Sheryl Sandberg and Gendered Expectations

Lean In, makes the point that women cannot ignore the many double binds they face in the workplace if they want to be successful, however they may define success. She makes a strong case and cites solid research about the importance for women of being likeable if they wish to succeed and the double bind this creates for women. One of the studies described by Sandberg was conducted by two professors who used a Harvard Business School case study that described a real-life entrepreneur. They gave the case to business-school students to rate on several factors. Half the students got the case with the name Heidi, and the other half got the same case with the name Howard. While the students rated both Heidi and Howard as competent, they rated Howard as a more appealing colleague, while Heidi was seen as “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Sandberg notes that this study shows what many other studies have also shown: “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” In other words, “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” The career implications are obvious. If we cannot get hired or promoted because our competence makes both women and men uncomfortable, we are in big trouble. If we play down our accomplishments and do not toot our own horn about our capabilities to level and be likeable, we cannot get access to opportunities. An additional research finding shows that one reason women are paid less than men for the same work is that women do not try to negotiate for compensation, benefits, titles, and other perks as often as men do. But as Sandberg points out, women have a good reason for not negotiating. We have learned that if we advocate for ourselves, we are often seen as too demanding or aggressive and not someone people want to hire or promote. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Could Subtle Gender Bias Be Holding You Back? How to Recognize and Overcome It

gender wage gap, which indicate that women make somewhere between 62 percent and 77 percent compared with the wages of male colleagues who do the same work (and the wage gap is much worse for women of color), but they don’t think the same could be happening to them. But gender bias can be subtle and hard to recognize. Are any of the scenarios below familiar to you? If so, gender bias may be working against you.

  • Recently a woman came to me for coaching because her boss told her that she needed to smile more to get promoted. She wanted me to help her learn to smile more, but she was bewildered about what this feedback really meant.
  • Another woman came for coaching because her supervisor gave her a mediocre performance review, calling her “indecisive” because she spent too much time “coddling” her team by asking for their input on decisions—yet her results were very strong.
  • Yet another woman recently came for coaching about how to get promoted. She had been with her large company for more than twenty-five years. She wanted to become a senior leader and had done everything her mentors suggested to prepare herself, yet in more than ten years she had been offered nothing more than lateral job changes while men all around her were moving up. When she asked why she was not moving up, she was told she lacked “executive presence” with no useful guidance about what she needed to do differently.
Each of these cases could be explained away as deficiencies that the individual women needed to fix. In fact, both my professional experience and a lot of recent research show that these women are probably being held back by common biases and assumptions present in many organizations. These biases are subtle and hard to see, but they can have a significant impact on women’s careers, self-confidence and pay level. Could subtle biases be holding you back? Here are some techniques that may help:
  • Smile more. Do we really have to smile more? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, for now. The subtle bias usually operating in this feedback has to do with the difficulty women have being perceived as both competent and likeable, discussed by Sheryl Sandberg as “the likeability factor. To overcome this bias, educate yourself about gender bias in the workplace and keep conversations with your boss focused on your results. Document your results and remind your boss about them from time to time—while smiling. Networking with other women and having a “safe setting” where you can share experiences, feedback, and best practices is important too.
  • Exercise collaborative leadership. The ability to build and utilize teams is a strength women should feel proud of and leverage. The command/control leadership style that is rewarded in most organizations is not the only style that produces results but is often the only style that gets rewarded. Share some reading materials about gender style differences with your boss and challenge him or her to consider supporting diverse leadership styles. Start a book club with both female and male colleagues to discuss gender style and leadership style differences and work together to encourage the organization to recognize and reward a broader range of leadership styles.
  • Demonstrate executive presence. Promotion decisions based on “lack of executive presence” for women often reflect a gender bias in organizations—men are more comfortable “tooting their own horns” about their accomplishments and nominating themselves for assignments and promotions for which they may not even be qualified. Women hesitate to do the same or underplay their accomplishments, which can be interpreted as lacking executive presence. As women, we can learn to be more self-promoting. We can also agree to promote each other to senior leaders.
If we educate ourselves about gender bias, we will be more likely to recognize it when we experience it and to know whether feedback is useful or not. We also need the support of other women so that we can share best practices for dealing with subtle workplace bias. And we need the support of male colleagues who understand how subtle gender bias operates. With awareness, action, and support we can overcome these barriers that hold us back. Have you encountered subtle gender bias at work? Have you found ways to overcome it?]]>

Next Steps

1. Assess your organization’s culture.

a. Describe your organization’s culture. Which values are rewarded? Which values are discouraged? Which values best fit your own orientation to the world?

b. Share your perceptions with other colleagues and, possibly, with your boss.

2. Identify your friendship rules. Talk to your friends, coworkers, and family members and bring these rules into your consciousness. Write them down. Continue to notice your unspoken expectations. 3. Identify the friendship rules of other women in your life, both inside and outside of work. Help bring these rules into their consciousness. Begin to notice where yours and theirs are similar and different. 4. Become more comfortable with conflict.

a. Make a list of the thoughts and feelings that come up for you when you think about conflict. Notice whether you think about conflict as negative or neutral. b. The next time a conflict or potential disagreement comes up, take the risk to reframe it as just a difference of opinion and stay engaged. Notice what happens. c. Assess how your organization holds or values conflict. Is conflict seen as healthy or as destructive? Is it encouraged or discouraged? Compare your perceptions with your coworkers and, possibly, with your boss.

  An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>


There’s an expectation that you check your feelings at the door. “Hey, this is the workplace!” It’s not that men don’t cry, but women are more likely to cry when you hurt their feelings in the workplace, and I think it’s really hard to cry in the presence of a man. If you must cry, ask a woman friend to meet you in the restroom and cry with a woman.

Once again, women are set up to be disappointed by each other in the context of the masculine workplace if they expect empathy and emotional engagement from each other, and some women are trying to play by the rules of the masculine workplace to get promoted. Many women in this study, as well as in my consulting and coaching work, have told me how important it is that they not cry at work. Why? Because they will be seen as weak? They will make men uncomfortable? Tears mean you are irrational and out of control? You can’t be a leader and cry? These reasons have never made sense to me. Expressing a full range of emotions is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. When women (and men) have to choke off emotion, such as those expressed by tears, they are choking off their ability to fully and authentically express themselves and are suppressing their voice. We will all benefit from working together to change this norm. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Masculine and Feminine Workplace Values

Yes, this is a story about a personal betrayal. But it is also a story about women’s friendship rules crashing into the norms of a “man’s world” where a friendship between two women is destroyed by behavior that is expected between men and rewarded by the organization. A lot has been written about the ways that most workplaces favor and reward masculine workplace values and discourage feminine workplace values, which are described in the table below.

Alice, who worked in an engineering environment, would have found herself right at home in a study conducted by Joyce Fletcher. Fletcher found that the relational practices (which include collaboration, teamwork, coaching, and empathy) preferred by the women engineers in her study were discouraged and undervalued by their organizations, even though the engineers produced good results. She observed that work environments in which engineering is highly valued are often characterized by autonomy, self-promotion, and individual heroics—where self-promotion is essential to being seen as competent.

Table 2. Comparison of masculine and feminine workplace values
Masculine workplace values Feminine workplace values
• Task focus • Community/team focus
• Isolation/autonomy • Connection
• Independence • Interdependence
• Competition—individualistic competitive achievement • Mutuality—achievement of success through collaboration
• Hierarchical authority • Collectivity/flat structure
• Rational engagement (focus on task, logic, and the bottom line—leave personal matters at the door) • Emotional engagement (notice body language and process, encourage relationships, share feelings and personal information, show empathy)
• Directive leadership style • Supportive leadership style
  Alice’s story, then, gives us an example of women’s friendship rules of unswerving loyalty, trustworthiness, and equality clashing with masculine workplace values of autonomy, self-promotion, and individual heroics. The masculine values get rewarded: Alice’s coworker got promoted. And let’s notice that Alice says that men compete for promotions through individual heroics all the time. They just go out for a beer and move on, but Alice and her coworker were never friends again.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Friendship Rules for Adult Women

Table 1: Common friendship rules for adult women Show unswerving loyalty and trustworthiness. Give unconditional acceptance while seldom disapproving. Keep confidences. Share gossip and air problems. Be a good listener. Self-disclose. Practice equality. Don’t discuss friendship rules.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Practice Equality

New Rules for Women, available at Amazon ( The friendship rule of practicing equality can create confusion for women in the workplace in at least three different situations:

  • When we are reluctant to compete with each other for jobs
  • When we are reluctant to support each other because a colleague got promoted or has more education
  • When we are reluctant to do the self-promotion necessary to get ahead in most organizations
Pat Heim and Susan Murphy call this women’s relational expectation the Power Dead-Even Rule. That is, we value (and expect) staying at the same level and not getting ahead of each other. Lois explained why she does not mention that she has a master’s degree: I’m hesitant to say I have a master’s degree because it lowers the other person’s (woman’s) perception of you. She will think, “Who the hell do you think you are?” She will think you’re uppity, and she, and others, will be more reticent and not give you information and help. It’s important not to appear that you are tooting your own horn. My clients often talk about their reluctance to apply for a position in their companies when another woman also wants the position because they’re concerned about damaging an actual or potential relationship. My study also revealed a strong theme about discomfort with advancing ahead of friends or colleagues and fear or actual experiences of the relationships not surviving such advancements. Of course, part of the problem is that our expectations are unconscious and unspoken, making it impossible to put them on the table and negotiate them. But once again, the feminine workplace values of a flat structure and equality crash into the hierarchical workplace to set us up for disappointment or confusion about what to expect from other women at work. We cannot advance if we don’t toot our own horns and compete for promotions, yet this can create problems for our relationships with other women.]]>

Women’s Friendship Rules at Work

New Rules for Women, shows that women often have different relationship expectations of their female colleagues than of their male colleagues. I call these expectations women’s friendship rules. We begin to develop friendship rules at a very young age. My granddaughter, by the time she was 4, was talking about the rules for being a friend. In middle school, girls ages 9 to 13 are thinking, “Who is my friend, who is not my friend, and what do I have to do to get invited to the party?” By the time we are adults, our friendship rules have become embedded as a set of filters, but, for the most part, we are not conscious of them. We don’t just show up in the workplace as a blank slate. We carry with us all the things we have learned, including this set of filters I call friendship rules. Men have friendship rules, too, but because of differences in gender socialization, theirs are not the same as ours. It is through the filters of our friendship expectations that we interpret the behaviors of other women at work and decide whether or not we trust or like them, along with a range of other expectations that can create misunderstandings. My research validates that a core of very common women’s friendship rules exists. Not everyone has the same ones: there will be variations for each of us. The most commonly reported women’s friend rules include

  • Exhibiting unswerving loyalty
  • Showing trustworthiness
  • Keeping confidences
  • Listening well
  • Sharing gossip and airing problems
  • Displaying self-disclosure
  • Practicing equality and acceptance, while seldom disapproving
  • Not discussing the friendship rules
The last one, the taboo on discussing friendship rules, is the one that gets us into the most trouble in our relationships. Cultural differences and other factors make it unlikely that all women share the exact same friendship expectations. However, the taboo against discussion means that mismatched assumptions may not be discovered until damage has been done to a relationship. How conscious are you of your friendship rules? I suggest you talk with some women friends, either at home or at work, and try to identify and name the friendship rules you share and the ones you don’t. Once you are aware of your own and have some practice describing them to someone else, you will be better prepared to talk about friendship rules at work with women colleagues to prevent misunderstandings. Let’s face it—we need all the support we can get at work. Naming and discussing our relational expectations with our women colleagues can go a long way toward strengthening our ability to help each other thrive and prosper at work.    ]]>