Friday, January 25, 2008

Alpha Women

(News-Herald, January 24) By now we all know about alpha males, big manly testosterone-spewing arm-flexing studly mountains of leaderliness. But what is the female counterpart of an alpha male?

Men and women, according to a wide assortment of learned sociologists and regular humans, communicate and socialize differently. Men, it’s said, tend to organize themselves in hierarchies. Like dogs and other pack animals, when you put men together, they strut or bluster or act commanding or just butt heads until everyone sorts out who stands above whom in the pecking order.

Men are pretty comfortable with this. That’s why we have the oft-repeated movie image of two men who punch the daylights out of each other, get up, brush off their clothes, and go get a drink together. Once they know how they stand with each other, they can be friendly. The man who tends to land furthest up the food chain is the alpha male.

But that, according to the learned sociologists, is not how women work.

Women socialize by networking. They don’t keep score by knowing who can whip whom, or who occupies the steps above and below a certain position. If the male social model looks like a ladder, women’s looks like a giant web.

Women get points for their connections. Women in this traditional model gain status by knowing more people, being close to more people, being the hub around which the wheel of their social circle turns.

This means that men and women compete differently. Men will bluster and boss each other around and push and shove and throw their weight around until the top dog is clearly identified.

But women compete by trying to make connections, collecting social ties like baseball cards. And it’s a competition that can get rather ugly at times.

Not that these competitions are always evident. Much of the working world is set-up to follow the male model—the organizational chart tells us who the alpha dog is. And traditional workplaces are not kind to women who try to play this game—often they are often given a dog-related label, but it isn’t “alpha.”

Still, we know what alpha dog competition looks like. Because you can’t beat people into being your friend, women’s competition is less obvious.

But sometimes it can be very visible. You’ll often find it, for example, after someone dies, and people compete for the role of Chief Mourner. They’ll play “Can You Top This” with a litany of special moments they shared with the deceased, special confidences that only they were privy to.

In a workplace where alpha females are competing, you’ll see a more subtle version of the same. Often the competition centers on information—you prove you’re closer to a co-worker by proving that the co-worker has told you things that nobody else knows. That’s why workplace gossip can be so important—not because it proves you Know Things but because it proves you’re the one that people talk to.

The appearance of a new face in the workplace can also trigger alpha female competition for the right to claim the new person for rival alpha networks. That’s why new people in the office can seem very popular, at least until they declare their allegiance.

The competition also plays out in family settings. In many traditional families, you show respect for the alpha female by respecting her right to be the hostess for holiday family gatherings. That’s why “Gram, why don’t you let us help with Thanksgiving this year” is often greeted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It’s not viewed as help, but as a challenge, on the order of one man walking up to another at a bar and saying, “Let me help you out by dancing with your wife.”

When the alpha female in a family passes, it often gives rise to as much chaos as the death of a mafia don. How many extended families have stopped gathering at the holidays because Grandma passed on, and the females of the next generation could not negotiate a new alpha.

Not all men feel the need to thump their manly chests when any other male comes within fifty feet, and not all women feel the need to own and operate a personal network of friends and associates. Likewise there are women who thump and men who network. But both varieties of alphas are worth recognizing, if for no other reason than to make sure you don’t cross them.

And yes, I’m aware that this column is full of gross gender generalizations. I’m not sorry I did it; I just want to let you know that I know so you can avoid the trouble of writing to tell me so.

1 comment:

Jenson said...

You bring up a lot of really interesting points. I would like to read up on the Alpha Women concept more. Do you have any sources? Shoot over to my blog to leave a comment about it, if you don't mind :)

- Jenson

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