Women aren’t broken. That is the short conclusion reached by the authors of a new book: ‘It’s not you, it’s the workplace: Women’s conflict at work and the bias that built it”.
“Evolution, socialisation and the internalisation of the dominant culture’s misogyny” have allowed us to mistreat women in the workplace, especially those in the executive levels, say the authors, Andrea Kramer and her co-author husband, Alton Harris.
The Chicago-based couple have worked together as lawyers and writers for decades.
In this book they challenge a very unhealthy perception that “women are more mean-spirited, antagonistic or untrustworthy in their dealings with other women than men are in their dealings with other men”.
Ambitious women are held to different standards than men: a businesslike woman is seen as ‘cold’, her equivalent male colleague is seen as ‘professional’.
The infamous Harvard study colloquially called the “Howard/Heidi” which Sheryl Sandberg describes in her cult-polemic, “Lean In”, springs to mind. The experiment conducted in 2003 presented business students with a story of a successful entrepreneur. Half the students were told the entrepreneur’s name was Heidi; the other half were given the name Howard.
The students then described their impressions of Heidi and Howard. Though the students rated both Howard And Heidi as competent and worthy of respect, “Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.
When disagreements arise between women, according to Kramer and Harris, these conflicts are viewed as “disruptive” or motivated by “personal antagonism or petty jealousy.” And when they happen between two men? That’s seen as simply part of the normal “rough and tumble of high-intensity workplaces”.
Women are penalised with “poor evaluations, social exclusion and co-worker animosity in ways that men never experience.”
So, it’s organisational culture that affects how we perceive, and ultimately, treat women, rather than any inherent ‘bitchiness’.
According to the authors this bias stymies ambition.
“The greatest contributors to women’s waning ambition are the lack of opportunity for advancement, lack of support from managers, and a scarcity of female role models.”
Changing the culture is not a one man/woman job so what do they recommend?
“Make sure that flexible working policies are open to everyone” – not only mothers. “Seek out male allies. It might be easier to find men with partners who work. If women get ahead then it looks tokenistic. Programmes need to be handled in ways that don’t look like women need special treatment.”