Femininity & Workforce: What It Means to Be a Woman in Business World

Women in the workforce.

WASHINGTON (ViaNews) – In the wake of campaigns such as the #NoMakeup movement and the social media shattering #MeToo, women’s voices on beauty, harassment, discrimination and double standards are becoming more powerful in the political and social arenas. But what role does a women’s femininity (or lack thereof) play in her experience in the business world?

Professor Martha Rampton, Ph.D. at Pacific University Oregon specializes in Gender & Sexuality Studies and is the founder of the school’s Center of Gender Equity (CGE). Through her research and experience, Rampton told ViaNews she has found that women still face many barriers in the business world and recognizes the complexity of the topic.

Professor Martha Rampton from Pacific University.
Professor Martha Rampton from Pacific University.

“It’s complicated because femininity is useful in some ways—perhaps they [women] have a job where they’re required to wear makeup or expected to dress a certain way to create a certain atmosphere—in those situations it’s helpful but what women give in one way, they lose in another,” said Rampton. “Femininity is generally perceived to be ineffective in a business sense. The woman who is fun, cute, flattering will not be in the boardroom.”

Though very subjective and based on cultural background, Rampton acknowledges there are certain qualities associated with femininity from the western perspective.

“I don’t think these traits are inherent. I think they are socially constructed. Women tend to be better at building relationships, structuring teams, they tend to be more collaborative, decision making is focused on the process,” said Rampton. “They [women] think of themselves as influencing, not commanding. They believe in sharing credit and sharing power which a lot of these traits are based on their roles in the family.”

However, how femininity is perceived is not always positive and is not limited to personality traits but dress and subconscious behaviors, as well.

Rampton said, “In terms of appearance, how one dresses is very important for women. The hair is down, the voice is high, flowery dresses maybe, that sort of attire. Women will sit properly in their seat, they keep their papers neat and together, so they take up less space. Women tend to defer to men who have already spoken and usually let men speak first.”

Since Donald Trump’s election to U.S. presidency, his counselor Kellyanne Conway has also been placed in the limelight. Because she has the president’s ear, Conway is arguably one of the most powerful and successful women in the U.S.

Her high-level position has set her as an example of what it means to be successful as a woman and how women can be successful in male-dominated environments.

In an interview with Business Insider, Conway discusses how she works with Trump who has a history of making sexist statements and has been accused of sexual harassment in several different instances.

“I could tell you a great way my gender has helped me with the president,” Conway said to Business Insider. “I’m actually unafraid to express my mind but I do it very respectfully. Very respectfully and very deferentially.”

Author and advocate Roxanne Gay describes her experience working as a professor in graduate school through her personal essay I’ve Never Been Good At Dressing Like A Woman.

The cardboard reads "I have something to say" at a young girls workshop exploring what being a girl means and getting tips on how to start a campaign in their bedroom. Led by Caroline Bird. Photo by: Southbank Centre.
The cardboard reads “I have something to say” at a young girls workshop exploring what being a girl means and getting tips on how to start a campaign in their bedroom. Led by Caroline Bird. Photo by: Southbank Centre.

“I had colleagues who taught in dirty T-shirts and paint-splattered jeans. They were, as you might expect, men who knew their authority would not be questioned regardless of what they were wearing,” said Gay. “My female colleagues, mostly younger and petite, always wore things like dressy blouses and blazers because they knew their authority would be questioned by virtue of their gender, stature and clothing choices.”

Pew Research conducted a study in 2015 that showed most Americans view men and women equal in terms of leadership ability. However, the numbers do not reflect this consensus.

The Data On Women Leaders was released in March 2017 through Pew Research Center. Though overall the number of women in leadership roles has increased, the amount of that advancement and its consistency varies.

Since 1965 the number of women in the U.S. Senate increased from two-percent to 21%. Therefore, of the one-hundred senators in the Senate twenty-one are women and seventy-nine are men. There was a similar increase in the House, as well, starting at two-point-three percent and rising to 19.1%.

In terms of Fortune 500 Companies, the change is less substantial ranging from zero-percent in 1995 to five-point-four percent in 2017.

Despite women entering employment and making up 51% of the population (according to the United States census Bureau), men still dominate top-level positions.

Rampton believes women are likely to be successful in business when they can use both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine traits. She cites the novel of author Caroline Turner’s “Balancing Feminine & Masculine.”

“Masculine women are considered less like women, less confident and competent [by men]. They do pretty well in the hierarchy (Turner’s hierarchy mentioned in the book) but women who know how to use different characteristics at different times are most successful,” said Rampton. “A woman needs to use both the masculine and the feminine traits. It is the most effective use of femininity in the workplace because she has to walk a tightrope.”

Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Abigail Saguy conducted over sixty interviews with women in male-dominated industries that discussed sexual harassment and male coworkers’ different treatment of women who are more or less traditionally feminine.

In the study, “Gendered Homophobia and the Contradictions of Workplace Discrimination for Women in the Building Trades”, from Amy M. Denissen, PH.D, and Abigail C. Saguy, PH.D, the following conclusions were made:

“We [Saguy and co-researcher Amy Dennis] show that labeling tradeswomen as lesbians, and thus—in the popular imagination—as not fully women, both makes sense of their presence and reaffirms the perception of the trades as ‘men’s work,’ said Saguy. “Some lesbian tradeswomen report being more accepted than their straight women coworkers and claim that the lesbian label offers them some freedom from performing emphasized femininity. This acceptance is limited, however, and can place them in uncomfortable situations where they are expected to perform misogynist versions of masculinity.”

The “baby penalty” is also another double standard that affects women.

“Sometimes coworkers can be distrustful of a woman, especially a young woman because they wonder how long she’s going to be there when she’s going to have a baby,” said Rampton.

Rampton offered her final thoughts on femininity in the workforce.

“I think that I’d love to see the terms femininity and masculinity disappear in all places and be replaced by effective employee. I want people to understand that there are different selves that need to be put forward,” she said. “Using terms like masculine and feminine muddies waters a lot, at least on the job. The question shouldn’t be is he dressed in a masculine way, is she dressed in a feminine way but are they dressed in an effective way?”

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