Balancing the Yin and Yan

Balancing the Yin and Yang

By Dr Galia Barhava


Over the years, in my work with over a thousand women globally, I have been asked many times by senior women the following question:
“How do you keep your ‘shape’ as you advance through an organisation and face increasing pressures to ‘fit in’ (whatever that means)?”

You might think that this is no longer relevant in this day and age of the advanced DENI agenda, but in my work in the ‘cold face’ inside organisations, I can share that it still very much is. The context of ‘fitting in’ may have changed, but we are social creatures, and wherever there are groups of people norms emerge, 

and with it, the ‘right’ way to be and the ‘wrong’ way to be.

In this thought piece, I address the dilemma many women who want to maintain their femininity face in heavily male-dominated, traditional industries.

Fitting In

As you advance in many organisations, you are constantly pressured to adapt or change your behaviour in various ways. Comments such as “try being more/less assertive in client meetings” and “you need to show more commitment to the firm” are common. In fact, I was just recently told (March 2024) that prospective clients have raised concerns that I am too assertive/pushy when it comes to advancing women through my mentoring programmes.

The collective wisdom suggests that ‘the powers that be’ probably think they have your best interests at heart. But what is the personal cost to us as we move away from who we are?

A substantial proportion of the pressure to fit in is to become, somehow, more masculine in a ‘socially acceptable way for women’. Let’s face it: We have to be at least a little competitive, assertive, and aggressive, and know how to hold ourselves to succeed in male-dominated environments. But at the same time, we can’t be too aggressive/assertive/competitive or we might face backlash.

The risk of these relentless pressures is that we could lose our authentic selves along the way.

The Boxer versus the Ballerina

Like most psycho-social constructs, masculinity and femininity lie on a continuum.  Some women can be very masculine and have always been that way, and the same holds true for some feminine men.  But if you, like me, have a son and daughter who are pretty much bang in the middle of that continuum, you see the differences between them emerge very early on. My daughter is feminine but she is also very competitive.  I ask myself whether she’ll be able to retain her wonderful femininity if she chooses a professional career or if she will be subtly, or not so subtly, pushed to lose some of it to become ‘tough’ and ‘someone who can take the pressure’.

Perhaps in male-dominated environments, we are molded into more ‘masculine’ versions of ourselves.  Or perhaps it’s as simple as being rewarded for more masculine behaviours, which in turn makes us more likely to display these behaviours.

In either scenario, we often lose track of our more ‘feminine’ side.  I know that for many years I did. 

This was further brought home to me when I was having a coffee with a client a while ago, when I still worked in corporate.  She works in a very male-dominated environment, and we were talking about how we were both dealing with two very traumatic personal experiences. We both felt pressure in the professional setting to put on a brave face, to ‘be staunch’, and to hold most of our anguish inside. 

The thing is, does this then make it harder for us to let go in personal settings? Once you are in this mindset, it pervades into all areas of your life.  So, when do you let go?  How do you allow yourself to be kind to yourself?

Being Kind to Ourselves

For many women, being kind to themselves is a really hard thing to do.  Working in male-dominated environments means that they never really do it.  They think of being kind to themselves as a ‘soft’ thing to do, a waste of time, right down at the bottom of their priorities.  Working all-nighters?  Well, that’s true grit; that’s what real (wo)men are made of.  Being kind to myself?  That’s for women who can’t hack it and who are soft!

Implications for Work

I think that being aware of who you are, and making sure you stay true to yourself, is the core of self-awareness.  A big part of it for many women is being mindfully feminine.  Retaining your femininity in a way that works for you is an important part of your authentic self; it is something that will enhance your career and not diminish it – and the research supports my views.

One 2011 study from Stanford called “Overcoming the Backlash Effect: Self-monitoring and Women’s Promotions” found that women who were agentic – that is in control of their careers, assertive, etc. but who also self-monitored how they came across, i.e. had self-awareness – were the most likely to be promoted. Specifically, they got one and a half times more promotions than masculine men or feminine women, and twice as many promotions as feminine men.  But here’s the crux of the matter: these women were three times more likely to be promoted than agentic women with low self-awareness – women who were perceived as too ‘masculine’.

One thing we try very hard in our Women to Leadership group mentoring programme is to create the space for mentees to work this out for themselves, and what this balance looks like for them at work. 

One of our mentees shared with us at graduation how she found her way of expressing her feminine leadership style in a very male-dominated environment.  She told us that she had all these experts with different views of her building site. Instead of asserting and imposing her view, she got everyone around the table and said “Look, I’m a generalist, not an expert. But the experts are disagreeing, so let’s figure it out together”.

They all responded really well to an excellent outcome, and she felt she was able to bring her whole self to her leadership for the first time.

How Do You ‘Retain’ your Feminine Self?

1. Play to your strengths

Figure out what your strengths are. I advocate using the VIA Signature Strengths finder. It is free and can be found here:

When I worked in heavily male-dominated environments, all my top strengths fell under ‘courage’ and ‘wisdom’.  Love and the capacity to be loved was number 21 out of 24.  I didn’t even know how it could be a top strength for a professional woman or how one could use it at work. 

Do you know what my number one strength is now? You guessed it: Love and the capacity to be loved.

The more I use it, the more I love my work.  Focusing on my strengths has been my pathway to finding my feminine leadership voice while staying authentic to who I am. 

2. Find your role models

Look around your organisation, and while networking in your sector/industry, find those ‘agentic’ women who are very professionally successful but retain their femininity. You can learn from them by observing how they carry themselves, how they navigate tricky situations, and how they hold themselves in meetings and male-dominated environments.  Better still, you can ask them to have a coffee and raise this question with them to gain their insights. 

3. Do some writing

I greatly advocate for writing to distil insights and gain perspective.  You could start by using the following prompts:

a.   The last time I felt authentic in how I led, I… make it specific. Think back to the time.  Who was involved?  What did you actually do?  What was it about your behaviour that felt authentic?

b.   As a leader, I am most proud of myself when I…. push yourself to really think about what it is that you do as a leader that makes you most proud and why.

Good luck!  Know that you are not alone.  Also know that by making this a priority, you will find your own authentic leadership voice that balances the Yin and the Yang.