Today, after meeting someone new, a male work friend of mine — let’s call him Joe — said to me, “Boy, does he shake hands like a girl!”
As a child, I was taught the importance of a firm handshake in making a good first impression. A solid — but not bone-crushing — grip shows confidence and competence. A wet-fish handshake is a sign of uncertainty. Gender never entered into it.
“Here, see?” said Joe, holding out his hand. He shook mine firmly. “That’s a man’s handshake.”
Over the past six months, Joe has become somewhat of a mentor to me. I greatly respect his opinion, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he respects me, in return, as a person and a colleague — despite the gap in our age and experience. Never has he shown the slightest hint of sexism, though he does keep to old-fashioned manners such as holding the door or pulling out chairs for a lady, which I view as nothing more than politeness.
A bit taken aback by his characterization of handshakes as “girly” or “manly,” I was nevertheless curious about his opinion, and held out my own hand once again. “What do you think of my handshake?” I asked.
“It’s too firm for a woman,” he told me.
“It’s confident,” I countered. ”Who cares if I’m a woman?”
He shrugged. “It’s off-putting. People will get that you’re confident and capable within a few minutes of actually speaking to you. You don’t have to be dominant from the get-go. You can be strong and smart and feminine — you don’t have to try to be a man.”
I didn’t argue the point at the time. I know from working with him that he doesn’t think less of me because I’m a woman — he had just called me smart and strong — and he was genuinely trying to help me in my interactions with others. The sad thing is, he’s probably right that a lot of people WOULD have the same reaction he did. But, that paradigm itself is the problem. Why is being strong and confident seen as “trying to be a man?”
I’m partway through reading Lean In, and while I agree with the message, so far I’ve been disappointed to feel none of it is particularly groundbreaking. I already know that women are held to a smorgasbord of unfair double standards, and I’ve always known that I should fight against that — or I thought I did. There seems to be a dilemma here, though, where a woman has only two options.
The first is to “lean in” — come on as strong as any man, voice your opinions, give a firm handshake. This seems like the morally “right” thing to do, and anybody who would really judge me for doing so is not worth my attention. By doing this, we take a stand for women everywhere, and if enough of us do so, we might make a real change. But, that change has the potential to come at the sacrifice of our immediate careers if we come across as unlikable.
The second option is one that — ironically enough — I never considered until I read Lean In. This option is to temper one’s appearance of strength — at least in the traditional sense — in the name of what is considered to be more feminine. I’m not suggesting that I would ever altogether refuse to take my seat at the table, so to speak. But, maybe I don’t have to come across quite as strong.
In my last years of schooling, I learned that I could still ace my papers and tests without having to wave my hand in the air every time the teacher asked a question, and the other students liked me better when I was less of a show-off. Similarly, why can’t a woman be strong and successful without being as pushy, or in-your-face, as a man? I’m not saying that women shouldn’t be able to act that way if they want to — after all, it’s my own natural inclination — but, we shouldn’t have to.
Sandberg’s book seems to suggest that we ought to emulate the behavior of men — who are traditionally more successful in business than women are — even though study after study has shown that women are actually better communicators. So, by saying that women ought to act more like men do, isn’t Sandberg, in a way, validating the assumption that men, and the traditional view of strength associated with masculinity, are superior? Why can’t we communicate in different, but equally valid ways, and teach people to appreciate both? Or, for that matter, where’s the book encouraging men to act more like women?
Abby Milberg is a web designer and freelance writer. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. and has a passion for startups, innovative technology, and all things creative. fe