Henry Higgins Has Gotten His Wish, Unfortunately: Women Have Become More Like Men

 By: Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
"Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

The musical, My Fair Lady, was first performed in 1956. In it, Professor Henry Higgins complains women are irrational; they can't use their heads. He wonders, "Why can't they grow up like their father instead?" Then, in a poignant verse, he asks,

"Why is thinking something women never do?
Why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
Why don't they straighten up the mess that's inside?"

Well, Professor Higgins, over half a century later, you have gotten your wish. Women have become more like men. We have straightened up the mess inside our head. Now, we think and use logic.

In the 21st century, we have finally broken into all professions and cracking lots of glass ceilings. In fact, we have become so much like men that we now work 60 plus hours a week and grow appendages of Blackberries and IPods.

But, that is only one way in which Professor Higgins got his wish. Women struggle to get rid of our hips, curves, extra flesh - modeling after the typical young male body. We spend time in gyms developing contoured arms and legs. We wear suits to work.

We have even entered the man's world of health problems. While heart attacks were once a man's disease, they are now a major cause of female death.

None of this, though, is news; women becoming more like a man in these areas are well recognized. However, here's the surprise: two areas that have taken a Higgins' hit are communication style and friendships.

WOMEN'S COMMUNICATION

Communication was a defining word for the 1990s, starting with the Deborah Tannin's You Just Don't Understand. Her research spelled out what we already knew - men and women have different styles of communicating. Women's style is more interactive than men's. We reinforce each other with empathic head nods, comments. We swap stories to indicate we understand and to validate the other's feelings.

For example, Janice and Cora are lunching at their favorite cafe. Janice shares how stressful it has been these past three months taking care of her elderly mother. Cora listens closely, making direct eye contact. Periodically, she sympathetically murmurs, "Uh huh", and "Oh, dear", and "That's so hard, isn't it?"

Cora shares her own stressful story. Janice understands this is so she, Janice, won't feel so alone.

This exchange would be different between most men, as they communicate in what looks, to us women, as Parallel Talk. Each one speaks and their comments do not necessarily indicate a link between the two topics. They don't have to be looking directly at each other, and they don't need head or verbal indications of their listening and sympathy. But, they feel heard by each other.

One style is not better or worse than the other. They are just different.

In 1992, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus erupted into the American life. Today, probably most men and women know that women want sympathy when they have a problem, while men give solutions.

Yet, in the past few years, in my office as well as among my friends, I've noticed a dramatic shift. Women's communication style is changing. Mars and Venus not withstanding, women now offer lots of unsolicited solutions, and they frequently forget the sympathy.

A 61 year old woman recently shared this story with me. She had been diagnosed with osteoporosis and wanted to tell her best friend, Joyce, about her symptoms, the treatment, and the prognosis.

I started by mentioning the pain in my back and hips. But before I could say more, she said I should contact her doctor and she'd send me an article she had about bone density scans.

I was disappointed, but thanked her. Then resumed what I had been trying to say - how scared I was thinking my bones are deteriorating. Joyce jumped in with, "Yup. That's what I hate about middle age. I wake up every day with pains in my back and legs."

Ellen shuddered as she recalled her disappointment.

Henry Higgins, you win this one.

FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS

Friends have been vital to women's emotional lives. But, is the ghost of Henry's question taking hold here, too?

Is our success in the work world so addictive it is difficult to pull ourselves away to be with friends? Are our friendships at risk of playing a weak second to our work?

How often have you ended a great lunch with a female friend saying, "Let's do this again?" Then, opening your appointment book, you discover the next mutually convenient time is not for three or six weeks.

We no longer live next door to our friends, so we don't drop in on them every day. We work more and later hours, so are less likely to drop in by phone every few days. My study on women's friendships shows that many women barely manage to talk with their best friends once every few weeks. We may feel torn between making choices between dinner with a friend or with a business contact.

If you are wondering what's unusual about any of this, you are definitely a product of Henry's successful wish.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Women have certainly benefited from becoming more like a man, making a better place for ourselves financially, having our skills used and appreciated, impacting the business world.

The question, though, is can women continue being successful in a man's world while still holding onto our uniqueness as women. Stealing a phrase from another My Fair Lady song, "With a little bit of luck", the answer can be a resounding Yes. With an equally resounding, But.

To break into the man's work world, women had to become more like men, down playing our uniqueness as females. We worked long and hard, put our feelings and family on back burners. We talked and played by men's rules; we dressed less feminine.

But now that we've made it, successful business women have begun using their power differently than men. A female style of leadership involves creating a win-win environment and collaboration. Female goals are to make a major contribution rather than to make the competition look bad.

We have an obligation to the young women coming behind us to actively combine the best of what we have learned about making it in the man's world with what is unique and special about being women. It is because we have made it that we must hold on to our special attributes, including valuing our communication style and friendships.

No, Henry Higgins. We don't want to be like a man. That would be selling ourselves too short.
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