biological sex—is basically not rewarded, particularly in women,” says O’Neill. Masculine-identified women sometimes experience a “backlash” in male-oriented workplaces, she explains. That is, their aggressive style can rub their male counterparts the wrong way and can lead to fewer promotions.

Also, women in masculine-oriented firms eventually face child-rearing and family demands, a potential deterrent to their careers. Women with families may be less willing to relocate or put in as many hours as men and so are unable to compete equally for the highest-level jobs in these aggressive firms.

As to feminine-identified men, although they, too, go against the grain of cultural expectations, they do not seem to suffer as much as masculine-identified women. Their salaries at the end of eight years are on par with those of masculine-identified men, and they work 10 percent fewer hours. In short, the study suggests that women and men who do not want to compete on masculine terms now have valid options.

“One way to think about careers in organizations is as a series of tournaments at which employees at lower levels compete with each other for promotion to higher levels,” O’Reilly says, reflecting on the results. “Gaining a promotion—winning a round in the tournament—enables a person to compete in the next round. Over the years, those with less motivation and ability are eliminated, and the remaining participants compete for the top-level positions in the firm.

“What we see in this study is that those who choose to enter the tournament and put in more effort and sacrifice seem to be traditional males,” O’Reilly continues. “But others may choose not to play the game, including men and women who want more balance in their lives. Since we find no differences across groups in terms of satisfaction, it appears as though differences in career attainment are the result of choices rather than discrimination. However, the story for more aggressive women may not be so straightforward. This group seems to be opting out—perhaps because they don’t fit the traditional gendered model. In the end, this study uses a very modest sample and, while we find the results provocative, we hardly want to claim that this is anything more than suggestive.”

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