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What’s holding women back in the workplace? It’s the sexism, stupid

Women continue to face this double bind over and over again.


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Much has been made of women’s apparent lack of confidence in the workplace. A new book by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, The Confidence Code, claims that this is what’s to blame for women’s underrepresentation in certain fields and levels of management. If we can just get women to believe in themselves, they’ll achieve all their dreams!

Unfortunately, decades of psychology research have illuminated a rather stark reality for women in the workplace.

Women face a classic double bind: if they confirm female stereotypes of gentleness, communality, and physical attractiveness, they are liked more but presumed less competent. If they disconfirm female stereotypes and act confident and assertive, they are liked less and presumed to have poor social skills. Both being liked and being considered competent is vital for getting hired, retained, and promoted.

These effects are especially pronounced in domains that are considered traditionally “male,” which would include most of the types of fields that everyone’s always wringing their hands about female underrepresentation in: law, business, politics, science, and technology, to name a few.

Another study suggests that interviewers evaluating women who behave in a more stereotypically masculine way emphasize social skills more than competence in their hiring decisions, but when they interview men (or women who are more stereotypically feminine), their hiring decisions hinge more on competence and social skills.

Since we already know that women who are more confident and less feminine are perceived to be lower on social skills, this seems like a convenient way to penalize them in hiring decisions.

In a study published in Research and Organizational Behavior, researchers Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan described the multiple ways in which women who act contrary to female stereotypes face backlash in the workplace.

For example, women are constantly being exhorted to self-promote so that supervisors and managers notice their skills. However, while women who self-promote may be considered more competent, they are also considered less likeable and are less likely to be hired. In another study, men who used an “assertive style” in their job application materials were more likely to be hired than women using an identical strategy, and the actual job applications were identical except for the fictional applicant’s gender.

Once hired, women continue to face this double bind over and over again.

In salary negotiations, for example, it’s well-known that women are less likely to negotiate rather than accepting the initial offer, and even if they do negotiate, they tend to accept a significantly lower salary than men in equivalent positions. This, too, is an area in which women are constantly told to “be confident” and “ask for what you want.”

However, male evaluators judged women who attempt to negotiate their salary more negatively than they judge men who do the same. Female evaluators do not show this effect, but given the extent to which men outnumber women in the types of leadership roles where you might be negotiating salaries with a new hire, this is not reassuring.

Researcher Madeline E. Heilman further determined that penalization for being insufficiently “nice” (there it is again) prevents women from being promoted—that infamous glass ceiling. The less traditionally “feminine” your leadership style is, the less competent of a leader you’ll be presumed to be.

It also seems that employees expect more “feminine” discipline of female bosses: if there’s no two-way discussion, it’s less effective. For men, there was no such difference.

Women are often expected to “help out” in ways unrelated to their job while at work, including organizing social events for the office or volunteering to help a coworker to one’s own detriment. However, one study shows that men who perform such altruistic acts are viewed more favorably than those who don’t, whereas women who decline to perform those acts are penalized relative to those who perform them. It sounds confusing, but it means that, overall, men were rated more favorably no matter what they did.

I could go on and on, because these studies are as numerous as they are depressing. The consensus seems to be that if a woman manages to toe a perfect line of nice-but-not-too-nice, confident-but-not-too-confident, conventionally attractive but not “slutty,” she may succeed in the workplace. And all these “motivational” books for women seem to be attempting to train them to balance perfectly on that tightrope.

In a way, dismantling institutional sexism would be more difficult than demanding that women walk the tightrope. But when we demand that they walk it, we implicitly acknowledge that there’s an unjust double standard at play. We just can’t be bothered to do anything about it.

In The Guardian, feminist writer Jessica Valenti notes that the problem may not be that women “lack confidence” at all. After detailing a number of ways in which women continue to be subject to discrimination and violence, she writes, “The truth is, if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention. Women’s lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.”

It’s the height of hypocrisy to raise young girls to believe that they’re unsuited for the careers and goals their male siblings, friends, and classmates will have, and then lament the lack of confidence of the women those girls grow up to be. It’s especially hypocritical to propose that the solution is for these women to Just Learn To Be Confident rather than to stop undervaluing them in the first place.

When you consider all this research on the extent to which sexist stereotypes impact how women are perceived and treated in the workplace, it doesn’t seem like we have that much to be confident about.

Miri Mogilevsky is a social work student who loves feminism, politics, New York City, and asking people about their feelings. She writes a blog called Brute Reason, tweets @sondosia, and rants on Tumblr.

Photo via Ben Thompson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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