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What Works for Women at Work Today

The authors of a new book offer advice for dealing with bias in the office

posted by Kerry Hannon, January 24, 2014 More by this author

Co-authors Rachel Dempsey and Joan C. Williams

Kerry Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. She is the author of What's Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond; Great Jobs for Everyone 50+ and Suddenly Single: Money Skills for Divorcees and Widows. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.


Co-authors Rachel Dempsey and Joan C. Williams
Co-authors Rachel Dempsey and Joan C. Williams
Photo by Margot Hartford of Margot Hartford Photography
A question for women: Have you ever felt like disco dancing to keep yourself “balanced and sane” when feeling frustrated by your job?
 
That’s what one of the 127 professional women interviewed for the new book, What Works for Women at Work, said she does.

“It’s my way of moving my body and not caring what people think of me,” she told the mother-daughter authors, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey.
 
Ahh, if dealing with the workplace issues that women often face were so simple.
 
The Rules for Women

In their compelling new book, Williams (Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law) and Dempsey (a student at Yale Law School who blogs for Huffington Post on women’s issues) spell out the two sets of rules, higher standards and closed doors that many women encounter on the job these days.

(MORE: How Women Should Plot Their Careers After 50)
 
I just chatted with them to get their dual-generational insights from their interviews and the strategies they recommend that women adopt to succeed in today’s workplace.
 
The book’s core message: “It’s time for women to stop judging each other about what they believe to be the right way to be a woman,” Williams wrote. “In workplaces still dominated by men all women make compromises.”
 
The "Tug of War" Among Women

At 53, I found myself nodding my head as I identified with the gender skirmishes between women in the workplace, described in the book as the “tug of war.” I still find that rivalry lingers below the surface in the workplaces I’m connected with, and, surprisingly, even among the cadre of female freelancers I run alongside.

(MORE: What It Takes to Become a 'Woman of Influence')
 
And those feelings of always having to make things work in a man’s world — which I felt back in the ‘80s during my first full-time job, at Forbes — have not vanished for women working in offices in 2014.
 
The authors also describe two types of gender bias you may recognize: “Prove-It-Again!” — where women are forced to prove their competence over and over, while men get the benefit the doubt. And “The Tightrope” — where women risk being written off as “too feminine” when they’re agreeable and “too masculine” when they’re aggressive.
 
Chances are, if you’re a boomer woman like me, you’ll find yourself recommending What Works for Women at Work to some of the younger generation of women coming up behind you. I’ve already ordered two copies for my twentysomething nieces.
 
Highlights from my interview with Williams and Dempsey:
 
Next Avenue: What surprised you the most while interviewing professional women for this book?
 
Williams: Ninety-six percent of the women I talked to reported to us about one or more patterns of gender bias. When I started out, gender bias shaped my career pretty profoundly. I was astonished it was still out there.

(MORE: The One Way Women Can Stress Less at Work)
 
What’s the most provocative takeaway from the book?
 
Williams: The idea among baby boomer women that the most effective way to counter “tightrope” bias is to use what I call gender judo.
 
You take feminine stereotypes and flip them around so they propel you forward instead of hold you back.
 
For example, when I came up, I was a daughter of a New England Wasp, who was very straightforward and didn't suffer fools lightly. And I found that didn't work very well for me. After a long time of being completely baffled, I thought: ‘Oh, the reason it doesn’t is because I was supposed to say things in a demure and indirect way.’ So I very consciously began to adopt some feminine traditions like wearing more dresses. That really worked really well for me.
 
On one hand, that is outrageous. Women shouldn’t have to do that. Yet, every person is a mix of masculinity and femininity. If one or the other is a problem for you, you need to embrace the other side.
 
Rachel, what tightrope strategies work for you?
 
Dempsey: I tend to have more problems as being viewed as too feminine. So I focus on ways to assert my authority.
 
I am tall, but I started wearing heels in the office about a year ago, and that frankly does a lot of the work for me. When I am 6’ 4,” I’m taller than every man in the office. And I work at modulating my voice in a professional situation, trying to keep my tone steady and not speak in questions.
 
Why do women experience those “tug of war” conflicts where they judge each other?
 
Dempsey: It’s not because women are super-competitive. It is because there are these extreme pressures on them that men don't face that puts them into conflict.
 
What should women do if they’re caught in a tug of war?
 
Dempsey: If you are having a conflict with another woman in your office, take a step back and see where that is coming from. In a nonjudgmental way, go up to other woman and say, ‘I don't know if I have done something to upset you, but I really want us to be able to work together. If there is anything wrong, let me know, and I am happy to work on it.’ Doing this subtly shows you will support her and that you expect the same in return.
 
Williams: Try to look for ways at your office that women can work together.
 
Is mentoring a younger woman at work a good way to do this?
 
Williams: Having women mentor other women in the workplace may not be the solution. Older women often have tougher ‘prove-it-again’ standards for younger women than men do. They may also suggest younger women toughen up and just do it the way the guys do it because that’s what worked for them.
 
How should women deal with the “Prove-It-Again” bias?
 
Williams: If people are going to tend to remember your mistakes and forget your successes, it is important to keep careful, real-time records of the objective metrics you have met and the nice things that people have said about you. That way you can produce that concrete evidence in appropriate situations.
 
Another important strategy is ‘the posse.” Form a group, preferably including men as well as women, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. You’ll have other people talking about your accomplishments and your job will be to talk about theirs.
 
What were some of the key findings you uncovered in exploring gender bias and race?
 
Williams: What was surprising to me was that women of color were more apt to report to us about gender bias. Race bias matters, but they encounter a lot of gender bias.
 
Women of color differ from group to group in their experience. Latinos often have a problem of being too feminine and need to tone it down. Black women seem to have greater “Prove-It-Again” problems. Even if they are extremely accomplished, they feel they can't make one single mistake. Asian American women are better off if they’re not seen as women, but as Asian, so many actually work to play that image up.
 
What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” advice?
 
Williams I am grateful for Sheryl for reenergizing the debate. But the backlash has been disheartening, suggesting that a rich, successful woman shouldn’t be giving advice to other women. Just because Sandberg is not focused on the neediest of women does not make it irrelevant.
 
Dempsey The flip side is it is important to note that you don't have to do everything perfectly all of the time and women need to be a little easier on themselves.