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Recently, I met a woman who had just been hired as the producer of a prime-time news program. As her friends gathered around to congratulate her, she looked at the floor. "I was just lucky," she said. She then launched into a pained explanation of the various factors that lead to her achievement: good timing, friends in high places, etc. She looked extremely uncomfortable, and even slightly ashamed. "Can you believe it?" a friend whispered. "She's completely smart and talented, but she can't stop apologizing for her success. Can you imagine a guy doing that?"
Women often criticize men for their arrogance. We get irritated when they blather like experts, even when they have no idea what they're talking about. We're outraged when they expect to date supermodels, even when they're 5-foot-4 and losing their hair. But too often, women go to the opposite extreme, downplaying their successes and doubting their abilities -- even when they have a sterling track record, says Gail Evans, a former executive vice president of CNN and author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman (Broadway, 2000).
Why the distinction? Evans says that upbringing plays a big part. "Ever since they were boys, someone has told guys 'You can do it.' With girls, they say, 'Careful, you might get hurt," says Evans. The swaggering alpha male may be annoying, but Evans says there's actually a lot we can learn from him.
1. Believe in Yourself -- Regardless of the Evidence Just because you have no experience running a software company or presiding over your local school board doesn't mean you won't kick butt once you have the job. That's the way your average alpha male thinks. "Guys assume that they are capable. That's why men are promoted on possibility, and women get promoted on performance," says Evans.
Mike, 39, from Atlanta, says that this principle helped him create a thriving clothing company. He recalls a conversation with a large fashion house early in his career. "They had a huge order that was far beyond anything I had done, and asked if I could fill it. My first thought was, 'No way.' But instead of saying that, I just fired off a bunch of questions, using technical jargon I barely knew myself. I asked them what kind of crocking test they wanted, because I had read somewhere that that was a big issue. When they said 'I don't know,' they felt bad," he says. The fashionistas were working so hard to assure Mike that they were competent that they forgot to interview him. He got the job.
2. Forgive Yourself Immediately for All Mistakes When Alison, 37, from Los Angeles, makes a mistake, she replays it in a continuous loop in her mind. "I remember once having a job interview, and I asked a board member when her baby was due. She wasn't pregnant. The whole trip home, I just kept muttering, 'Stupid, stupid, stupid,' to myself."
Barbara Wright Abernathy, author of Venus on Top: Women Who Are Born to Lead and the Men Who Love Them (Oak Hill Press, 2005) says most men don't torture themselves this way, and she believes that their experiences in competitive sports have trained them to move on. "In sports, you can't think about the time you missed the goal or the basket, because then you'll just miss the next one," she says. So the next time you make a major blunder, take a deep breath and pick up the ball again.
3. Ignore Rejection When she first started out in sales, Abernathy recalls how upset she'd get when she didn't seal each deal, and she noticed that her male colleagues didn't seem to be bothered when they repeatedly heard the word no. "I had a great sales manager who explained that I shouldn't take it personally," she said.
When it comes to coping with rejection, most men have a distinct advantage: all those years spent asking women for dates. Women ask men for dates too, of course, but a woman can conceivably have a full romantic life without ever making that first move. Not so for guys, as Paul, 41, from Brooklyn, New York, explains. "If you don't put yourself in a position where you never get shot down, then you'll never date anyone. After you get hit on the head enough times, you don't just feel it anymore," he says.
4. Stop Apologizing. When she first started out as a freelance writer, Helen, 40, from Jersey City, New Jersey, showed her husband a story pitch that she was planning to send to a magazine editor. "It basically said, 'I have this idea. You're probably not interested, but here's my number. I was practically apologizing for wasting the editor's time. My husband looked at it and said, 'This is great -- if you don't want the job.'"
Evans says this is a very common problem. "Women apologize for everything. They're trying to say 'I don't want to jam this down your throat. What they are actually doing is telling people not to listen," she says. For her part, Helen quickly changed strategy. These days, she is a very successful author of two books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. "I've almost gone to the opposite extreme," she says. "If someone calls me and asks to see [my article] clips, I'll think 'Can't you just Google me?'"
5. Take What You Deserve -- and Then Some! Have you ever noticed how the average guy doesn't seem to feel guilty about spending a day playing golf, even if the house is a mess? Or how he doesn't fret that the boss will think he's greedy when he asks for a raise? Men take their just (and not-so-just) deserts, without a side of guilt. Daniel, 29, from Jacksonville, Florida, says that his wife often feels guilty taking time for herself. "She feels it's not fair for me to work all day and come home to watch the kids. But in reality, I think she should have free time before me. Watching the kids all day is a much harder job than my sitting here talking on the phone and e-mailing people. Regardless, she feels guilt that she should not be doing things for herself. But it's okay to spend time on yourself. It's healthy," says Daniel.
The same principle applies at work. After all, it's not your boss's job to tell you how valuable you are and that you deserve more money -- that's your job. "This is a rampant problem among women who are self-employed," says Abernathy. "Personally, it took years before I was bold enough to say what I was worth. It was a long process of watching others get more when I knew I was just as good." So stop letting the alpha male take more than his share of the pie, and instead cut yourself a nice big slice.