Lately it seems as if we’ve been watching sexism play out on the national stage every day — just days ago, an award-winning broadcast journalist was patronizingly told to shop shaking her head by the White House Press Secretary. In business, there’s solid evidence that women make outstanding leaders — and tend to be more effective on many fronts, such as managing millennials. Yet women only hold 24% of senior business roles in G7 companies, and 33% of those companies have no women in senior management. What will it take to close the gender gap? That’s the key question is at the heart of a fascinating new book by Daina Middleton, Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within. It’s also a book with plenty of good answers.
Filled with savvy perspective, Grace Meets Grit is a smart look at what women must do to overcome pernicious, built-in bias. It draws on Middleton’s extensive experience as a CEO, as well as her work as an in-demand executive coach. Her take on gender equality is both inspiring and pragmatic, with an insider’s compassion that can only be based on experiencing challenges of her own.
As a high-level executive in the corporate trenches, she experienced baffling pushback and subtle to overt resistance, yet learned how to successfully navigate her way to the top. As she found out, achieving true parity starts with accepting hat men and women are different — and both bring valuable behaviors to the table. Instead of discarding the more feminine aspects of a woman’s leadership style (Grace), it’s far more effective to augment them with behaviors borrowed from men (Grit).
But the concept of Grace and Grit isn’t drawn solely on gender lines. Part of moving beyond the rut workplaces are in now, notes Middleton, is allowing the two styles to exist next to each other without trapping ourselves in typecasting: if we sidestep that “typically male” and “typically female” label we can also avoid some of the most polarizing kinds of workplace tension. Grace can be thought of as having a certain innate social and emotional intelligence, including a keen sense of social dynamics. Grit, on the other hand, includes a more competitive and direct style, with tests of authority and jockeying for position.
There’s plenty of psychological acumen in this book. The problem with women trying to sharpen their behaviors is that it backfires, conveying a certain kind of self-doubt to employees. Confidence is key, Middleton notes, but works best when we are true to ourselves. She also discusses a sad and common irony on the corporate ladder — that women often feel the worst kind of sexism just as they’re rising into their first managerial role.
Why? That’s the point when women are most often now surrounded by male colleagues — from peers to boss. Studies show that the higher up the ranks women are, the less happy women are with their careers. A sense of confusion and isolation can wreak havoc on self-confidence, setting up a vicious cycle. That eroding confidence becomes a palpable sign to male peers that a woman is a weak link in the chain. As Middleton points out, that’s the time to dig in, and quietly, firmly push back.
Why are workplaces still so fraught with gender bias? While many workplaces have gender sensitivity training in place, it doesn’t work, asserts Middleton. No amount of training is going to change the fact that men tend to be in charge and therefore dictate expected behaviors. But what will change bias are real conversations that don’t gloss over real gender differences.
And while we’re at it, Middleton suggests, it’s high time that women stop worrying about being qualified or not. Women tend to spend far too much energy on building up their competence, not their confidence — while less qualified men are racing up the ladder, assuming they’ll be able to rise into the role. There’s a behavior to borrow if ever there was one.
Having been at the helm of a pioneering digital marketing arm at Hewlett Packard, Middleton went on to become the global CEO at a high-ranking performance marketing company (the largest in the world), and ran global marketing at Twitter. She learned how to anticipate and apply her awareness of male behaviors to many a workplace battle — and that’s when she began to win.
She also began to realize just how few women mentors there are to help younger up and comers. That’s where she, and this book, comes in, and thank goodness. For any woman at any stage of her career, this is an empowering roadmap to success. But it’s also a gem for those tasked with managing workplaces and reducing bias, whether men or women. It takes everyone to make the world better, after all.