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In the modern world of work, getting promoted to a leadership position is statistically less likely as a woman, and many factors often combine to make the workplace a difficult and unwelcoming environment.
According to a widely cited study by Catalyst, women are underrepresented at every level of leadership - and the rate of change is slow. At entry-level jobs men are 30% more likely to be promoted to a management role; at the top just 16.3% of CEO positions are occupied by women1.
Faced with these obstacles to success, the temptation for many women to adopt a masculine work persona can be too strong to avoid. Emulating the alpha male culture that dominates many industries and organisations, the “Female Alpha Male” stands to gain protection, promotion, and clout. But what is lost in that transformation?
In this article we will be examining the reasons why the “Female Alpha Male” personality archetype came to exist, and whether sacrificing your femininity in favour of power is truly the best way to build an authentic leadership style.
If being selected for promotion is all about your network, navigating tricky workplace dynamics, and being liked by the ‘boys’ club’, then perhaps the evolution of the “Female Alpha Male” is hardly a surprise. When faced with a hostile environment, the urge to blend in for any individual can be incredibly powerful. When your gender is the only factor that sees you excluded from crucial conversations over drinks at the end of the day, or from that big joke in the office that is seen as too ‘vulgar' for your delicate female sensibilities, it might seem easier to play down your female attributes and play up your masculine banter.
Research has found that traits that are perceived in female coworkers as ‘abrasiveness’, ‘weakness’ and being ‘emotional’ are seen as ‘boldness’, ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ in their male counterparts. In a study of 248 performance reviews2, women were 29% more likely to receive critical reviews than men. Most of these critical remarks contained negative personality criticisms, rather than the constructive advice more likely to be offered to their male coworkers.
From this we see that women in the workplace are trapped in a double bind paradox. Bringing a direct and assertive attitude that gets the job done could see you written off as aggressive and confrontational, whereas being too soft and gentle generates the perception that you don’t have the guts to do the job.
A Harvard Business Review paper entitled ‘Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership’ describes the multi-faceted obstacles faced by women on their path to success, and the origin of many of these impediments in perception of femininity.
“In the language of psychologists, the clash is between two sets of associations: communal and agentic. Women are associated with communal qualities, which convey a concern for the compassionate treatment of others. They include being especially affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, and sympathetic, as well as interpersonally sensitive, gentle, and soft-spoken. In contrast, men are associated with agentic qualities, which convey assertion and control. They include being especially aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, and forceful, as well as self-reliant and individualistic.”3
This conscious and unconscious level of association means that ‘going against type’ for women and demonstrating an assertive and confident leadership style can be difficult to process for many of their associates.
Sheryl Sandberg puts it in a more colloquial manner in her book on gender in the workplace, ‘Lean In’:
““If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she's highly competent, if she focuses on results rather than on pleasing others, she's acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her.”4
Add the objectification and sexual harassment that many women have to endure in their place of work, and you’ll find that some ambitious women attempt to rid themselves of their gender altogether. Like Lady Macbeth clawing at her breasts to rid herself of feminine emotions in favour of ruthless ambition -
"Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty”5
In response to this unforgiving Catch 22 situation, comes the “Female Alpha Male”, moulding herself on the psychological model she sees around her to survive and get ahead. Conversation style is more likely to be brash and peppered with seemingly well-meaning jibes (intended to assert her authority and demean her opponent). Bonding with other females in the office is kept to a minimum in an effort to be seen as ‘one of the guys’. However, although these cutthroat chameleons may rise to higher ranks, there are some inherent sacrifices that have to be made. Their leadership style can often be seen as inauthentic, and their lack of compassion is used to damn them at the first sign of weakness.
Take for example our beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May - a notable attempted embodiment of a “Female Alpha Male” and a perfect example of the problems of the Catch 22 situation for women adopting this style of leadership.
To propel herself into the top job at Number 10, Mrs. May would have had to do some pretty ruthless political manoeuvring and get chummy with the predominant boy’s club that is the Conservative Party. However, by trying to adopt this persona, she is now caught in the double standards paradox whereby she is constantly under pressure to make strong decisions which as a man would be commended for boldness but as a woman are criticised for lacking empathy.
Take Brexit negotiations. As a staunch ‘Remainer’, she was thrust into a position of leadership to execute Brexit and is constantly under pressure to make quick decisions on strategy to leave the EU. If she is slow or indecisive, she is criticised for being weak rather than thoughtful or thorough in her decision making but if her decisions are perceived as wrong she is accused of poor judgement.
And where does this leave her own vision? Has Theresa May lost her authentic voice? Is she instead just treading on the narrow path of delivering Brexit, making her leadership style transactional rather than inspirational?
Prime Minister May has also been widely derided for making U-turns on many of her statements and commitments - her decision to call a snap election and the abandonment of her hugely unpopular ‘Dementia tax’ being famous examples. But what does this reveal of her leadership psychology?
Alpha males as leaders are totalitarian and ego-driven by nature. The might of their power is summarized by their ability to act however they see fit, in whatever way suits their own personal power goals. Alpha male psychology doesn’t allow much room for listening, and it is possible that “Female Alpha Male”s sacrifice the advantages of leading as a female in their bid for power. If Theresa May was a more sympathetic leader who was better able to judge and empathise with the mood of the British public, perhaps her decision making in 2017 would have been more successful and she would be a more popular leader?
The facts are that conditioning for women to shy away from leadership roles begins in childhood. Girls may have pushed way ahead in terms of attainment at school and university, but this academic promise is not translating into women making it to the top echelons of business.
When we delve deeper and ask women what holds them back, we discover an epidemic of a lack of self-confidence, reluctance to put their hand up and speak out, the urge to pull back, and the internalisation of negative messages that it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive or more powerful than a man. All of this contributes towards a lowering of your own expectations and the sabotage of professional and personal confidence. Not to mention the pressures piled on by being more often than not expected to take care of more housework than men, care for children more than men, and to always put the needs of your partner and children first over your own ambition or happiness.
When the path to success places more obstacles in front of you than others just because of your gender, adopting an alpha male persona becomes a seductive possibility. But as many women find as they mature and reach for success, morphing your personality artificially can damage your personal authenticity, and turn your core purpose from something noble into ruthless ambition devoid of meaning.
The “Female Alpha Male” ascribes to the masculine aspects of personality and wishes away her femininity. In doing so, she shortcuts some of the unfair hurdles that prevent women from getting ahead. But what are the risks of severing your ties with your female traits, and valuing power at any cost?
The problem is that changing your core values and morphing your persona to get ahead in a ruthless and uncaring environment means you are not effecting positive change in the workforce, and you also divorce yourself from your own authenticity. People perform better when they are aligned to their core purpose, and authenticity is increasingly cited as a key attribute to enhance true power, wisdom and self-belief. Becoming a chameleonic imitation of the alpha male inherently strips away authenticity, and alignment with a valuable purpose is almost impossible if the goal is simply ‘power, at whatever cost’. These women can lose their authentic voice, sacrificing their true leadership potential.
Furthermore, becoming a “Female Alpha Male” might mean you lose the ability to deploy typically female attributes that could make you a new and better kind of leader. According to McKinsey, companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards of directors significantly and consistently outperform those with no female representation – by 41% in terms of return on equity, and by 56% in terms of operating results4. This kind of statistical evidence for the value of having women in leadership positions is shown across the board in all industries and nations - a diverse team is a stronger team. Anecdotal and statistical evidence from employees supports the value of a female leadership style that embraces what can be traditionally described as feminine qualities. Pew’s “Women and Leadership” study in 2015 found that 34% of employees thought that women made more honest leaders, compared to 3% of men6. The same study also showed that 30% of the same group of employees thought women made better mentors than men7. Openness and empathy are considered as archetypal feminine qualities, and putting them to use in your leadership style clearly gets results.
Rather than adapting to the status quo of an alpha male power structure in the workplace, women and men alike would do better to move away from competitive posturing and cutthroat deception, and work to create new industry environments where empathy, honesty and the ability to listen are valued as assets, not weaknesses. The Women and Work Commission estimated in a 2013 study that unleashing the true potential of the female workforce could add £23 billion a year to the UK’s economy8.
The challenge is how the professional woman can free herself from identifying with and adopting the characteristics of the ‘alpha male’ “top down” leader and realise that she has a significant role to play in endorsing a leadership style which is both assertive and facilitative. Both compassionate and firm; both inquisitive and decisive. A style which integrates both masculine and feminine characteristics.
By clinging to an outdated alpha male model (and adopting it as females just to get ahead), we stand to miss out on a new wave of strong female leadership styles that could revolutionize the way we do business, and create a more supportive work environment for us all.
2 Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard: Key Findings from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2015-16 Reporting Data (2016)
5 Macbeth, William Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 5 lines 30-33
6 The Bottom Line: Corporate performance and women’s representation on boards, Catalyst 2007
7 Pew Research Centre 2015 http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/01/14/women-and-leadership/st_2015-01-14_women-leadership-2-13/
8 Women Matter, McKinsey 2010
*Editing assistance: Anna Herber
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