woman leaning against a brick wall in a white jacket
woman leaning against a brick wall in a white jacket

Three killer moves in business … that backfire on women

There’s a well-known phenomenon in business, whereby a man who is bold and asserts himself is seen as a leader, and a woman who is bold and asserts herself is seen as a bitch. Women get caught in a Catch-22 – either you’re a weakling or a bitch. Research established that about a decade ago.

Here are three more rules of the business world that hold true for men but in my experience can backfire for women – not always, but often.

  • Be humble and give credit where it’s due. A few months ago, as I was in a studious frame of mind bent on making a successful transition from business journalist to author and CEO, I was looking at the tweets issued by my co-author Seth Levine. He was typically humble (He is a humble and fair person, so entirely authentic). I sent out a few humble tweets myself. But whereas his got a lot of love, mine laid there like dead fish. My theory: Being humble or self-deprecating makes men look good. The problem for women is that people believe it when you say you couldn’t have done it alone.
  • Opportunity knocks. Reach out and grab it. This is a particularly pernicious one. But I believe there’s a mating rule that leeches over into the business world. If you reach at an opportunity as a woman, you’re seen as desperate. My biggest deals have come when I inadvertently played hard to get: I was too busy to take a call. That doesn’t mean women should fake being busy, but maybe be more open about how busy you are.
  • Create a sense of urgency. This one, I realized in a recent conversation with Allison Long Pettine, an investor and founder of Ad Astra. While some of the classic fundraising advice is “create a sense of urgency by telling investors you are about to close the round” works for men, not so much for women. We hardly ever believe we’ll be able to close a round (this is entirely rational, given the amount of investment women get). So pretending we are closing a round comes across as just that: a pretense. VCs, sniffing out inauthenticity, back away.

So what’s the answer? I don’t have one. The only thing I know for sure that helps is when women share these lessons with each other, and men listen. The root of the word “gossip,” is the same as “gospel.” So you have to wonder if gossip came to be maligned because it was a female form of communication. Pass it on, sister.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.