How to be a woman and throw down at work?

I’ve been watching a lot of powerful women lately. The one thing is, most of them are not very ‘womanly’. It’s kind of disappointing to gaze up the professional road and see females cloaking their femininity in order to be in the boardroom.

I can kind of understand why. My mother’s generation was told to burn their bras and be ambitious. I’d like to think I can be ambitious without lighting a match.

I’m not here for a feminist rant. The purpose is to find a mentor, a woman that is participating, succeeding and navigating the road ahead, without compromise.

To be strong, do we need to be brutish?

I’ve had this conversation with my male and female friends, parents and strangers.

Older generations seemed to think that ‘toughening up’ is an inevitable outcome of having to sit at the table, others think the dynamic will change in 10 years, just as it has evolved in the last decade.

One girlfriend who runs her own business told me she was expected to dress ‘dowdy’ in meetings, otherwise she was considered to be taking advantage of the situation by using her sex appeal. The kicker was this was the view taken by other women colleagues, not the men.

There’s been a few articles this week surfacing around senior female colleagues holding back their own in the workplace.

Is it our own fault then?

Perhaps, if we ‘manned-up’ or believed in ourselves a bit more, then we wouldn’t be in this predicament? Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring TED talk explains how women consistently underestimate themselves, thus keeping themselves out of the positions of power.

Whatever the case may be, I’d just like someone to help shed the light on how to be a woman and still be killing it in the workplace.

Do you know this woman? Or is it you? I’d like to meet you.

15 thoughts on “How to be a woman and throw down at work?

  1. I love your post that reached me through @masonqld. It’s a fascinating question that has followed me through my whole career.
    That’s my experience: If I want to lead and have to make decisions, I have to be tough sometimes, no matter if I am a woman or a man. I also have to consider two dimensions to be convincing: the content /the facts and the tone I use to communicate (the latter usually privileges women more than men!). Both together make up the way my “toughness” is perceived and – with more experience – I can play with the nuances of tone to reach my goals. If I as a woman believe in what I am communicating I don’t find it hard to be tough and still feel like a woman. However, when I don’t like the idea of being tough and am only imitating the behavior of my male peers to be successful like them, it may look awkward and “unfeminine”.
    A good way for me to avoid getting into a behavioral pattern that made me look like a bad actress (being more male than your male co-workers and superiors) was building and maintaining a network that could give me honest feedback on the way I acted.

    Does that help?
    Best wishes, @nachrichtenlos

  2. Apologies for the anonymous posting, but I’d rather my workplace not be revealed…

    Great article – thank you. And that TED talk is brilliant.

    My industry is female dominated, however, unsurprisingly, the ladies do not occupy many of the senior ranks. I’ve watched the boys’ careers skyrocket, while the chicks are left behind.

    I was recently asked who I thought the smartest operator in my organisation was… And my answer surprised even me. It was a young woman, who has produced numerous award winning peices of work over the past several years, but she still sits in a sort of mid-level position. I later told her that I’d named her the smartest operater – she was genuinely surprised & flattered. As women, I think we wait to be validated by others… A man would’ve latched on to those award wins & PR’d the heck out of himself.

    As a young woman, I occupy a fairly senior role within my organisation.I’ve probably achieved an equal number of award wins as the aforementioned colleague, but I’ve successfully “bigged myself up” enough to get here.

    To do this, I’v almost mimicked what I’ve seen male colleagues do. Their egos aren’t blown by any failure (at least not on the surface) & they celebrate their wins (even if they’re not that good).

    At the same time I’ve consiously balanced out the bravado by adopting a sort of self-depricating sense of humour. Because it’s the only way I can think of to remain likeable.

    And it totally sucks.

    And you know what – the bravado isn’t a problem for men. They’re the ones who promoted me. It feels like it’s more of a problem for the women.

    It would be great if we could support each other & celebrate wins instead of passing judgement…

    I don’t have the answer… but I hope if we continue this dialogue, we’ll start to see changes.

  3. Hey Bryony – great read lady!

    As a workwear fashion blogger, I’d like BusinessChic to be more reflective of the demographic in our workplaces. And I do spot immaculately dressed older women but quite often they decline to be photographed. Some just decline but there are others who say “no I’m too old” but that’s a whole other topic…

    So I recently got my hands on a DDI World Research Paper done here in Australia “Profile of a Successful Female Leader”. The study conducted conversations with 21 successful women across a wider range of industries to draw out the personal attributes consistently shown by the participants to have enabled their success. Courage, Passion, Authenticity, Ambition, Conscientiousness and Self-Insight. Unfortunately there are no photographs but I’d have thought that such qualities would also correlate with “I dress and act woman”. I at least think you should get a hold of the report as it’s an interesting read.

    But now I guess after reading the report, I think back to the senior women I’ve work with and not very many were throwing down as a woman. Maybe 2 in every 5? The women who I do think do this tend to be self-employed where they are forging their own networks and are the face of their business. And maybe that’s it – the women who are in-touch with themselves enough to be strong women who throw down at work – they stop and say “why am i throwin down for the man when i can be doing it for myself??”

  4. i’ve been thinking about your post for a couple of days.

    and then a bit of a twitter war broke out about the lack of women speakers in the web world. (overview here:

    and i followed the trail to this piece: which pretty much says women need to man up to get ahead.

    i’m not sure what i think at the moment. i don’t want to agree with shirky’s comments but when i step back, i do see this being played out (men self-promoting, women deflecting praise for achievements). there surely is another way, but i have a feeling we’re the generation that needs to work to define that.

    1. Thanks for the link to Shirky’s comments.That’s a good post. I feel ambiguous about it, too. Yet, I observe that we live in a time that we as women have boundless opportunities BECAUSE we are women. After all, men are not that secure nowadays as they pretend and really look forward to hearing and accepting alternative perspectives to their own points of view. IMHO, we too often stand in our own light when such an opportunity arises since we have not learned to be vocal about our abilities. When I was a kid, we had this awful little poem that other kids wrote in our autograph books. It says (more or less):
      Aim to be like the violet in the moose,
      humble and pure. Don’t be like the proud rose, that requires permanent attention.
      See my point?

      1. Well, I meant “moss”, not “moose”.

        And see again, how our educational scripts work? I am apologizing even before you have a chance to read my comment, aah, poor me :D.

  5. Bryony,
    Great to hear. I’ve worked for several women managers and the best one didn’t change her femininity one jot! In fact, she was the best leader I have ever worked for. Sadly and sorry to say this, she was successful, she was brilliant and she got demoted. She left for a better role. So it is possible!
    As pointed out, the worst were the one(s), even sorrier to say, that styled themselves tougher than the men and were equally as bad. Men don’t do that: why should women?

  6. Hallo lady, seeing your tweet just reminded me that I was watching So You Think You Can Dance on 11 the other night and thought – I NEED TO TELL BRYONY

    So here are two chicks who appear (because I don’t know them) to be all their authentic selves and throwing it down at work:
    – SYTYCD’s host Cat Deeley – who is all sass, style and funny. And she seems smart. total props.
    – SYTYCD judge/choreographer – Mia Michaels ( As a choreographer, Mia does kick-ass work which has been performed on SYTYCD and won an Emmy Award ( – so she kills it at a work. But watching her the other night as a judge… she just came across as a really authentic artist also. totally in my role model book.

    oh and Mary Poppins. She’s totally a woman who throws it down at work – all with the snap of her capable fingers!

    And while I think that it is easier to be an authentic woman who throws it down at work in some industries more than others, I wonder whether we as women need to be more entrepreneurial and create those workplaces for ourselves. That rather than trying to fit our authentic selves in with the current structures, we take our smarts and commodify it. I think that mummy bloggers are a really good example of this… x

  7. Hey Bry,

    It’s me, again. I’ve just had some news, a woman whom I totally respect in the workplace is faced with the ending of a marriage. There’s not much point in elaborating on the details but for me it raises questions….

    I know that I want to be the best human being I can be- professionally, personally. I want to be one of those chicks who kill it in the workplace and I know that I would like to have someone special to share the journey with. But what if being the best person I can be makes that someone special feel, less?

    Recently I also bumped into another woman whom I totally respect in the workplace (sartorially, professionally, personally) who told me that she’d give up all that she’d achieved professionally to have saved the marriage she lost in the process of making partner at a relatively young age.

    It sucks that it seems (from my own potentially warped observation) that the more powerful the man, the safer the woman feels and yet the more powerful the woman, the more emasculated the man feels. Is the answer to make sure that he feels secure that he has power in the relationship in the way that I hope that men with dependent women don’t make them feel like they need to beg for money?

    Are there not enough examples of women killing it in the workplace because some choose life, killing it personally versus killing it professionally? I wonder.

  8. I’d love to offer a male perspective if I may, particularly having managed plenty of younger women in our organisation. It seems to me that there is this social pressure to dress very formally (as a man would), to act very straight and always be respectful. Whilst none of these are ‘bad’ qualities (indeed we can always benefit from being ‘proper’), it’s also not natural, charismatic or feminine. I encourage everyone in our office to dress the way they want, express themselves using their own words, don’t hide the person you are… embrace it.

    If we are talking about sex, truth of the matter is, the best people I have ever had the pleasure of working with have been female, expressive and very feminine. They weren’t judged for their sexuality, but for their work and their attitude of true internal determination was what got them where there were.

    And finally, to office dynamics and personally enjoyment in the office, I love when people call me on my bullshit. Male, or female, confidence in the office is the true driving power. All power to being feminine and throwing it down, something I am positive Ms Cole, you have no problems with in either sense.

  9. It is the eternal game between men and women. Just like in relationships. It is not until we understand, appreciate and celebrate our own unique differences that growth happens. A woman should be a woman more than ever, men should also be men more than ever. There should be a dialog, sometimes it could even be abstract. There will be some tension—not a bad thing—it keeps the world going.

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