Working Girl

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Newsflash: Women can’t win in the workplace.

Don’t get angry. But do take charge. Be nice. But not too nice. Speak up. But don’t seem like you talk too much. Never, ever dress sexy. Make sure to inspire your colleagues — unless you work in Norway, in which case, focus on delegating instead.

Writing about life and work means receiving a steady stream of research on how women in the workplace are viewed differently from men. These are academic and professional studies, not whimsical online polls, and each time I read one I feel deflated. What are women supposed to do with this information? Transform overnight? And if so, into what? How are we supposed to be assertive, but not, at the same time?

Good question.

Catalyst’s research is often an exploration of why, 30 years after women entered the work force in large numbers, the default mental image of a leader is still male. Most recent is the report titled “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” which surveyed 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe. It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

Women can’t win.

This also helps to explain why gender-related workplace issues go much deeper than obvious discrimination and facial pay discrepancies. When women are perceived as less competent, we’re simply not going to be promoted as often. We’re not going to be groomed for success by more senior employees. We’re not going to get as much credit for what we accomplish. And a lot of us are going to feel like it’s just not worth it to put so much effort into something we get little recognition for.

And it’s not because women are naturally “soft” or because we inherently lack leadership capabilities. Valued workplace skills vary among cultures, but according to this study, the one consistent thing is that women are universally seen as less adept:

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed “inspiring others” as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was “delegating” that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators.

This isn’t surprising. It’s also a pretty long-standing truth that male activities are deemed more valuable and more worthy largely because men do them, not because they’re inherently more difficult or more interesting or worth more. Take, for example, secretarial work. When men dominated the secretarial field (a great many years ago), secretarial work was well-paid and well-respected. Once women overtook it, its status declined. Care work, which is female-dominated, is horrendously under-paid. Low-skill male-dominated labor, on the other hand, is comparatively better paid (compare, for example, the pay scale for a sanitation worker vs. a nurse’s aid). It doesn’t really matter what the work is — across societies, if men do it, it’s better-compensated and more socially valued. That standard even applies to things like names — when parents start giving their daughters traditionally male names, those names fall out of favor with parents of male babies.

Given these social prejudices, it’s not surprising that whatever skill set is most valued in the workplace will be perceived as being lacking in women.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. Joan Williams runs the Center for WorkLife Law, part of the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She wrote the book “Unbending Gender” and she, too, has found that women are held to a different standard at work.

They are expected to be nurturing, but seen as ineffective if they are too feminine, she said in a speech last week at Cornell. They are expected to be strong, but tend to be labeled as strident or abrasive when acting as leaders. “Women have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked,” she said.

And if you act angry, forget being respect or liked — while anger benefits men in the workplace, it can have a very negative impact on women’s career prospects:

Victoria Brescoll, a researcher at Yale, made headlines this August with her findings that while men gain stature and clout by expressing anger, women who express it are seen as being out of control, and lose stature. Study participants were shown videos of a job interview, after which they were asked to rate the applicant and choose their salary. The videos were identical but for two variables — in some the applicants were male and others female, and the applicant expressed either anger or sadness about having lost an account after a colleague arrived late to an important meeting.

The participants were most impressed with the angry man, followed by the sad woman, then the sad man, and finally, at the bottom of the list, the angry woman. The average salary assigned to the angry man was nearly $38,000 while the angry woman received an average of only $23,000.

And women may feel less entitled to request an increase in salary:

Also this summer, Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, looked at gender and salary in a novel way. She recruited volunteers to play Boggle and told them beforehand that they would receive $2 to $10 for their time. When it came time for payment, each participant was given $3 and asked if that was enough.

Men asked for more money at eight times the rate of women. In a second round of testing, where participants were told directly that the sum was negotiable, 50 percent of women asked for more money, but that still did not compare with 83 percent of men. It would follow, Professor Babcock concluded, that women are equally poor at negotiating their salaries and raises.

And then there’s the much-commented-upon clothing issue:

He is the author of one such study, in which he showed respondents a video of a woman wearing a sexy low-cut blouse with a tight skirt or a skirt and blouse that were conservatively cut. The woman recited the same lines in both, and the viewer was either told she was a secretary or an executive. Being more provocatively dressed had no effect on the perceived competence of the secretary, but it lowered the perceived competence of the executive dramatically. (Sexy men don’t have that disconnect, Professor Glick said. While they might lose respect for wearing tight pants and unbuttoned shirts to the office, the attributes considered most sexy in men — power, status, salary — are in keeping with an executive image at work.)

Interesting that when the women who is dressed “sexy” is described as a secretary, the assumptions about her competence stay the same.

Also interesting that this article is penned by Lisa Belkin, she of the “opt-out revolution.” I think she may have redeemed herself.

Except that this was printed in the Fashion & Style section. Because if it’s girly shit, it’s in the fashion section.


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32 comments for “Working Girl

  1. harlemjd
    November 1, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    the section on the Boggle study really irritated me because there was no follow-up. I swear I remeber reading a recent article about another study (or maybe the other half of the same one?) that tested employer perceptions of job candidates that bargained for a higher salary. Anyone want to guess what the findings were? Yup – neutral to favorable impression of the men who bargained, negative impression of the women. It’s not that we are just unassertive and need to learn to be more like men (although societal conditioning is an issue); the system reacts poorly to women asserting themselves in this way and we’ve noticed.

  2. james
    November 1, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    I think the Boggle study’s just crap. It’s just not negotation to ask for more money after the fact. One side’s just asking for money and has got nothing to give in return, and the other side’s got money to give but hasn’t got anything to ask for it. There’s no bargaining involved. It’s basically begging.

    (Sexy men don’t have that disconnect, Professor Glick said. While they might lose respect for wearing tight pants and unbuttoned shirts to the office, the attributes considered most sexy in men — power, status, salary — are in keeping with an executive image at work.)

    Isn’t some Craigslister getting clobbered for saying this a few threads down?

  3. jen
    November 1, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    I don’t know that Belkin’s redeemed herself. This stuff is not exactly news.

    One thing I do find interesting is the extent to which people fall for the red herring of targeting specific behaviors. As Belkin notes, these specifics change continuously. This shows IMHO that it’s not the specific behaviors, it’s the situation — some people simply feel the woman is not supposed to be there at all, and so can’t square any idea of appropriate behavior.

    That being the case I think all our time is better spent in ignoring all this feedback. Instead we should be focusing on being true to ourselves, and on developing concrete metrics. My experience has been that if a workplace develops a metric that fairly judges women on their performance and not their nebulous “likability”, the women will thrive. At least until they have kids and request part-time work, that is.

  4. Mnemosyne
    November 1, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    I think the Boggle study’s just crap. It’s just not negotation to ask for more money after the fact. One side’s just asking for money and has got nothing to give in return, and the other side’s got money to give but hasn’t got anything to ask for it. There’s no bargaining involved. It’s basically begging.

    Huh? Have you ever actually held a job? Because what usually happens is that the employer makes you a job offer with a salary attached, and you can try to negotiate that up before you sign the final offer. Not only that, but with your annual reviews, you can negotiate for a better raise.

    Hell, the Wall Street Journal has an entire webpage dedicated to giving advice on getting a better salary and/or a better raise.

    This is Job Hunting 101, my friend.

  5. james
    November 1, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    Do you have to be so patronising?

    Huh? Have you ever actually held a job? Because what usually happens is that the employer makes you a job offer with a salary attached, and you can try to negotiate that up before you sign the final offer. Not only that, but with your annual reviews, you can negotiate for a better raise.

    Yes I have had a job. What happened is what you say. You negotiate a salary and then do the work to earn it. Note the order. But that is not what Babcock did. In her study you agreed terms, did the work, got paid, left employment, and then tried to see if you could ‘negotiate’ a raise for past work. But it isn’t negotiation to ask someone to give you money in return for nothing – you can’t have a discussion to agree terms over an transaction which has already taken place.

    That is reading comprehension 101, my friend.

  6. Haydin
    November 1, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    Whichever order the negotiating/work order was in, the men DID ask and receive higher payment.

    It’s not begging exactly. The scientist did not just hand the 3 bucks over, she asked “Is this enough?” That question signifies open negotiating season, if you ask me.

  7. preying mantis
    November 1, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    “Not only that, but with your annual reviews, you can negotiate for a better raise.”

    Or on your way out the door to a better job. I can’t even begin to count the number of applicants my workplace has lost at the last minute when their current employers figured out that oh, hey, they weren’t paying someone they desperately needed enough to keep their butt in that office chair and trumped our offer in order to retain them.

  8. SarahMC
    November 1, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    But, Haydin, when women are continually punished or shunned for being aggressive or demanding better treatment/payment, they learn that it’s safer not to do those things. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  9. kate
    November 1, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    James, I think the point you make is exactly the point made by the study and something confirmed in my own experience as an employer.

    When hiring males, they will always negotiate the terms of pay before hand, as you say. The women usually will not (I know though that at least one of my daughters will — hehe — with anyone).

    I’ve had numerous times, when after the work has been completed, male employees come up to me and attempt to renegotiate the terms of their renumeration for work already performed. This happens even more often and more blatently with male subcontractors who will without a second thought, attempt to thrust before me a new fee schedule for work we’ve previously negotiated fees on, which has already been completed and signed off.

    I think some of their pushiness is compounded by the fact that I am in fact a female and they figure I”ll go along, but men overall seem, in my experience, to exhibit a higher sense of entitlement to having their needs met, whenever they want — or at least the entitlement to attempt to change the terms of an agreement whenever they please.

    Of course that doesn’t mean I have to agree and I’ve only had a problem with one subcontractor in this regard.

  10. Em
    November 1, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    I’ve had numerous times, when after the work has been completed, male employees come up to me and attempt to renegotiate the terms of their renumeration for work already performed. This happens even more often and more blatently with male subcontractors who will without a second thought, attempt to thrust before me a new fee schedule for work we’ve previously negotiated fees on, which has already been completed and signed off.

    Then just maybe, instead of making this a women’s problem, it ought to be a men’s problem. I have a real issue with people who are always wheedling for more. You do your job; you get paid what was agreed. Telling women that they need to act like entitled assholes too is not solving anything.

  11. Jen
    November 1, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    A good book on this topic is Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever.

  12. November 2, 2007 at 1:02 am

    I think the Boggle study’s just crap. It’s just not negotation to ask for more money after the fact.

    Whatever it is, men are judged differently for doing it than women. I guess you think it’s “crap” to point that out.

  13. Anon
    November 2, 2007 at 1:39 am

    I think some of their pushiness is compounded by the fact that I am in fact a female

    Just to clarify – although the researcher is female, the individual who was giving out the money was male.

  14. Anon
    November 2, 2007 at 9:17 am

    That standard even applies to things like names — when parents start giving their daughters traditionally male names, those names fall out of favor with parents of male babies.

    Really? I mean, it could mean that male names are “better-compensated and more socially valued”. But apply Occam’s Razor, and don’t multiply hypotheses unnecessarily.

    The most likely explanation for this is that it doesn’t show that the names are “less valued” – it just shows that parents like to have names which unambiguously identify the gender of their child.

    If “Steve” becomes a popular girl’s name – for whatever reason – then it’s no longer clear what gender children named “Steve” are.

    Where you may have a point – one that you don’t make – is in why parents may choose to name their girls more-traditionally boy-names, and whether that has something to do with the value placed on those names. It may. But you certainly haven’t established that in this comment.

  15. Nicki
    November 2, 2007 at 9:29 am

    I know all this stuff already, but it still depresses me to read it. I’m in my last year of uni, doing a bachelor of commerce, and knowing that this is some of the shit I’m going to have to deal with when I graduate/get a job pisses me off.

  16. jen
    November 2, 2007 at 9:34 am

    I should point out that I’ve worked with both men and women who have been unwilling to negotiate. I’m thinking particularly of some brilliant but introverted programmers who just couldn’t figure out how to bring it up in meetings. You could look at salary spreadsheets and see those men falling to the bottom of the list. Anyone who displays an unwillingness to negotiate will be taken advantage of, in my opinion. But as SarahMC notes, women frequently have experiences of being punished for attempting to negotiate. This is far less common for men.

    As an aside, I have frequently negotiated my salary. And I’ve been successful at it. I know many other women, however, who have negotiated for *time* instead of money, and have had it work out well.

  17. November 2, 2007 at 9:49 am

    this article is penned by Lisa Belkin, she of the “opt-out revolution.” I think she may have redeemed herself.

    I think they’re related.

    What are women supposed to, like, not work or something? Yeah, maybe.

    I don’t get those of you who think the patriarchy and capitalism aren’t related. You can’t simultaneously destroy sexism (racism, heterosexism, abilism, and all the rest) while also maintaining a fundamentally unjust economic system.

  18. roses
    November 2, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    That standard even applies to things like names — when parents start giving their daughters traditionally male names, those names fall out of favor with parents of male babies.

    The most likely explanation for this is that it doesn’t show that the names are “less valued” – it just shows that parents like to have names which unambiguously identify the gender of their child.

    Except that it doesn’t work the other way.

  19. h0tr0d
    November 2, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    This article is full of red herrings. Let me pick one- “…while anger benefits men in the workplace….” Where does anger benefit men in the workplace ? As someone with 20 years in the corporate world I cannot think of one instance where an angry man in the work place benefited from that anger. This is similar to my favorite red herring that goes something like….when women are aggressive they’re seen as bitches but aggressive men are seen as leaders. Unfortunately it’s not true. Leaders are leaders and a-holes are a-holes independent of gender. I’ve worked for GE, IBM, Etrade, Cisco, etc. and each and every one of them had affirmative action programs that over compensated women for perceived injustices. Just as men fail as leaders, so do women, and I’ve seen my share of both. So cheer up ladies, I think you will find the corporate world much more fair than this propaganda would lead you to believe.

  20. h0tr0d
    November 2, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Elaine, could you explain why you think capitalism is a fundamentally unjust economic system…..and what you think the superior solution is ?

  21. MarkieP
    November 2, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    One of the only hopeful signs in this article was that Catalyst is starting on mechanisms to confront some of these double standards. For example, in a performance review if a woman is described as prickly or bitchy, then the evaluator should be trained to ask for specific examples of such behavior and ask if the same thing would be said if the employee were a man.

    I would like to see more research on interventions such as these. The forces bearing down on women in the workplace are internal, interpersonal, organizational, and societal, but it is at the level of the organization where I think we have the best chance of making a change.

    Here’s an idea that management would not love, but that could help: when it comes to negotiating salary and/or benefits, there should be a standard, formal procedure that everyone is expected to participate in. To the extent that negotiations are mandatory in a sense, this would help even the playing feel and make it less likely for women to suffer penalties for asking for money.

    Thoughts? Comments?

  22. November 2, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    The most likely explanation for this is that it doesn’t show that the names are “less valued” – it just shows that parents like to have names which unambiguously identify the gender of their child.

    If “Steve” becomes a popular girl’s name – for whatever reason – then it’s no longer clear what gender children named “Steve” are.

    The most likely explanation is not that parents like to have the gender of their child clearly identified, so much as it is that parents of boys think it is very important their son not be mistaken for a girl, but parents of daughters don’t worry about it so much (massive generalization I know). Parents who choose a “traditionally male” name for a girl clearly don’t care if their child’s sex is unambiguously identified. There may even be a subconscious motivation to give their daughter a name that would be taken as masculine on paper (essays, job applications, resumes etc), but that’s got to play into part of the reasoning. People say things like “it’s a strong name” or “I don’t like frilly girly names”.

    It seems that it’s a big terrible deal to give a boy a “girly” name, dooming him to years of teasing and emasculation, but it’s not such a problem for women’s names to challenge perceived ideas. This is apparent in how much more variety there is in the names given to girls versus the names given to boys.

    I’ve considered the idea of Evelyn James as a name for a putative daughter, Evelyn is now a woman’s name, but at one time it was a male name, and James is a relative I’d like to pay tribute to, but I also like the “quirkiness” of giving a girl James as a middle name, especially paired with a first name that was once a male name. It has also occurred to me that it wouldn’t HURT to have people unsure of her sex until she walked through their door. I have personally experienced the benefit of being able to blow away people’s preconceptions, though my experience is based on being a Brit in the US, and a scientist with a sense of humour.

  23. November 2, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    If “Steve” becomes a popular girl’s name – for whatever reason – then it’s no longer clear what gender children named “Steve” are.

    Which means that “Steve” falls out of favor as a boy’s name, because while it’s socially acceptable for a woman to have a traditional boy’s name, it’s not the other way around.

  24. November 2, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    This article is full of red herrings. Let me pick one- “…while anger benefits men in the workplace….” Where does anger benefit men in the workplace ?

    Read the article, then comment. It makes you look a whole lot less idiotic.

  25. November 2, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    The most likely explanation for this is that it doesn’t show that the names are “less valued” – it just shows that parents like to have names which unambiguously identify the gender of their child.

    Then why are parents of girls naming their daughters traditional boys’ names?

  26. Darcie
    November 3, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    On the subject of names…

    A few decades or so ago my mama was one of those “droves of women entering the workplace”. She had a gender-neutral name. She experienced sexism head on, in other words, after people (men) she was doing business with found out she was female.

    “what, you’re a girl?!”

    Becuase of that idiocy, all of her children (male and female) have gender-neutral names.

    Just a story.

  27. November 4, 2007 at 4:35 am

    Hey, I thought you all might find this article interesting since we’re on the work topic:

    http://www.canada.com/cityguides/halifax/info/story.html?id=6895aaf0-620d-4c19-beda-99370aaf3bae&k=57820

  28. h0tr0d
    November 4, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Jill, I dont understand why you need to be so nasty. My question related to where men benefit from anger in the workplace, not in another study by some feminist in academia with preconceived notions. The difference between the real world and what you find in the lab is sometimes quite different. Have you ever worked in the corporate world, can you provide some real world examples ? Can anyone here ?

  29. November 4, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    In linguistics, it’s a well known phenomenon that if a word divides into two gendered forms, the meaning of the female form will degrade over time. For example master/mistress. I would take this as a similar phenomenon to the male/female name thing.

  30. jen
    November 5, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Hotrod, I work in the corporate world and I have definitely seen men make *sses of themselves popping a cork. I can count on one hand the brilliant men who succeeded despite their nasty tempers. (Not common, but can be done. They have to be REALLY brilliant, or matchless salespeople.) I have never known a woman to be able to get past it. I’ve been in the corporate world since 1990, mostly in consulting. It might be industry-specific.

    I wonder if part of it is that these guys feel they can crack jokes about hotheaded male colleagues? Because the “flawed” geniuses-with-tempers subgroup I’ve encountered are almost always practically the focus of urban legend within their companies. Everyone’s got an “Andrew stood on my desk and yelled at me” story; it ends up to be part of the shtick. Never heard that kind of thing about a woman.

    (Andrew actually did stand on my desk and yell at me, BTW … and was later made managing partner of the London office. What a tool! We all cheered when his wife left him.)

  31. jackieO
    November 9, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Pardon me for my immodesty, but I am Supermom. This morning before going off to my full time job as a lawyer I emptied and loaded the dishwasher, did a load of laundry, made my 3 kids lunches before taking them to their school bus, school and daycare respectively. I “assisted” my 3 yo on the potty, who is in the process of being potty trained, I took the trash cans to the street to be picked up and I fixed my kids breakfasts. This is not an atypical day for me. Despite all of this my spouse resents the fact that I am not the primary breadwinner. Doesn’t that beat all?!?!?

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