We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that, to be successful in the workplace, women should take cues from their successful male colleagues—but not so much that we don’t conform to expected stereotypes: “Negotiate like a man, but not too much like a man.” “Speak up. But don’t use up-speak.” “Be forceful, but not too forceful, or you won’t be likable.”
Not so, says Sallie Krawcheck, former Wall Street CEO, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest (a digital investment platform for women), and author of the 2017 book “Own It: The Power of Women at Work.” In her self-described guide on how to “own the power [women] already have,” Krawcheck argues that many characteristically “female” traits—such as risk awareness, the ability to manage complexity, a focus on relationships, and the ability to think long-term—offer a distinct advantage in today’s rapidly changing workplace:
- Risk awareness: Krawcheck explains that studies have shown women tend to be more risk-aware than men. While on the surface this may appear to translate into cautiousness, Krawcheck argues it means women are more likely to recognize the difference between competence and confidence; to trust their instincts when something feels “off;” and to voice an opinion that is different from the opinion of the majority. As lawyers, it means we may be more likely to identify (and proactively address) weaknesses in a client’s position; or speak up against a potentially ill-advised course of action.
- Ability to manage complexity: Krawcheck identifies that, when faced with complex systems and decisions, men tend to focus on fewer inputs, while women tend to consider all available information. As a result, men may make decisions more quickly; but women take a more holistic approach to problem solving, resulting in higher quality decisions. Krawcheck argues that this is a benefit in today’s workplace given the ever-increasing volume and complexity of information available to us. The same could certainly be said of the legal practice, where the complexity of the legal landscape seems always on the rise.
- Relationship focus: With a natural tendency to focus on establishing and nurturing relationships, women bring customer—and client—focus to the workplace “in spades,” says Krawcheck. In the legal profession, the benefits of a naturally client-focused attitude are obvious. These relational skills can also serve women attorneys well in leadership positions: Krawcheck notes that studies have shown people working for female managers are more engaged, more profitable, and produce better quality work than people working for male managers.
- Thinking long-term: In an environment where more and more organizations are focused on annual, quarterly, or even monthly metrics—driving potentially short-sighted behavior to the detriment of the organization’s long-term health—Krawcheck argues that women’s tendency to take the “slow and steady approach” provides important balance in both organizational and personal decision making.
Thus, rather than focusing on conforming to the standards and stereotypes that have historically been associated with success in the professional workplace, Krawcheck encourages women to embrace these and other innately “female” characteristics. Certainly, as Krawcheck cautions, these advantages are not exclusively present in women, and encouraging women to embrace them does not mean men need be excluded. But her insights do support the consensus that diversity of perspective—including diversity of gender perspectives—will strengthen the organizations for which we work; and should encourage women attorneys to find more ways to play to the strengths they are already bringing to their practice.
Samantha Rollins is an associate at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Des Moines, Iowa.