Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook in her celebrated book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, talks about how women are unintentionally holding themselves back in their careers. The difference in activities, dress and behaviour between men and women has dramatically changed since women became a crucial part of the workforce across Africa. However theyre still some distinct differences between the gender and women should capitalise on those differences in the workplace. For instance, women listen better, they are generally more understanding, try to see all points of view, and they tend to ponder more carefully before making business decisions. Women are much more sympathetic as managers, not wanting to deliberately put anyone down, and the natural female style of more supportive administration is proving successful as well as popular.

So what more do women need? Assertiveness. Assertiveness means standing up for, and stating your own opinions and beliefs without putting down anybody elses. Assertiveness will help women become more confident. Women have to be assertive in the work place especially when dealing with men. Most men need to be told straight, they do not read between the lines. However, women need to be assertive but not an aggressive to succeed at work, especially if the workforce is predominantly male. It is important for women not to be pushovers, listening is a great soft skill, and one of the most significant that women bring to work. As a female manager for example, if you tell, rather than ask people to do something and rule the office with a heavy hand, life will not be easy for anyone. The iron fist in the velvet glove is a better approach.

A man will automatically take the credit for work he (and sometimes his department) has done, but many women use the word wewhen referring to tasks that they alone have completed. They somehow imagine that their boss or the rest of the department will realise that the credit should go to them alone – unfortunately too often, it doesn’t. The choice of Ior wecan have a significant effect on sounding confident and creating a positive image. Women tend to apologise more, but when they say Im sorryit is often meant as a way of expressing concern rather than a statement of apology. Its important to point out that women who are constantly apologising may end up seeming weaker and less confident than they actually are. Men apologise far less on the whole, as they hate to admit fault unless they really have to.

Men are more likely to socialise with their superiors at work, eating with them at lunchtime, for example, getting themselves noticed whereas women are often afraid of sending the wrong signals or dont like to appear pushy. Studies have shown that many women are much more reticent about calling up a business contact to ask them out to lunch. Many think they may be projecting the wrong image (being too forward) especially younger women. Networking at work is an important part of influencing in business.

With women wearing the trousers (both figuratively and literally), they are increasingly aware of the importance of non-verbal communication in the workplace. Women who have a firm handshake make a more favourable impression and are more likely to be judged as confident and assertive. Observe women and men in a meeting and the women generally take up less space than men. Women tend to physically condense, keeping the knees together, crossing the legs, touching their face or body and keeping their belongings neatly in front of them. Men, on the other hand, habitually take up space in a sprawling position while seated and spreading out their belongings. Physically taking up room during a meeting gives an impression of a more powerful and authoritative person.

Eye contact is also used more often and for longer duration by women when they listen. While eye contact may signal listening, prolonged eye contact can be construed as alluring. Women also tend to avert their eyes more often when looked at directly. Women sometimes tilt their heads when speaking but too much head tilting can also be seen as a submissive gesture.

Clothes make a strong visual statement about how a woman sees herself; it is here where females really have an edge in dressing for success over men. And did you know that professional women who wear make-up (appropriate for the office), get promoted faster and earn bigger salaries than those who dont.

Vive la Difference

Women have to deal with double standards in the work place, social pressures and the additional burden of dress, grooming and body language but rather than throw in the towel, women should play to their strengths, equip themselves with the communication and soft skills needed to gain the advantage but also celebrate their differences with men. With more women choosing, as well as having to work, their influence in the work place is growing so vive la difference!

Derek Bbanga helps professionals improve their soft skills and communication skills through Public Image Africa He can be reached at [email protected] and on twitter @derekbbanga

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