What gives you the Sunday night fear? The knowledge that you left that difficult task unfinished on Friday? Or maybe it’s a more vague, broader sense of unease that, despite never actually doing anything wrong, you’re just not the right person for your job. The wrong personality type. I’ve been ruminating on this, on and off, since I first started working as an editor and writer over a decade ago. Because if you imagine what an archetypal editor is like in the classic, alpha Anna Wintour mould, I am definitely not it.
As a self-confessed beta woman – I’m laid-back, pragmatic and a good listener, and rarely lose my temper – I spent my twenties convinced that I didn’t possess the ruthless focus, drive and hard edge to be the boss. I was destined to be the perennial Robin to an alpha woman’s Batman, the classic deputy. The idea that my personality wasn’t the right fit for my job – irrespective of how I was actually performing – stopped me applying for jobs and promotions that could easily have been mine.
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Our attitude to alpha and beta women in the public sphere is equally complicated – yes there are more alpha women in the limelight than I can count – Beyoncé, Kris Jenner, Taylor Swift, you know the drill. But then there are the women who have banked on the fact that being more beta makes them relatable and likeable (pizza-eating, red-carpet-falling Jennifer Lawrence, versus classic alpha Anne Hathaway, who was derided for practising her Oscars speech beforehand; Jennifer Aniston’s relaxed beta vibes in comparison to alpha Angelina).
But when we’re talking about IRL women in the workplace, success is only allowed to look a certain way, and we all play into this idea. We’re all part of a carefully constructed skit where we ‘put on’ our work personalities in the same way as we put on our sharpest jacket or highest heels before a big meeting. Whether it’s the ‘slaying it at work’ Instagram post that belies the hours you spent freaking out because you didn’t think you’d get that project out of the door, or the frosty reception you accidentally gave the new girl at work because you’re actually really nervous about that meeting with your boss’s boss later in the day. The mantra is, ‘Show no fear, show no weakness.’
But who said being an alpha automatically makes you a better leader in the first place? And why? It’s an important question to ask because many classically beta traits are also seen as classically female traits (pragmatism, empathy, willingness to listen and work as a team), and plenty of alpha traits (drive, determination, dogmatism, decisiveness) are seen as very male. That’s not to say that all men are alpha and all women are beta – far from it – but when we make those shortcut assumptions about what makes someone good at their job, it means the only way a woman can succeed is when she acts in what’s viewed as a traditionally masculine way. And when that happens, it really is a boy’s club at the top. It’s only when we embrace our beta selves that we’ll smash the glass ceiling our way.