Drop Stereotypes, Adopt Archetypes

The Greeks' mythical Amazons defied the female stereotype by displaying characteristics of the most masculine archetype — warriors. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

High school English curriculum often gives an overview of the “archetype,” a steadfast character profile that appears in literature in different forms but has the same basic characteristics and function within a story.

But don’t think archetypes are only reserved for Homer and Shakespeare. They could be the key to moving past workplace gender divisions.

Gender stereotypes dictates that male equals masculine traits and female equals feminine, said Patricia Beach, co-owner of executive development organization Leadership Smarts. Instead, diversity leaders should look at masculine and feminine archetypes — characteristic sets that apply to both genders.

“In a workplace, it moves over time, this weaving between the masculine and feminine where you might lean toward listening and being in your more feminine energy, then lean toward decision-making with conviction and confirmation and focus (masculine energy),” she said.

It’s easy to jump to the stereotype of masculine energy’s workplace positives — such as confidence and outspokenness — vs. female energy’s negatives, such as emotiveness. Roger Toennis, Leadership Smarts’ other owner, said if leaders disconnect the male stereotype from the masculine archetype, women have access to those traits. The same goes for men trying to adopt more feminine traits, like listening and collaboration.

This decoupling is made difficult, not just by social constructs but also by linguistics.

“In our English language, when we talk about the feminine archetype or masculine archetype, those words sound like and therefore are associated with male and female,” Beach said. “In other languages, they talk about the yin and yang, for example, and yin is not as closely linked to ‘woman,’ just like yang is not as closely linked to ‘man.’ Those words are more freeform, and there’s this feeling of balance.”

They are related to each other, not dependent.

Beach and Toennis’ goal is to expand the conversation. They said that people intuitively understand how stereotype and archetype differ, but it’s sometimes hard to find the right language that doesn’t harken back to the old school, euphemistic slam, “He’s in touch with his feminine side.” To mitigate this, they’ve created what they call the “V-Factor,” in which “V” stands for versatility.

Some companies do more than change the language and perceptions around masculine and feminine traits, however. Nancy Mellard, executive vice president and general counsel for professional services company CBiz Inc.’s Employee Services Division, leads the organization’s programs from women. Her work has focused on getting women to embrace two feminine tendencies that have stood out the most to her: a solid work ethic and constant perfectionism.  

“The tendencies that hold us back (as women) are the same that push us forward,” she said. “What we have to find is a balance of when we use them to our advantage and when they become a disadvantage.”

Like Beach and Toennis, Mellard has pushed female employees to embrace their masculine traits as a way of getting success. An excellent work ethic and perfectionist attitude gets the job done well, but she said it can also hold workers back by making it difficult to close a project and move on to one for which they aren’t entirely prepared. Critical to her mission, however, is that employees still hold on to what separates the women from the boys.

“We own our careers, we own our futures and we don’t want to be men,” Mellard said. “Compromising is when women say, ‘If I could only act more like a man.’ Do I want to learn those behaviors to advance me and make me better? Yes, but I don’t want to compromise who I am. The saddest thing would be the day we all lead the same way. If we ever lose that diversity of thought, it would be a very sad day in corporate America.”