London, Aug. 12: If you are reading this newspaper in your office, glance sideways and take a cool, appraising look at your nearest female colleague.
Would you, by any chance, describe her as a Geisha' Or a Bitch — and that’s on a good day' Is she so determined to be one of the lads that she’s more of a Guy than a girl, or, perhaps worst of all, is she so dowdy and spiritless that she qualifies as an Invisible Woman'
Before the massed ranks of female executives set alight their copies of the newspaper in fury, let us make clear that the provenance of these stereotypes is a provocative new business book, The Naked Truth: A Modern Woman’s Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters, due to be published in London next month.
According to its author, Margaret Heffernan, a former chief executive officer of five different businesses in the US and the UK, women invariably find themselves falling into these four stereotypes when they enter the corporate world.
“I have been sucked into three of these; if you are really unlucky, you may experience them all,” she writes. “I’ve never known anyone to escape all four. But when you can see what’s happening, you are in a far better position to negotiate your way out of it and to develop your own authentic style. It can be done.”
In The Naked Truth, Heffernan describes how stereotypes result from male expectations of a woman’s role. Often, without meaning to, a woman plays along with the stereotype to make life easier.
The Geisha is usually a woman at the start of her career, who finds herself valued for her charm and attractiveness, while her technical skill is disregarded. Her male colleagues regard her as an ornament, not a peer, and she, in turn, doesn’t feel like an equal.
She never places demands on others and clings to the belief that hard work and a pleasant demeanour will garner pay rises and promotion. They don’t.
Heffernan cites an American study that revealed that only 7 per cent of female graduates negotiate for a higher salary than initially offered, compared with 57 per cent of male graduates.
The Bitch, by contrast, is assertive and strident. Determined not to be a Geisha, she overcompensates by being aggressive. With her Bitch tag comes a certain, grudging respect, and so she mistakenly believes this is the only way to achieve results.
But being a Bitch invariably leads to isolation, either as a deliberate punishment by colleagues or by dint of the tough veneer that the role requires. Isolation is a bad career move, moreover, because without allies, networks of friends, a woman will never make it to the top.
At the other end of the scale, the Guy is so determined to fit into her male environment that she suppresses her femininity. Whether working through the night, at the expense of relationships, or engaging in macho drinking sessions, she is harsher and tougher than she likes being. When she has children, she is at pains not to mention them and wouldn’t dream of skipping a meeting for a school event.
“I worked as a Guy for a lot of my career,” admits Heffernan. “And, while I don’t think I was especially horrid to women, I know I didn’t give them the support and encouragement many of them deserved. Only later did I start to see this behaviour as intrinsically false.”
Finally, the Invisible Woman is the sort of person who quietly gets on with her job, without drama. She dresses down, so as to be unnoticeable, and relishes “being under the radar” because that means she won’t come under attack.
But the flip side is that she accrues neither benefits nor credit for her achievements. When she attempts to provide any sort of creative input, she finds herself talked over and ignored. When her idea is later raised by a male colleague, it is hailed as a breakthrough, and he gains public kudos.
Heffernan, a former producer for the BBC, makes it clear The Naked Truth aims to offer practical solutions to difficulties women might encounter in the workplace. But her categorisation of women has elicited stinging criticism.
“I don’t believe in stereotypes any more than I believe in role models, because everybody is different and has different circumstances in their life,” says investment manager Nicola Horlick.
“To suggest that all women conform to one of four stereotypes is as nonsensical as horoscopes, which claim a 12th of the population will feel exactly the same on any given day.”
Horlick, dubbed Superwoman by the press for her ability to combine motherhood with a top flight career in investment banking, knows more than most about being typecast in an unflattering light.
“The media has a stereotype of me as some sort of Eighties’ hangover: a hard-nosed power-suited, tough-talker. If I were like that, I wouldn’t have got where I am today: you don’t get very far by being nasty to people.”
According to Horlick, far from being sidelined, women are thriving professionally, because the current emphasis is on teamwork, a sphere in which women tend to excel.
“Women are far better at nurturing and encouraging and bringing out the best in people, whereas men — without wishing to stereotype them too much — tend to be more single-minded and selfish.”
Her views are echoed by Val Singh, senior research fellow at the Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders at the Cranfield School of Management. According to Singh, prototypes offered by Heffernan are, by and large, too negative, and too simplistic.
“The one I did recognise was the Invisible Woman; there are a lot of woman who do backroom stuff in every company, such as accountants, and while they get satisfaction from what they do, they don’t get recognition,” she says.
“But what’s missing from this book are the positives: women who are good team leaders, and what we call Brand Builders. These are women who might once have been classified as Bitches, but who know their value and who aren’t afraid to promote and market themselves — their ‘brand’.”
Professor Marilyn Davidson, from the department of management psychology at Umist in Manchester, who interviewed thousands of women about their workplace experiences, says stereotypes emerge as a result of women trying to adapt to a male culture.
“Because men find it difficult to cope with a woman, they try to define her by imposing a stereotype on her, a common one being the mother figure, where she is expected to sort out problems and provide a listening ear.”