Why Do We Have Fewer Women in the Workplace?

I was surprised to read recently that the number of women in the workplace in the United States has declined. In a recent article, Gail Collins of the New York Times reported that the United States now ranks twentieth out of twenty-four industrialized countries for women in the labor force. We used to rank seventh. This can’t be good for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The US economy has not been robust since the great recession of 2008. Higher employment is needed to stimulate the overall economy.
  • Wages have been stagnant, and Americans report feeling economically fragile.
  • Most US households are more dependent than ever on two incomes to maintain a family. When one parent leaves the workforce in a two-parent family, the standard of living falls for the family.
So, why are women leaving the workforce in the United States in greater numbers than in other developed countries?  Collins says the answer is the cost of childcare. She cites these statistics from the Economic Policy Institute on family budgets:
  • The cost of childcare for a family with a four-year-old and an eight-year-old exceeds housing costs for the family.
  • A single working mother with those same two children spends one-third of her income on childcare.
  • In most states, infant care is more expensive than college tuition.
Other countries, like Japan, which now has a higher proportion of working women than we do, recognize that higher employment rates for women is good for the economy. They implement family-friendly policies, such as subsidized childcare and paid family leave, in order to encourage women to enter and stay in the labor market. In a previous article, I reviewed lessons learned from the implementation of family-friendly policies in other countries. There are many best practices we can learn from. It really does not make sense for the overall economy, for families, or for women’s careers for these obstacles—childcare costs and lack of paid family leave—to exist in the United States of America. Let’s hold our presidential candidates and law makers accountable for correcting this problem.   Image provided courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>

Now That Men Can Cry at Work, Why Can’t Women?

The cultural climate may finally be changing for men—which could be good news for women in the workplace. In a recent New York Times article, Jim Windolf makes the case that “the cultural bias against male tears” may be a thing of the past. This bias equates tears with weakness and treats the ability to “quash or conceal sadness or pain” as a manly virtue and a sign of strength. I have always felt that suppressing tears and quashing feelings cuts us off from full and authentic self-expression in the workplace. The author agrees that “crying is part of being human, and men are probably just as human as anybody else.” Windolf notes that these days male politicians are practically required to show their humanity by shedding a few tears in public. He recalls that Barack Obama cried in public before he was elected in 2008, and Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner have cried in public, too. While it is true that Boehner still gets teased about how easily he cries, he may have done more than any other politician to normalize the sight of a strong male leader crying. Windolf goes on to identify other examples of men “slipping out of the emotional straitjacket” by crying in public, including Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, and several sports figures such as Wilmer Flores of the New York Mets. Why could this change be good for women?  I have written in a past article about the pressure my female clients are under to suppress their tears at work. They have been told that it is bad to be seen as “too emotional” and that “leaders don’t cry.”  Yet tears are a natural form of expression of a wide range of feelings from intense joy to deep frustration. I offer tips in my past article about how to handle authentic emotion in the workplace. Being able to express a full range of emotion is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. Let’s hope the emotional straitjacket is finally coming off for both women and men in the workplace. I know we’re not there yet, but the signs of change in the larger society are encouraging. Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>

Indirect Aggression – Part 2

January was when I started my new role. Probably three months later, my old boss scheduled a yearly performance review with me, which was unusual for a lot of reasons. Normally, performance reviews are more timely. And she had her boss on the phone with her. She doesn’t like confrontation, so I felt like she was having him do it for her. She didn’t say a word the whole time. It was like she was just sitting in the background, listening.

I was just shocked to get a negative performance review, even though on paper my numbers looked good. It felt like a lot of things had transpired behind the scenes so that she could throw Kate under the bus.

For Kate, the indirect aggression happened when her boss threw Kate under the bus by undermining her behind the scenes and then having someone else deliver the bad news. One more example of behavior that is intended to be hurtful but is denied, using silence as a weapon, was demonstrated in one of the roleplays developed by research participants who were managers in state government. The aggression was indirect but quite mean in its intentions:

Four women who work together in an office have just come back from lunch. Marcia was not included in the outing.

“I’m stuffed,” declares Lee, puffing out her cheeks and dropping a container of leftover food on her desk.

“That was a good place to go,” notes Judy, suggesting that they go back again sometime.

Rose casually asks, seemingly to no one in particular, as she takes off her coat, “Do you want to go out after work today?”

Lee says yes and suggests, “Do you want to go to that place that we went last Friday?” Judy, Rose, and Arleen agree that this was a cool place and they would like to go there after work.

In the meantime, Marcia has been sitting at her desk in the same work area, listening to this postlunch chatter and wondering what she has to do to be included in this group. The women seem to have such a good time, and she wishes they would give her a chance to show she could fit in with them. She decides to take a shot at it. Maybe she hasn’t been assertive enough and they think she isn’t interested. She sees an opening in the conversation and says, “Do you know where one of my favorite places is?”

She is chagrined when they ignore her and continue chatting as though she hasn’t spoken and isn’t there.

“So let’s plan on going to that same place,” says Lee, turning her back to Marcia, rolling her eyes, and giving a knowing look at Rose and Arleen.

“We’ll be there—what time do you guys want to get there?”

“How about seven?” offers Arleen. “We can take my car. I’ve got enough room for four,” she says, making it clear that no one else is going to join their group.

Marcia screws up her courage and decides to give it one more try, figuring she has nothing to lose, and asks, “Did you know there’s a new club that’s actually got a place for the kids?” No one responds to her this time, either.

After a short, pregnant pause, Lee declares, “All right! Break’s over!” The role-play ends.

Welcome to the middle school lunchroom in the grown-up workplace. While this was a role-play, it was presented as an example of typical dynamics between women in the workplace. It was one of many such roleplays presented during the study to demonstrate indirect aggression—probably an old and deeply buried pattern that is a form of horizontal violence.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Indirect Aggression

I walked in and there were two of the women that were in my group walking ahead of me. I said, “Oh, hey—how are you guys?” And they kind of looked over their shoulder and gave me this look, with that curl in their lip and roll in their eyes. They got on the elevator and as the doors closed, one of them said, “We’re going to get coffee”—click—and the door closed in my face.

As seen above, indirect aggression includes both verbal and nonverbal covert behaviors that could seem innocuous but are intended to hurt. They can include not only the use of body language, such as eye rolling, but also silence, as demonstrated in the story from another white nurse in her fifties, Janet, about her interactions with other women at work:

I’d go up to talk with them about something, and they’d all pick up the phone and pretend they were talking. So, for the longest time, I thought, “God, they’re on the phone a lot!” You know, it was just a smoke and mirrors kind of thing—and I was brand new to the organization, a lot younger than them, and they certainly weren’t going to let me in.

Smoke and mirrors—now add to this another thread in indirect aggression—denial. One example of denial in the adolescent-girl literature includes this description by a ninth grader: “Last week, I asked my friend why she was mad at me—I had no idea why—and she said, ‘I’m not mad at you.’ Right then I knew she was mad at me.”   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Deep Patterns from the Middle School Lunchroom

I expect them in adolescence. I don’t expect them at forty-five or fifty. Oh, I’m certain that the bullies in junior high school are still bullies today. Have you been to a high school reunion?

Although these behaviors are frequently said to be related, few studies have been conducted to make a direct connection between adolescent “mean girl” behavior and adult women’s experiences with each other in the workplace. Yet the connection seems obvious and could explain why the negative experiences of women with each other in the workplace are so pervasive. These behaviors probably reflect marginalized group behavior that is ancient, deeply held, and learned at a very young age. A frequent question from my audiences is, “But aren’t things different now for girls than they used to be, with Title IX and access to sports?” While some situations have surely changed, and change is always happening, two excellent studies conducted in 2002 and 2003 that covered diverse groups of girls from first grade to high school in various parts of the country found that the messages adolescent girls still receive have not changed in significant ways. Girls still learn from the larger culture that how they look (being skinny and blond) is more important than how smart or talented they are—and so many girls, including girls of color, have no hope of ever measuring up to the cultural standard. There is still a widespread expectation among girls that they will subordinate their own dreams and goals to please a man when they grow up and that they will be the primary caregivers in their families. Check out the magazines and websites that adolescent girls read to find these types of messages. Girls may now expect to work once they are parents, but they still may not expect to be the primary breadwinner unless they have grown up in a single-parent household.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Next Steps for Strengthening Relationship Skills

  • Practice your listening skills.
    1. Listen to someone else without interrupting for five minutes while she talks about something she cares about that she is either dealing with or is frustrated by. You can use nonverbal behaviors, such as nodding or raising your eyebrows, to show that you are listening, but you cannot say anything. Notice what gets in the way of fully listening, and bring your attention back to the speaker. Notice how quickly you may want to interrupt and interject your opinions or your own experiences—but don’t interrupt.
    2. Now it’s your turn. Ask the listener to let you talk for five minutes about something you care about that you are dealing with or are frustrated by. Notice your reaction to having five minutes to talk without interruption. Is this situation unusual? Do you like it? Do you dislike it? Just notice.
  • Distinguish gossip from transknitting. Share the definition of “transknitting” with two other women, one at work and one outside of work whom you talk with regularly. During your conversations, when discussing another person, ask each other, “Is this gossip or transknitting? What do you think?”
  • If you have a relationship that has recently become strained or has come to an end for reasons that you may or may not understand, consider asking for help with using the relational resilience tool described above.
  • An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    Molly and Julie's Story Revisited

    Molly and Julie (from my earlier post) is described below.  

    Step 1: Presession interviews

    The facilitator conducts a presession interview by phone, before the face-to-face session. Each party is asked to state her hopes for the meeting and to describe what a positive outcome would be. She then tells her version of what happened and why she felt hurt. The purpose of the interview is to help each woman organize her thoughts and her story, to allow the facilitator to know key details of her story to remind her of them during the session if she forgot something significant, and to build the rapport between each woman and the facilitator.

    Step 2: The Two-Hour Face-to-Face Session

    The parties arrange a two-hour meeting in a quiet, neutral location.

    The Facilitator Role

    The role of the third party, or facilitator, for the face-to-face session is to propose a structure, to get buy-in from the participants to the structure, to help both parties listen to each other and not interrupt each other, and to ensure that both feel heard. The facilitator may help keep track of time boundaries that the parties agree to. Time boundaries may be open (“take all the time you need”) or fixed (“take 20 minutes each”), based upon the structure that is agreed upon. It can be helpful, at the beginning of the session, for the facilitator to express her belief that this process can really work and has worked with others to invite an open mind set for the participants.

    Roles and Process for Speaker and Listener

    Each woman takes turns being either the speaker or the listener. This means that the person who goes first as the speaker has all the time she needs, or all the agreed-upon time, to tell her version of the story, as she perceives it, of how she was hurt and why. During this time, the listener can ask clarifying questions or check for understanding (sparingly), but she cannot argue, debate, express her own opinions, or tell her story. Once the speaker has finished, the listener summarizes what she heard and the speaker corrects that understanding until she feels heard by the listener. The listener doesn’t have to agree; she just has to demonstrate that she heard the speaker’s perspective. Once the speaker verifies that she feels heard, then the listener can state what she heard that was a new insight or new information to her. She will have more opportunity to do this again at the end of the session. The listener may be able to apologize at this point by saying something like, “I’m sorry that my actions/behaviors caused this hurt for you.” If she is not ready to apologize, this can come at the end, but the sooner it can be done, and the more often it can be done, the better!

    Role Reversal

    Next, the listener and speaker switch roles and repeat the process described above for speaker and listener.


    Next, each party states or repeats what she heard from the other party that was a new insight or a deeper understanding. Each apologizes for what she said or did that caused hurt for the other person. (Note: Her intentions are irrelevant. What is important is to acknowledge the impact of her behavior.) For the next step in the process, the facilitator asks each party to make a statement about how she is feeling at the end of this session. Usually, if the participants have fully engaged in the process and have been open, they will say that they are hopeful or cautiously optimistic, reflecting the development of some mutual empathy that has reopened their connection and made renewal of the friendship possible. Because this is a deeply emotional process for most people, it can be hard for people to fully articulate their understandings and feelings, and the facilitator can help people feel comfortable to express themselves. As a final contribution, the facilitator again expresses her belief that this process can really work and has worked with others. She can encourage the parties to stay hopeful and be open to moving forward together and letting go of the past.  

    Guidelines for creating relational resilience

    Goal: To create mutual empathy to repair a relationship Skills and Competencies Needed: Listening skills, skills for asking clarifying questions, the ability to apologize. Process: Turn taking as both speaker and listener
    Before the face-to-face meeting
    • The participants engage support from a third party to facilitate the meeting. • The facilitator interviews each woman before a two-hour face-to-face meeting.  
    During the two-hour face-to-face meeting
    • The speaker tells her story until she feels she has conveyed the important points. • The listener summarizes what she understood until the speaker feels fully heard. • The listener shares new insights or understandings gained from listening to the speaker. • The listener apologizes for the impact of her actions, if she is ready. • The participants switch roles and repeat the above steps. • In the wrap-up, each participant repeats what she now understands and apologizes again. • Each participant shares a feeling about the session (hopeful, optimistic, etc.).
      An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>