What Works for Women at Work – 4 Basic Patterns of Gender Bias and How to Navigate Them at Work [Part 4 of 4]

 Marketing Director   December 4, 2020  Women

This is the fourth and final 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.

Joan C. Williams, Hastings Foundation Chair and Director at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, conducted the research in this series. Williams has played a key role in reshaping the debates of women’s advances in 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 is part four of our “What Works for Women at Work” blog post series.

Fourth Pattern of Gender Bias: Tug of War

The least reported pattern by Williams’ informants (55%), Tug of War is when gender bias against women fuels conflict among women.

Tokenism leads to zero-sum opportunities

A woman in Williams’ study said that opportunities for women are very zero-sum, so if one woman gets a prized position, another woman won’t. This is often referred to as the problem of the Evil Queen Bee who is intent on keeping other women down. However, this isn’t a personality problem of an individual woman. Instead, this competitiveness stems from the fact that there’s only one slot available for women: a token spot.

This also leads to women who experience discrimination early in their careers to distance themselves from other women. Marissa Mayer, the former CEO Yahoo, famously said when she was working at Google, “I’m not a girl at Google, I’m a geek at Google.” She distanced herself from the ”out” group (girl) and identified herself with the “in” group (geek). Mayer recognized she was operating within a political environment, and she understood that it was in her best interest to distance herself.

“I fought my way to the top. You need to do the same.”

Sometimes women are harder on other women. This plays out in two dynamics that translate into Prove-it Again biases:

  1. “If I had to prove myself over and over again, you have to do it.”
  2. “I’m just toughening you up, because that’s what it takes to succeed here as a woman.”

Generational gaps can divide older and younger women

The Tightrope bias is also passed from women to women in what Williams calls “fights between the femmes and the tomboys.” This plays out when younger women fault older women for being too masculine. A young woman informant says, “I’m on kind of a backlash mission…I wear dresses. I bake cookies for my group meetings. I bring my child to class with me. I’m not going to compete as a boy because I’m not a boy.”

This dualistic conflict of femme vs. tomboy stems from women in their 50s and 60s beginning their careers in many traditionally male careers, when the only way to survive was to assimilate into male culture. These women probably felt more comfortable with assimilation in the first place, which is why they often put themselves out there as solo workers. On the other hand, women 20 to 30 years younger often are more comfortable with femininity and see it as part of equality. This sometimes results in older women thinking younger women won’t make it “with that little girl voice,” and younger women disliking older women for “turning into men.”

Maternal Wall bias also plays out between women

The Maternal Wall bias is exemplified in this quote by an informant without children: “People immediately assume that because I don’t have children[,] I should be the person who takes our colloquium guests every Thursday when we have a…dinner because they all have their wives and their great husbands and their children to go back to…”

Women without children are often seen as having no lives, whereas men without children are seen as bachelors playing the field, so they need time to date. This is a modernization of the spinster stereotype and explains why women without children work the longest hours of unpaid overtime of any group in today’s workplace.

Women expect to get emotional support from other women, not men

Of the relationship between administrators and professionals, an informant says, “There’s an expectation from female staff that the female supervisors…will be more nurturing, will be more understanding, for example if they have to leave…because of their families…Staff are less tolerant of women who are not like that… I think that often causes problems between female staff and female supervisors.”

Williams received persistent reports that women, particularly women of color, have more difficulty getting support from support staff than male colleagues. Part of this is because female support staff expect female professionals to do more emotion work, such as asking about their kids and feelings. Another part is that support staff looks for who is on top of the organization: typically, it’s men. In that context, it makes more sense for an admin to support a man than a woman in order to advance her career.

Missed the other posts in our series? Start at the beginning with the first pattern of gender bias: Prove-It Again.