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?
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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