On the rise of the feminine

I recently engaged in negotiations around a job. Being a doctor, this rarely happens, so I am not versed in this language. And there are nuances to my situation. There is an implication that doctors should not care about being paid. Somehow our job has been filtered into the charitable category of employment. We are helping people, and therefore being paid should be of lower priority. The income should be considered an awkward side benefit. We should simply be happy to be doing the work.

The other influence on the negotiation is that I’m a woman. And we all know that women are terrible at negotiating pay for themselves. Don’t make me dig up the ugly statistics of gender pay inequality around the world. We’ve all seen the numbers.

So here I am, a female doctor, engaged in a discussion about a job. When I suggested a payment arrangement that would result in more income for me, I could feel the stunned silence, followed by the judgment. Whether or not the stunned silence and the judgment really were there is not the issue. The issue, for me, is the fact that I felt as I did, asking for more.

I felt terrible. How could I? As if it is my duty, in support of the nation’s health care, to quietly accept the lowest going wage. (I ignored the fact that many doctors are being paid the same rate I was requesting). Also, they needed me. Another doctor had left and there was a need to fill the gaping hole in care provision. How dare I take advantage of a department in need? (I ignored the fact that all doctors are hired out of need – this is the only reason anyone is ever hired.) I ignored all the evidence that what I was requesting was reasonable. I mulled and fretted over how it would look and how my colleagues would perceive me. I lost a lot of sleep.

In the midst of all this, I read an article written by Tara Mohr in the NY Times Op-Ed section. She discussed issues around gender inequity. According to Mohr, a study was done for fortune.com which examined 248 performance reviews from 28 companies. In the case of female employees, 76% of the time there were comments of a personal nature (you’re too strident, too judgmental, too abrasive). In stark contrast, comments on personality occurred in 2% of the men’s reports.

The take-home message here was that women are judged more, on a personal level, for their behaviour in the workplace. Furthermore, women care more about these judgments. Women have been raised to need approval.

Back to my situation. My husband was coaching me along the sidelines during this negotiation, encouraging me to ‘lean in’, in Sandberg speak, to be bold enough to ask for what I felt I deserved. He encouraged me not to care what others will think. This, of course, was a primary concern for me. I felt cowed by my need to please and to be liked. I felt it was a character flaw. I simultaneously succumbed to and despised this need.

After reading the NY Times Opt-Ed, I felt appeased, somewhat. It isn’t just me. Many other women feel this way. Many other women worry about how it will look if they put their salary in the forefront. Many other women worry about being judged: too aggressive, too greedy, too selfish. And we don’t just worry about a straw man – the judgment is there, marked down on written appraisals as proof in ink. To make matters worse, the judgements seem to come from behaviour in the workplace that mimics male behaviour. Despite being encouraged to ‘lean in’, we are being judged for it.

So I had an answer, or an explanation at least, for what I was struggling with. But this wasn’t enough.

Throwing down the gender inequality gauntlet isn’t the answer. There is more. Something about it still doesn’t sit right. The solution, for me, is not to lean in and (try to) not give a damn about criticism. The answer does not come from mustering up the gumption to mosey on up to the table and ask for more. The answer is not to even the behavioural score. The answer is not to act more like a man, to hell with the judgments this earns.

But this is what most of the books and discussions on levelling the playing field for women seem to suggest. Just act more like a man and you’ll be fine. Don’t feel funny about it. Ignore that airy-fairy stuff like intuition. And for God’s sake don’t pay attention to your feelings. Ignore all that. Just do it. That’s how you’ll get equality. Act like a man, and eventually, you’ll be treated like one.

A recent commercial for Always feminine care products drives this home. Girls and women are asked, repeatedly, “show what it means to throw like a girl, run like a girl, punch like a girl”. Soft lobs and loose limbs all round. A heart-to-heart discussion takes place. Then the girls are asked again to show their skills. Invariably, a male-influenced demo takes place. Girls throw tough, angry, determined balls. There is a competitive gleam in their eyes. Suddenly, they’re in it to win. This, says the subtext, is female achievement. This is progress.

Beating the same drum, on her website, Tara Mohr lists 10 things women can do to realise the life of their dreams. Number 5? Be an arrogant idiot. “You know those guys around the office who share their opinions without thinking, who rally everyone around their big, (often unformed) ideas? Be more like them. Even if just a bit. You can afford to move a few inches in that direction.”

Really? What if our unique human contribution is worth more than that? What if we’re worth more than the ability to act like our male counterparts? What if the feminine perspective has value, in and of itself? What if our natural inclination to nurture, to encourage unity and cooperation rather than competition, to ask for fairness rather than personal gain, adds value to the community as a whole? What if feelings and intuition exist for a deeper purpose? What if admitting all this is not an admission of weakness? What if, in the guise of progress, we have been oppressing vital aspects of our human nature for the sake of being consistent with the masculine worldview?

As a doctor and a scientist, I feel almost blasphemous putting this down on paper, so disrespected and discredited are these aspects of our feminine nature. But this simply speaks to the greater problem.

There is an imbalance, this is clear. The masculine approach currently dominates. The male yin takes up nearly the whole circle, the female yang an embarrassing sliver off to the side. The only place feminine instincts still seem to be acceptable is tucked away in the home, when children are concerned. Everywhere else, the dominant worldview is a masculine one. Power, aggression, greed. War for material gain. A capitalist, every-man-for-himself, profit over all, competitive ethos rules. Hoarding wealth is the status quo, bigger is always better, sharing is left for the bleeding heart charities. Sorry, guys, but this is a result of your predominant influence. And it’s not brought us to a particularly good place. Behaving like alpha males and dominating the playground (ie our planet) has not brought health and balance for all. A shift from male dominance to a more equal and healthy equilibrium is long overdue.

But the shift needs to come from someplace deeper. Women being encouraged to step up to the plate and mimic men is not the start of a real paradigm shift. Our problems cannot be solved with women meeting men eye-to-eye by masquerading as alpha males. The world does not need more alpha males.

Women should not feel liberated when they learn how to punch like men, or negotiate like men. We should feel liberated when the phrase “like a girl” is not derogatory. Or when we can feel powerful acting from our true values, in ways that are consistent with our deeper instincts. The shift needs to be one of newfound respect for all the so-called airy-fairy skills and values listed above, things that women happen to do particularly well. We need to stop oppressing these aspects of our nature so we can feel good enough simply being ourselves. We need to bring the feminine back to an equally prominent place as the masculine, to treasure and respect the unique qualities and perspective it offers. Imagine the benefits of a home, community, and ecology where there is a counterbalancing ethos of wholeness and cooperation. This is a goal we should all feel good about.

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