I built my career on being the person who turned around failing operations and projects. It is really hard work and extremely stressful. It wasn’t until I wrote my article on men and work hours that I really started questioning why I (and the other women in the office) stay in there and do the hard work while the men eventually give up and leave. I wrote that men have a limit on the number of hours they really work and the amount of stress they could handle. After doing a little research I learned just how right my experiences have been.
According to the stereotypes men are tough. When it comes to handling stress the old thought was that people (men and women) will do one of two things – stay in there and fight or take flight. We expect the tough men to stay in there and keep on fighting. But in my experience, men start taking flight as the stress level increases, while I stay in there and keep going. So does this mean I am tougher than all the men in the company? Does this mean I am the manliest of men?
As it turns out the fight or flight concept only applies to men.
In July 2000 Shelley Taylor PhD. published a paper in which she coined a term “tend and befriend” to describe how women handle stress. Initially women may have the fight-or-flight response but then the “tend-and-befriend” response kicks in. Under stress women tend to themselves and our young and befriend others by forming alliances.
This makes sense especially when you think about maternal instinct. Under stress we aren’t going to run away and leave our young unattended and unprotected. We stay in there. We talk to other women about what we are feeling and get the support we need to deal with the stress.
The reason for our different response is due to the hormone oxytocin which is more prevalent in females especially during childbirth. It is funny that before I did any research that I wrote in my notes for this article that women always joke that we are better at stress because men could never handle childbirth. The research finally bears out what we have known all along.
This helps me understand what I do and feel during a crisis. I always felt that if I left, that if I didn’t stay in there and fight then I would be abandoning my colleagues and company. Without knowing it my nurturing instinct kicked in but instead of tending to the young, I tend to my male colleagues. A few years ago when my youngest daughter was barely 18 and I was working like crazy on an extremely stressful project, she even told me the men needed my attention more than she did. Since then we joke about how better my teenage and young adult daughters are at managing stress than the men I work with.
For me this is great, so much of my life is starting to make sense. We have finally proved that in a crisis you want a woman in charge! It is like I wrote about in my article on work hours that a stressful situation is our golden opportunity. After the men take flight, we can take over the project and get it done!
This strength however comes with a WARNING. Remember a weakness is a strength taken to an extreme. What that means for women is that in times of stress we can become too self-sacrificing, we can spend too much time at work, we can run ourselves ragged.
All I can say is: Been there, done that, many times. For me, it is hard to not take on too much. It is hard for me to back off on what I want to accomplish, even though the men have all hit their limits and flown away. I still struggle with finding the balance. I will admit that this is my biggest challenge and the reason I am taking a break from construction project management.
So if you find yourself alone at work several nights a week, then you are out of balance. Take a lesson from your male colleagues. They know their limits. When they are stressed they leave. Even when we are struggling to balance work and family we can follow men’s example. When they are functioning as a single dad and they have a stressful conflict, they leave work and take care of their family responsibilities. They just do it and don’t feel guilty!
For me it’s nice to know that I am not a manly man but just a strong woman. I am going to add stress to my list of male and female balancing characteristics. Men have stress limits while women have stress endurance. The balance for women is to know that we don’t have to keep increasing our endurance – we don’t have to run the stress marathon when a 10k is far enough!
An empowered woman knows she can be counted on take charge when times are tough!
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