On being an alpha female
About 8 months ago I found out I’m an alpha female. What happened was, one day at work my boss mentioned that he and everyone else is afraid of me. I looked around and realized he was pretty much right (there are exceptions).
I went home to my husband and mentioned how weird it was that people at work are afraid of me, and he said, “No, it’s not weird at all. Don’t you realize that you’re constantly giving people the impression that you’re about to take away their toy and break it??”. No, I hadn’t realized that – and that sounds pretty awful! Am I really that mean? Then he told me I was an alpha male living in a woman’s body.
If you google “alpha male in a woman’s body,” (without the quotes) which I did, you come upon the phrase “alpha female” pretty quickly.
It came as a surprise to me – I’d always thought I am nice. But it wasn’t a surprise to anyone else; in fact when I mentioned my realization to my close friends, each and every one of them laughed out loud that I hadn’t known this about myself. One of my friends told me it was less that I was about breaking toys and more about how I call out people’s bullshit, which is something I have to admit I relish doing.
Upon further reflection I had to admit to myself that I am nice, but only to people who I think are nice themselves. So I guess that means I’m not just simply nice. And if I enjoy calling people on their bullshit, that’s not exactly nice either.
Over the past 8 months, I’ve been slowly observing my alpha femaleness, and at this point I can honestly say I’m comfortable with it. I own it now. It’s kind of fun to know about it, because of how people react to me, without me intentionally doing anything.
How I now think about my alpha femaleness is that it lends me authority. It’s a kind of portable power. Not always, of course, and sometimes I am in situations where I’m totally incompetent, and sometimes I run into someone who completely ignores my alpha femaleness or is themselves an alpha male and competes. I usually really like them.
I’ve also realize how much my life has been informed by this property; my life has been, for the most part, much easier than it could have been without this property. And I want to acknowledge that because most people aren’t like this and don’t have this advantage.
For example: I interview really well. I speak with perceived confidence even when I don’t feel confident, and that comes across well in interviews.
In fact all my life people have mentioned to me that “things seem easy” to me, even in situations where I felt completely insecure and flustered. I used to lift weights at the gym with my buddies in college, and they would not really spot me on the bench press because they were convinced I didn’t need help. I almost dropped the weights on my neck a couple of times calling my friends over from the other side of the room. So in retrospect maybe it was a sign I’m an alpha female, but at the time I was just baffled.
It’s good and bad. When people perceive you as more confident and more comfortable in a situation than you actually are, it’s about 80% good and 20% bad, and could be the opposite depending on the situation. It’s bad when it’s dangerous and you really don’t know what you’re doing (that happened to me when I was driving an ATV once, and luckily when I turned it over in a mud pit I didn’t actually break my legs, but I could have) and it’s totally convenient when you’re presenting stuff or in an interview.
Why am I mentioning all of this? Because I think it might help people, especially women in math or in tech, to learn to think a bit more like an alpha female, and I want to give some tips on how to do it. It’s like injecting a shot of testosterone at the right time.
These tips can be used in specific situations like an interview or a talk or at a work meeting. Feel free to ignore these tips if you hate everything about the idea, which I would totally understand too. In fact when I first learned about it myself, I was offended by it on a matter of principle, but I’ve come to think of it more like a mysterious part of the human experience, on the same page as pheromones and how women have the same menstrual cycle when they live together.
Tips on how to think and act like an alpha female
- When you’re asked to describe your accomplishments, talk about yourself the way your best friend would describe you. So in other words with pride and enthusiasm for your accomplishments, without being embarrassed. Don’t lie or exaggerate, but don’t underplay anything.
- Let there be silence. If you’ve finished what you’re saying and you’re done, wait for someone else to say something.
- If you want credit, give credit first. Generosity is, in my experience, contagious. So if you want to get credit for contributing something to a project, start out by talking about how awesome your collaborators have been on the project. This gets people thinking about credit in a generous way, and it also gives you authority for bestowing it as the first person who brought it up. Note this is different from what I see lots of people do, namely not mentioning credit themselves and waiting passively for someone else to raise it (and to share it).
- Ignore titles and hierarchy. Those things are silly. You can talk to anyone at any time if you have a good idea.
- If you want feedback, give feedback. This includes to your boss (see previous tip). If you want to find out how you stand with someone, the best thing to do is to tell someone else how they stand with you. People love hearing about themselves. This works best when you can say something nice, but it also works when it’s a difficult conversation.
- Define your narrative. When your standing is in question, put out your version of the story first, for a couple of reasons – one is that you define the scope of the question, and the other is that your narrative is now the standard, and any one refuting it has to refute it.
- When you’re in a meeting and want to bring your point across in a room full of alpha males, think about defending or arguing for an idea, rather than for yourself. It helps with gaining confidence in your argument.
- Of course it also helps if your argument is water-tight, so practice making your points in your mind, and write them down beforehand if that helps.
- Develop a thick skin. When you say what you think first, there are plenty of people who might take offense and jump on you and be vicious. Sometimes it’s just a show of power. Keep an observer’s eye on that kind of reaction, and don’t take it personally, because it’s almost never about you really, it’s maybe about their relationship with their mom or something.
- At the same time, what’s cool about putting yourself out there is that people react and often point out how your thinking is flawed or lazy and you get to learn really, really quickly. Learning is the best part!