In the workplace women are thrust into an environment where they are expected to compete and this throws them off course. They’re unsure of how to navigate such unfamiliar terrain. This is particularly the case with some corporate office environments, which tend to be not just competitive but downright combative. Negotiating a pay rise requires you to assert your own financial worth. Being promoted comes at the expense of someone else’s progression. If you want to be recognised for your contribution to a group project, you have to make sure your boss notices and gives you the credit. Assertiveness. Competitiveness. Attention-seeking behaviour. They’re personality traits expected—if not required—of employees who want to reach the top of their field. And they’re exactly what we praise boys for being—and encourage girls to avoid—during school.
Socially damned if we do. Professionally damned when we don’t.
Sometimes women feel pressure to behave in a way they’re not comfortable with in order to advance at work. This includes adopting typically ‘masculine’ behaviours that may run contrary to their skill set. Leadership opportunities are generally awarded to those who appear resilient, independent, determined, competitive and even aggressive. Promotions go to employees who actively and loudly advertise work they’ve done, rather than those who patiently wait to be noticed. It’s why a litany of books and articles exist instructing women how to stop sabotaging their own careers by behaving like they have been socialised to behave. These books instruct career-focused women how to abandon their pathetic, girly approach to the workplace and just be More Like Men.
In order to be taken more seriously, women are variously instructed to lower their voices, keep personal information private, create boundaries and avoid displaying overtly feminine behaviours like decorating their desks with personal affects. Other supposedly problematic behaviours of women include helping too much, sharing personal information with colleagues and—prepare to gasp—baking for colleagues’ birthdays. These books and articles tend to be written by men who are confused by the behaviour of women who have worked for them, or they’re written by women who have had to fight damn hard to make it in a man’s world. Their advice to young women hoping to be successful at work is to make their femininity a non-issue—by trying to eliminate it.
I have a lot of admiration for women who hold this view and give this advice. They are generally alpha women, self-assured, no-bullshit firecrackers. They’re personally comfortable operating in a traditionally ‘masculine’ way. In some respects, I think I’m one of them. Nonetheless, the advice to eliminate all signs of femininity in order to succeed doesn’t sit well with me. Surely the workplace is big enough and bad enough to accommodate an individual’s preferred approach to work. Women shouldn’t be expected to pretend they’re something they’re not in order to progress. That is a defining the double awfully narrow formula for success. While a preoccupation with being liked can hold women back—that doesn’t make it their fault. Nor should it mean women have to abandon nice behaviour entirely.
It doesn’t serve our society well for people to be deliberately cold or rude to their colleagues. Indeed, becoming friends with work-mates has been one of the great joys of my working life. I can’t bake at all, but I very much enjoy and appreciate it when someone else in the office does. And when it comes to decorating your workspace? Well, I’ll defend the desk presence of miniature cacti and photos of adorable offspring to anyone who will listen. Furthermore, the evidence shows that deliberately employing masculine traits doesn’t work for women, anyway. It’s not as if women whose personalities tend to the more masculine end of the spectrum are free from gendered stereotyping. These women face the same expectations as other women, and when they don’t conform, they’re punished.
The social penalty for women who display traditionally masculine traits at work can be severe. In one study, researchers compared the experiences of woman candidates for senior jobs with that of men. In that experiment, candidates who spoke without apology about their achievements and abilities were all judged to be highly capable by the interviewers. However, the women candidates were judged to be other things as well. Specifically, they were considered less socially attractive. The interviewers deemed these women to be competent, but not ‘nice’, and perhaps not a good ‘cultural’ fit for the job. The same kind of self-promotion didn’t affect the interviewers’ social perceptions of how ‘nice’ the men candidates were. Men who talk about their achievements are fine. Women? Not so much. Owning your success and vocalising that violates expectations of women’s likeability. Self-promotion does not a demure and modest woman make.
Taking all this advice and evidence into account, what have we got? Well, some women display typically masculine traits in order to advance professionally because that is what works for the blokes. Yet when they do, it jars with people’s expectations about how women should behave—so they’re penalised socially. They’re less popular. Less likeable. These negative stereotypes are even more pronounced—and kick in earlier in the hierarchy – for women who work in men-dominated industries like science, engineering, construction and technology. Just like the schoolgirl who is told to stop being so ‘bossy’, women in senior jobs face a catch-22 situation. They must make a choice. Do they want to be successful? Or do they want to be liked? They can’t possibly be both.
You can see why women lose confidence when they enter the workforce. They are at a loss about how to tackle structures that reward contrary behaviour to what they’ve been taught is valuable. It causes confusion and self-doubt. Remember, women are already more likely to feel they have a limited ability to impact on the world around them. So when the world around them—school—supported them and played to their strengths, they felt confident. And later, when the world around them—work—had completely different rules, their confidence evaporated.
This is an extract from Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi, published by Penguin Random House and available now, RRP $35.00