What Works for Women at Work – 4 Basic Patterns of Bias and How to Navigate Workplaces Shaped by Subtle Bias [part 2 of 4]

 Marketing Director   November 24, 2020  Women

This is the second part of a blog post series that will introduce you to four distinct patterns of gender bias, and provide you with strategies women have successfully used to navigate workplaces shaped by subtle bias.

The research in this series was conducted by Joan C. Williams, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Director at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Wiliams has played a key role in reshaping the debates of women’s advances for the past quarter century, and has authored eight books, most recently What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (co-written with her daughter, Rachel Dempsey).

This post will cover the second pattern of gender bias: Tightrope

What is the Tightrope pattern?

Similar to the Prove-it Again pattern, the Tightrope pattern stems from lack of fit—but a different type. When people think of brilliant neuroscientists, physicists, lawyers, CEOs, and the like, they tend to associate excellent performance with masculine qualities. That’s often an issue for women, who are expected to be feminine.

This often leads to women walking a tightrope between being “too masculine” and “too feminine.” If women are too masculine, they are respected but not liked; if women are “too feminine,” they are liked but not respected. Part of the issue is that feminine traditions are often devalued by the workplace, so when women conform too much, it’s to their detriment.

Here are some of the problems that women face if they’re on the liked-but-not-respected side:

Women are expected to be nice

Not only are women expected to be nice, but women expect to be liked by everyone. This leads to a lot of “nice work.” It’s very difficult to progress your career if you’re obsessed with wanting people to like you.

Women also tend to use feminine conversation patterns in mixed groups, and will use tentative forms of speech (“don’t you think”), make fewer task suggestions (“we should do this”), and interrupt less. These conversation patterns might tilt their behavior toward “nice,” but they signal that the speaker doesn’t think their comments are important.

Women tend to do office housework

Another problem on the “too feminine” side is that women often end up doing the office housework or playing narrow feminine roles. Women might become the “ever-understanding mother” to students and colleagues, or the “dutiful daughter” who does everything from planning parties to filling out the paperwork for other people’s grant applications.

Women are expected to do more of this organizational citizenship behavior than men, but it’s important to note that women receive less credit when they do it.

On the other hand, here are some of the problems that women face if they’re on the respected-but-not-liked side:

Women who are too masculine are faced with the “what a b****” problem

If women are direct, outspoken, assertive, or competitive, they tend to meet the “what a b****” problem. If a woman is stern, says “no,” or doesn’t do the “nice work,” the automatic reaction is to dislike her. Men with similar qualities aren’t viewed the same way, as similar qualities are appreciated when they show it.

Anger and self-promotion are coded differently for men and women

Anger is a danger point for women, because showing anger tends to increase the perceived status of a man, but decrease the perceived status of a woman. Again, women are expected to be nice.

Self-promotion is another danger point for women. People who don’t self-promote don’t do as well as people who do, but on the other hand, women who self-promote often encounter pushback. For example, a woman at a leadership academy run by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, found that she was being paid about $200,000 less than a male colleague who she thought was very similar to herself. She reached out to a member of the compensation committee and told them of the objective metrics she had met, including the clients that she had brought in and grew. Her self-promotion was met with immediate pushback when the member said, “You think highly of yourself, don’t you?”

Asian-American, Latino, and Black women report different levels of pushback

Asian-American women report more pressure to fulfill traditionally feminine roles, and more pushback if they don’t. Latino women report being called “angry” or “too emotional” if they behave in direct and assertive ways. For Latino women, non-conformity to being “nice” triggers the racial stereotype of the hot-blooded Latina. On the other hand, Black women report far less pressure to fill feminine roles, and somewhat less pushback if they don’t.

Strategies to Navigate the Tightrope Pattern

Before continuing to the strategies, it’s important to keep in mind that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you’re using a different strategy and it’s working for you, don’t change it, but if you find yourself loaded with officework or facing pushback for being too outspoken or assertive, the following might help you:

Be clear about how you present

You need to think about not what you are comfortable with, but about what they (your audience, typically of men) are comfortable with. Women absolutely shouldn’t need to do this, but studies show that women who self-monitor how they’re perceived tend to be more successful.

Reduce office housework by setting a rotation or giving a strategic “no”

If you find yourself assigned a large load of office housework (planning parties, ordering lunch, etc.) or administrative work (taking notes, doing paperwork, etc.), do it once, then work behind the scenes to set up a rotation.

Undervalued work, such as setting up a diversity committee, is not going to help you get the next job or tenure, so take a few assignments that mean deeply to you and can meaningfully expand your network. When the next undervalued assignment comes in, gracefully reject it with a strategic “no.” Say that you would love to do it, but you’re working closely with someone high-ranking on an important assignment, then follow up by recommending somebody else.

“Stepping on the end of a sentence”

If you’re in a meeting and can’t get a word in without interrupting, you can step on the end of a sentence. When a man is almost done talking, start to make your point, and if he doesn’t stop, then apologize and say you thought he was done talking. This strategy is part of what Joan C. Williams calls “gender judo,” in which you do a masculine thing (interrupting) in a feminine way (apologizing) to control pushback.

Form a posse for self-promotion

A basic strategy to deal with pushback from self-promotion is to form a posse, a mixed group of people who celebrate each other’s successes. These people should be about at your level or a little bit above. This results in your accomplishments being touted by men, while you tout their accomplishments. While you conform to the feminine tradition of women celebrating a man’s success, you also have men celebrating your successes.

Express anger with a formula

When you’re angry, say, “If I look angry, it’s because I am angry. I’m angry because you’ve jeopardized (insert shared goal here.” This counters the stereotype of the woman as an irrational id. You’re saying you’re angry, but explicitly attributing it to a rational reason. Only three out of 127 women Williams interviewed made a habit of showing anger on the job, but sometimes it’s necessary to draw a line. If you need to show anger, using the formula is the best way to go about it.

The next post in our series will cover the third pattern of gender bias: Maternal Wall.