Why (Almost) Everything Women Are Told About Work Is Wrong


By Joan C. Williams & Rachel Dempsey (Authors, The New Girls’ Network)

It’s not your fault. That’s the message of the career advice book Rachel and I are working on together, and that’s the message of this new report from nonprofit research group Catalyst.

Despite all the advice women receive telling them that they fall behind men in the workplace because they don’t ask for raises; because they don’t network; because they don’t promote themselves, it turns out that women actually do all of these things, as much as or more than men. The problem isn’t us, it’s them.

The Catalyst report takes aim at the claim — now almost taken for a truism in business literature — that women don’t ask for promotions and salary increases at the same level as men.

According to the Catalyst report, women were actually found to ask more than men for both increased compensation (63% of women to 54% of men) and a higher job position (19% of women and 17% of men) when they moved on from their first job.

And yet, despite the popular wisdom that an employee willing to move to a new company has more negotiating power, women who moved around in their career earned an average of $53,472 less than their counterparts who stayed at the same company.

What the Catalyst report doesn’t say is that not only does a lot of the advice out there not help women, much of it actually hurts them.

While the takeaway message from the book “Women Don’t Ask” is that they should ask, the following caveat is buried in the middle, in a chapter called “Scaring the Boys:” “[W]omen may be perceived to be doing good work only as long as they are toiling away at less important jobs. Once they qualify for and start asking for more important, and therefore more “masculine” jobs, their work may begin to be devalued and their “personal style” may suddenly become a problem.”

Masculine characteristics, like aggression, competitiveness, and dominance, overlap almost completely with the characteristics expected of a leader. Feminine characteristics, such as sensitivity and gentleness, overlap almost not at all. For women leaders, writes sociologist Madeline Heilman, the result is “a bad fit between what the woman is perceived to be like and conceptions of what she should be like.”

Social scientists call this phenomenon the Backlash Effect. If you’re seen as too feminine, you won’t get the same opportunities as men in the first place. If you’re seen as too masculine, you’ll be seen as capable, but judged as undeserving of realizing the opportunities you would otherwise merit, on account of your personality problems. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Unfortunately, much of the advice out there only addresses one side of the problem.

The Catalyst report says that the one behavior that consistently netted women a higher salary was to make their achievements known. This may be true, but as a game plan it needs to be approached with caution. Because of the backlash against aggressive and confident women, women need to soften their strategies for self-promotion much more than men. We’ll discuss how to stay on-key while trumpeting your achievements in our next post.

This post was originally posted at Huffington Post.

About the guest blogger: Joan C. Williams is Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a central role in documenting workplace discrimination against adults with family responsibilities. The culmination of this work is Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Joan has played a central role in documenting workplace discrimination against adults with family responsibilities and works with employers, employees, employment lawyers. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanCWilliams.

About the guest blogger: Rachel Dempsey is co-writing a book with Joan C. Williams titled The New Girls’ Network about common biases women face at work and how to overcome them. She has blogged for Amnesty International, and her posts with Joan have been published on the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, New Deal 2.0, and MomsRising and excerpted in Time magazine. An employee at a national class-action law firm, she worked for plaintiffs on gender discrimination cases.

  • http://www.trackignite.com Bridget

    This is excellent and I thank you so much for writing this. A lot of us suspected this all along but it is gratifying to see it in black and white. I have been in every position you mention here and I’m definitely one to ask. Once I got to a director position I had never felt more scrutinized in my life. The voice in my head always asked, “What am I doing wrong?” Trying to find a balance between feminine and just wanting to be treated as the rest of the men is incredibly difficult. I can’t wait to read your next post!

  • http://www.theathenanetwork.com Zsa Zsa

    Great points raised here, thanks Joan! It really makes us rethink our roles as women and what more we can do.

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  • Gee

    Great article. I think this applies to other minority groups as well. Being a black woman in the workforce, I am challenged between being assertive and being stereotyped as the an “angry black woman” or being sensitive and labeled as “unmotivated”. I feel that I have needed someone to champion me just to survive!

  • Cathy

    As stated in another post, if you have been there, you know that it is true. The higher I got, the bloodier it got. All aspects of who I was were questioned, even stuff that wasn’t true of me. I now wonder: is that what happens to the guys too, but they are better equipped to deal with it, while we women are offended? This might be true, but it is certainly true that the the range of acceptable behavior etc for women is very tight. So, I look forward to your thoughts on this, Joan!

  • BH

    Great article and so true. I tried the aggressive tactic and it made things worst and I’m really learning a lot about how to work the system in my own female way. Men definitely become threatened when you tell them what to do. One tactic I’ve taken is to gently give them as many well-thought out reasons to do it my way that the only logical conclusion is to listen to you and makes them look dumb if they don’t. ;) Respect is gained, and then it gets easier. Not as much questioning. They know they’ll only get a long email if they don’t!

  • http://beatnikbetty.wordpress.com Beatnik Betty

    Looking forward to the next article.

  • Jen

    Couldn’t agree with this article more! Right this second I am experiencing this backlash effect. I am a victim of working hard, being highly capable, and asking for a promotion (which was promised to me). Instead of getting the promotion I was told I have an “heir of entitlement” and am too aggressive.

  • http://crowdscanner.com Ellen Dudley

    Although I think awareness of these issues is important, I don’t think the focus should be on how women are seen or perceived. Learning how to express ideas and communicate effectively without aggression or excess sensitivity are important skills, regardless of gender. We need to focus less on how women “should” be acting and behaving, and give ourselves permission to just be ourselves – we “should” be allowed to express ourselves in our own unique ways.

  • http://www.shenegotiates.com Lisa Gates

    Nope, I’m not buying it. “It’s not our fault” is too damned easy…even victimy. “We can’t get ahead because the ‘mythical they’ are holding us back” myth? Really?

    The fact that we’re still not at parity is not because men are evil and hold women back. We’re failing to see the actual gains this study reports as proof that we should be doing MORE of the prescribed actions, not less because “well, we’re not there yet, and this study proves we’ve been doing the wrong things, and everything we’ve been told is a lie.”

    We keep on doing what we’re doing, while becoming ever more conscious of the places where we’re believing the myths and act despite them. Yes it’s hard work, and yes it would be nice if it were different, but it will be different when WE stop believing the myths. And one of those myths is that we have to temper our ambition and our aggressiveness to “get along.” We don’t need to capitulate, we need to play the game full out.

    We don’t need to replace the old myths with new ones either, like, “nothing matters anyway, dammed if you do, damned if you don’t.” If we’re driven, high potential women, and we learn to capitalize on the presciptives as a skillset, then we’re getting somewhere. High-level networking, business building, strategic partnering and leveraging of relationships *is a skillset* worth rewarding. Handsomely. I mean beautifully :-)

    It’s not an accident if we’re good at it, and it’s not “female” if we’re bad at it. It’s individual and it’s personal. That’s how we change the culture. Be the change, girls. Get comfortable with your power. The world is literally dying for you to show up.

  • K major

    Thank you Catalyst! It is true that we need to continue to do our best to thrive despite the cultural obstacles but the 600 pound gorilla in the room was just called out by Catalyst. You are an important voice for us.

  • Guest

    Lisa Gates, sexism still exists, and it’s what is keeping us back. There is no myth about it. The real myth is that you can get anywhere and do anything as long as you try hard enough. As many commenters have noted (in this article and elsewhere), institutionalized sexism (and various other -isms) prevent minorities and women from advancing, no matter how hard they work.

  • BH

    I know it sounds like we’re trying to place blame and not take responsibility (per Lisa Gates’ comments), but the reality is that there is a difference in successful approaches according to gender. There’s very much a “boy’s club” mentality in business that’s not always open to women. Recognizing those differences empowers women. Aggressive does not equal power. Results and getting things done the way you envision equals power. How you get there can be different for everyone.

  • http://beatnikbetty.wordpress.com Beatnik Betty

    Fantastic article. I’m sharing it with all of my ambitious women friends who have dealt with inequality in the workplace.

  • guest

    @ Lisa Gates, I used to feel the same way as you did, about 15 years ago…but now that I’ve been out in the world a long time, I’m saddened to report that there really *IS* sexism out there, there really ARE many men (in power) who HATE it when a woman has the audacity to out-shine them or out-think them, etc.

    “The fact that we’re still not at parity is not because men are evil and hold women back.”

    Yeah, I used to believe in that one too. Unfortunately, I have too many scars from immature, insecure male co-workers who will do whatever it takes to stay in power, and who use their networks to CRUSH any woman who dares “play the game full-out”, as you suggest.

  • http://www.twitter.com/devans00 devans00

    I got something out if this article that the author probably didn’t intend. In summarizing the Catalyst report, Williams & Dempsey created a short list of the ways capable, ambitious women are held back in the work environment so that they never reach thier full potential.

    I’m sad to say I recognize my own experience more often than I like. I wish I could be hopeful and idealistic like @Lisa Gates, but my reality hasn’t really panned out that way. At least not in the last 20 years.

    Nice article.