Does over-discussing the gender gap do women more harm than good?

By Rohini Vibha (Product Manager, Livefyre)

When I was three, my grandpa took me on a tour of San Francisco via tram (it had to be like Full House).

We got on, and I sat down next to a woman. She and I made eye contact. “Are you a boy or a girl?” she asked. I had a boy-cut at the time, so her question wasn’t completely unexpected.

With a newborn brother, I understood that there was a difference between boy siblings and girl siblings, which to me, was the main difference between boys and girls. “I’m a girl, but I have a brother at home who’s a boy,” I told her.

That was the first time I expressed pride in my femininity.

Today, I don’t know what that pride looks like.

The Will to be “One of the Guys”

Two weekends ago, my company’s product development team had a retreat in Tahoe. The team consists of about thirty engineers, four designers, and five product managers. Five are women.

When the organizer emailed us about the trip, he strongly encouraged participation.

My stomach sank when I received this email. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to spend time with my team. My stomach sank because I don’t play snow sports — and I have no interest in learning how. I worried what everyone would think when I said that I wasn’t going to ski or snowboard. They would probably think, “Classic girl. So fragile.”

I was nervous that my disinterest would draw negative attention to my sex and permanently affect people’s (people I lead!) perception of my strength. Strength both inside and outside the office. I wanted to be “one of the guys.”

It was only once we were in Tahoe, when one of the women ended up going snowboarding and several of the men stayed back to laze around that I felt at ease.

My feminine issues about Tahoe were in my head — but I didn’t put them there.

The Gap We Can’t Avoid

They were in my head because the conversation about Corporate America’s gender gap is never-ending. From the glass ceiling to leaning in, the inequality between women and men in the workforce is continually in the spotlight.

Feeling “disadvantaged” or worse, being ashamed of my sex is new to me. In fact not once during my academic career did I feel incapable of blowing something out of the water (a calculus exam, a psychology thesis, an economics assignment) because I was female. Similarly, I never attributed any of my academic successes to my sex. I accredited innate (unisex) qualities like grit.

I met the gender gap when I started my professional career, in an industry where there reportedly isn’t a gender gap in salary.

In my annual review, a male manager once provided me with a “likely” explanation for why others perceived me as “only strong” while he perceived me as “outstanding.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s hard for women to have an edge.”

He provided no specific way for me to become more “edgy” (except perhaps a sex change?) and I left with the understanding that I would forever be disadvantaged in the category of edge.

Now, whenever I lead ineffectively, my gut reaction is that perhaps my “lack of edge” is to blame. Most of the time, there are countless tangible and more realistic reasons — I didn’t communicate clearly, I didn’t involve the right people, I didn’t do my due diligence. Those explanations are not instinctual to me, though.

When I recount this story to people, they typically point me to other women leaders I can emulate. They lump “femininity” in with the problem and discuss the importance of leaning in.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Based on its implications in my own life, I would argue that the discussion of disadvantage is handicapping women more than the gender gap itself. And there is psychological research to justify this:

In 2012, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study in which girls and boys were asked to complete a matching task. After the first round, some participants were told that the other group was better at the task (i.e., “boys are better at this game”), while others were told that a specific person was good at the task (i.e, “that girl is good at this game”).

In the second round, the scores of those who had been primed to believe that the other gender group was better at the task (i.e, girls who were told, “boys are better at this game”) dropped by twelve percent. Scores didn’t change for those who were told about an individual’s ability for the game.

This tells me that as a young woman, my success is dependent on hearing about effective individuals and their strengths. Not what corporate women struggle with. Not what corporate males are good at.

In an interview on feminism, Mindy Kaling (from Fox’s ‘The Mindy Project’) once commented, “I often feel guilty pointing out behavior in other women that I don’t support. Like somehow, the moment I was pulled from my mother’s severed stomach, a pen was placed in my tiny balled fist and I signed a binding document that says, ‘I got your back, ladies.’”

Women are good and bad at things the same way men are good and bad at things. And that’s okay. A blanket statement covering a woman’s disadvantage in a specific situation is not always the answer and may even harm other women who are more likely to succeed.

Rethinking ‘Strength’ and ‘Weakness’

While the acknowledgement of glass ceilings and the search for more women in specific industries requires acute attention and concerted action, maybe the message is being driven home in the wrong way, or in the wrong minds.

There needs to be a way to amplify the voice of women without amplifying the voice in women’s heads.

Young women should be encouraged to emulate leaders based on successful leadership qualities. Feedback for improvement should include truly actionable suggestions.

Let’s start a new movement. A movement to attribute successes –and failures –  to changeable, tangible behaviors instead of sex. Sisters who are girls and brothers who are boys, let’s bring the pride back.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Photo credit: Kaspars Grinvald via Shutterstock.