Are you are a man or a woman (or both) at work?

Dr. Sara Murdock
4 min readAug 13, 2021

(Welcome to part 2 of a series inspired by Sharna Fabiano’s Lead & Follow.)

For over 35 years my mom drove 30 minutes from our home to her work undergoing an internal transformation. Even though her role was a traditionally female one — an elementary school teacher — she felt the need to put on her “big boy” pants when she walked in the front door of her school. Her “office” didn’t require a suit and tie, but the atmosphere was quite regimented, competitive, and demanding with low inclusion and poor psychological safety. She’s been retired for over 5 years now, but I still thank her for working so hard to put food on the table.

And she drove the 30 minutes home undergoing another transformation. Although she drew upon her “masculine” qualities at work, she enjoyed expressing more traditionally feminine qualities at home. She loved to cook for the family, enjoyed sewing, and became such an avid gardener that she easily could have taken it on as a paid side hustle. She also engaged in a metaphorical dance with her husband, my dad, that was unmistakably polarized, with a clear male “lead” and a clear female “follow”. To this day it works for them well.

I have not had such an easy time of it. I’m excited by public speaking, easily make informed yet major decisions that impact massive numbers of people, facilitate dialogue between groups that might otherwise want to harm one another, broker deals with many zeros, or shrink in the face of boardrooms full of men 30 years my senior. Power has always felt like a playground to me.

But I am aware that my feminine side is a liability. To be clear, it’s not because I question the power of femininity. It’s because the power of the feminine is to transcend words and to embrace the senses. It’s why, in Puritanical cultures like North America, we sometimes mistake femininity for sexuality.

A woman in lipstick and dress that actually fits turns into “she’s sex on a stick” or “she’s walking sex” or “she oozes sex.” But it’s not just what we’re wearing. It’s that we’re paid and acknowledged and appreciated more at work for asserting ourselves in more masculine ways. Assertion at work is seen as leaderly.

On a tango dance floor, where words are optional (if not frowned upon), senses are the priority. It’s the dynamic interplay between the lead and the follow — the exchange — that matters. Separating “role from gender” isn’t a problem because the dance itself matters most. In tango, “roles were labeled ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but today they are increasingly labeled ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ instead” (15). And without the lead/follow dynamic, the dance doesn’t work, regardless of gender.

Are men who dance expressing feminine qualities and women who work expressing masculine qualities? If only it were that simple. After all, what if your job is to dance? Or what if your work feels like art?

It’s widely accepted that being a great follow requires a great lead and that the opposite is not true. For example, a novice follower can look great in the hands of a superb leader, but no matter how experienced the follower, in the hands of a poor leader, both will look terrible. That is one of the missing links in business.

While leaders worry about hiring “the best” followers, they intellectualize “leadership” instead of being great leaders. Imagine that guy on the dance floor who’s memorized the steps and is still counting them out loud, hoping they won’t mess up instead of learning to embody the dance.

I, too, have a partner dance background (though not in tango). But unlike Fabiano, who makes the lead/follow switch with the precision and grace of a fine sports car, I am a terrible lead on the dance floor! I would go so far as to say I’m useless as a dance lead. I’m attuned to my own sensual side, yet I have virtually no ability to lead another in dance. Yet in the boardroom, seminar room, zoom room, and beyond, I am rewarded and congratulated for abandoning my senses for my intellect. I lead well in the realm of the mind. And I work in a world that likes my ability to do that: “Please leave your senses and your femininity at home.”

I’m smart, I’m practiced, and I’m confident, so I code-switch: I follow in the realm of the feminine and lead in the realm of the masculine. I’ve learned to protect what I’m sensing by presenting it through an intellectual filter.

I’ll leave us off with some questions…

How much energy, focus, and heart are we blocking by masking our feminine qualities and showcasing masculine qualities at work? And the business question: how much more innovation and quality can we access by embracing receptive, follower qualities?

Code-switching is expensive. On the dance floor and in business it can be emotionally and mentally taxing. It constipates creative juices and experimental verve required for innovation. What if at work we could worry less about the role and focus more on the dynamic interplay between leading and following?

Who cares if you’re a great leader? Or a great follower?

What are the qualities of the programs, products, and projects you are leading and/or following?

Are you and your actions inspired?

Who and what are you serving?

Whatever you do, choose to be a leader and a follower with intention.