Gender Judo

One of my favorite authors and researchers, Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings, just published new research on the likability trap for women. She reports on both her own research and other new studies that show the ways successful women overcome the likability trap and offers practical strategies that many women will find useful.

What is the likability trap? Williams defines it as a double bind that women face when they move into positions of leadership and need to be assertive and direct. She explains that the problem is in today’s American society, women are expected to be helpful, modest, nice, and indirect while men are expected to be direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious. When women move into the traditional male domains of leadership, where demonstrating masculine qualities is necessary (which women can do quite well), they do not fit the feminine stereotype. Men and women both can become uncomfortable with them. They are deemed unlikable and can find it difficult to be effective. In her interviews with two hundred successful women, Williams found that “savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to diffuse backlash),”or as Williams calls it, “gender judo.” Gender judo requires extra effort for women that men don’t have to expend, but successful women report that they have to do it.

What are some strategies that successful women use? Williams pulls from her own and others’ research to describe some strategies that work. She also warns that some may be hard for the reader to swallow, but they are, unfortunately, necessary and effective. Here are some strategies for leading in a feminine way:

  • Playing Office Mom—Some successful women adopt the strategy of Office Mom. One former chief executive explained, “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraces the stereotype that women are naturally nurturing so she can be assertive when she needs to be, a form of judo when you can intentionally flip back and forth from one direction to another to maintain momentum and survive and thrive as a woman leader.
  • Using a social impact cover—Williams reports that social scientists Matthew Lee and Laura Huang found that female entrepreneurs are more likely to get venture capital funding if they pitch their companies as having social impact. This “cover” helps overcome the mismatch of the stereotype of a good, community-focused woman with a hard-driving entrepreneur.
  • Negotiating—Numerous studies have been reported in recent years about the double bind for women when negotiating. Williams summarizes this research as “women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding.” Women have to use “softeners,” such as asking questions for clarification of the salary rather than assertively making demands. Men can just be direct and make demands.
  • Using femininity as a toolkit—This strategy requires some experimentation. Being an authentic leader is important, so each woman may have to find what works for her to do something masculine in a feminine way. For example, some women try smiling more or being more relational and asking about people’s families—which can feel unnatural for many people. Williams does caution, though, about not using a submissive conversational style, like apologizing and hedging, which can undercut your leadership credibility. Some women try to find a good mix of authoritative mixed with warmth that works for them.
  • Displaying gender—This strategy might be harder for some than others, but Williams found that some women in her study reported that wearing feminine clothes or pink lipstick when they are the only woman in the boardroom or on the leadership team helped to soften their impact on the men.

In this report, as in her book What Works for Women at Work, Williams suggests some steps that organizations can take to create cultures where women do not face barriers to success because of gender or race:

  • Organizations need to be aware and vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to take these extra measures to succeed.
  • Reward systems need to stop rewarding behavior considered appropriate for white men while punishing women and people of color for not fitting neatly into the stereotypes for their groups.
  • Both women and men should be rewarded for displaying empathy and putting the common good above self-interest.

The fact that women have to perform gender judo is unfair. But the more we talk about this double bind, the closer we get to gender equality at work.


Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

Gender-Neutral Family-Friendly Policies: The Unintended Consequences for Women

Where are the senior women scholars? Universities have been concerned about the underrepresentation of women at senior tenured levels for more than twenty years, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. I wrote about several studies seeking to explain this dearth of senior women scholars in a previous article. In response to the underrepresentation of women, many of these institutions implemented gender-neutral family-friendly policies in the 1990s. Justin Wolfers, an economist writing for the New York Times, reports new research on the careers of economists in the United States that shows surprising, unintended consequences of these policies for female economists. Wolfers reports that in fact, some gender-neutral policies have advanced the careers of male economists at the expense of women’s careers, which is probably also true in other disciplines. The specific gender-neutral policy under investigation here is the tenure extension policy, which grants one extra year to the seven-year tenure process to both women and men for each child. The intention of this policy is to create some family-friendly flexibility in the early years of an academic career, when the pressure to achieve tenure (publish or perish) in order to keep an academic job collides with the years when young women and men are ready to start families. Wolfers reports that new research by three economists—Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns—shows a significant differential impact of the tenure extension policy on the careers of women and men. These researchers compiled data on all untenured economists hired over the past twenty years at fifty leading economics departments. They then compared promotion rates at institutions with tenure extension policies to those without them. This is what they found:

  • Tenure extension policies resulted in a 19-point rise in the probability that a male economist would earn tenure at his first job.
  • In contrast, women’s chances of gaining tenure at their first jobs fell by 22 percent.
  • Before the implementation of tenure extension, a little less than 30 percent of both women and men at these same institutions gained tenure at their first jobs. Consequently, the new policy significantly decreased the number of women receiving tenure.
One of the main flaws in the logic behind the gender-neutral tenure extension policy is that women and men experience the same distractions from their writing and research after the birth of a child. Wolfers cites Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s business school, as saying, “Giving birth is not a gender-neutral event.” Wolfers goes on to observe that “women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden.” In fact, the study authors found that men who took tenure extension used the extra year to publish their research, resulting in higher tenure rates. No parallel rise in publication rates was seen for female economists. One of the study authors, J. Stearns, cautions that not all gender-neutral family policies are harmful. She notes that standard parental leave policies for both parents have reduced the stigma for women. Let’s note that it took female economists to uncover the harmful impact of this tenure extension policy on women—and there are not many female economists. What other unintended consequences could be negatively accruing for women from well-intentioned family-focused policies? What else might we be discovering if we had more female economists asking these questions? Do you have experiences or thoughts about the possible unfair impact of employment policies where you work? Let me know.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of anekarinebraga.]]>

Hillary Clinton and Theresa May: How Gender Bias is Still with Us

Every so often things happen in the world that, for a moment, make underlying biases and stereotypes visible that are usually underground and hard to see. I believe this happened in the United States with the subtle, and not-so-subtle, emergence of racism when Barack Obama ran for president, was elected, and tried to govern. I believe gender bias and sexism are emerging now with the first-ever nomination of a woman, Hillary Clinton, by a major party for the presidency in the United States, and with the election of Theresa May as Britain’s new prime minister. Julia Baird of the New York Times writes, “The fact that a cluster of men lead the world merits no comment. But if women start to slowly enter the ranks—Theresa May, Angela Merkel in Germany, possibly Hillary Clinton in the United States—it’s treated as . . . some kind of gynocratic coup d’etat: a new ‘femokratie’ . . . the ‘dawn of a female world order. ’” One British paper warned, “The women are coming!” Baird notes that several insulting stereotypes have been used to describe May as a leader, including the Nanny (because she will now have to “mop up” after the Brexit mess created by her male counterparts) and the Thatcherite label of Iron Lady because she is known to take strong positions and be persistent. Baird observes that “our notions of mature women in power urgently need updating.” In the online publication Vox, Ezra Klein surfaces some other sources of gender bias in presidential politics when he tries to understand and explain the gap between Clinton as a public speaker—described as careful, calculated, cautious and uninspiring—and Clinton described by staff and colleagues as brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective, and a good listener. Being a good listener is the hallmark of Clinton’s campaign style. In 2000, she conducted her senate campaign in New York State by doing “listening tours.” She won her senate seat against long odds because she listened and came to deeply understand what people in New York cared about. Once in office, she got legislation passed that addressed the concerns of her constituency. But, as Klein writes, “modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking”—not listening. Klein goes on to point out that “we ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them—a process developed by men, dominated by men and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men. ” Our election process also favors traits particularly prevalent in men—talking over listening. Klein cites one of my favorite gender linguistics scholars, Deborah Tannen, who explains that women value listening to build rapport and relationships. She contrasts this preference with that of men who emphasize the status dimension of communication—talking to increase status, or to win, versus listening to gain allies and build coalitions. A point by Klein that I find most interesting is that “presidential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently—charismatic oration versus deep relationship.” Klein also offers observations by Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck, author of Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again. She found that “successful presidential leadership occurs when the president is able to put together and balance three sets of skills: policy, communication, and implementation.” Campaigns only test communication. Clinton is criticized for not being an inspirational speaker, but she has a long track record of making policy and getting things done in government through relationship and coalition building. While I agree that she has made some mistakes in her political career, isn’t it sad that her depth of policy and legislative experience and her track record for getting things done are overshadowed by an opponent who is all entertainment bluster with no accomplishments or experience in governing? Trump loves to talk about the process being “rigged” against him, but it seems to me it is actually rigged for him as a man who loves to talk to large audiences and increase his status by putting other people down. This is a form of gender bias I had not seen before, and it explains a lot. Is it new to you, too? What other gender bias is getting clearer for you in this election? Please share your observations in the comments section.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Jens Junge.]]>

How Women Decide: A Book Review

Therese Huston has written an important new book: How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices. The book combines her own research with a comprehensive review of literature on gender differences in decision making. Some of her findings disprove stereotypes about gender differences, while others confirm and explain differences in decision making between women and men. To address these differences, Huston offers decision-making strategies for women. She notes, “Books with advice on decision making for men can be terrible for women. . . . Women need their own playbook.” This is the best playbook on decision making for women I have seen. Here are some of the findings and strategies that stood out for me.

Some Challenges for Women

Huston notes these and other challenges that women face as decision makers in organizations:
  • Women face underlying sexist assumptions that they can’t be trusted to make big decisions. A man only has to worry about making a judgment when making a big decision, while a woman has to worry about making the judgment and being judged because her judgment will be questioned.
  • If a man makes one pivotal decision for his organization, it will carry him a long time. Williams and Dempsey note that women, on the other hand, experience the “prove it again bias” as their good decisions are considered to be a fluke.
  • Women’s decision making is also impacted by something Huston calls “stereotype threat,” or the fear of living up to negative expectations that others have of your group. This fear can create distraction and anxiety for women that can result in hesitation and underperformance. I experienced stereotype threat as a young woman when my high school guidance counselor told me, “Girls are not good in math.” I became terrified of math and avoided it throughout college, thereby limiting my career options in significant ways. I later discovered that I am actually quite good in math, but my anxiety and hesitation from this stereotype threat limited my options. Women may avoid leadership positions and fear decision making for similar reasons.

Some Ways Women and Men are Equal as Decision Makers

Huston debunks a number of myths and stereotypes about men’s and women’s decision-making abilities:
  • Although many people believe that men are more decisive than women, scientists find that men and women struggle with their options equally.
  • Stereotypes suggest that women make decisions intuitively while men make decisions analytically. There is, in fact, no such term as “men’s intuition.” However, Huston reports that men get gut feelings about decisions as often as women, and women are as analytical—perhaps more so—than men in decision making because they know their decisions will be questioned and their case must be solid.
  • Men can read emotions and body language—both important sources of data for decision making—as well as women, but they don’t feel as motivated do so. Women are more motivated to pay attention to nonverbal cues as a self-protection skill because they have less power.

Differences in Risk Taking

Although men and women are equally skilled decision makers, significant differences exist between women and men in making risky decisions. Huston reports:
  • Risk taking is a skill, not a personality trait, and boys get more encouragement to practice this skill than do girls.
  • Several studies show that men overestimate their knowledge and abilities while women underestimate theirs. Overconfidence has been shown to be a major obstacle to smart decisions. Women’s more accurate self-assessment means fewer errors in judgment.
  • Neuroscience has uncovered evidence that the spike in cortisol levels produced by stress has the opposite effect on men’s and women’s approaches to risky decisions. The most stressed-out men pursue options that have big costs and a small chance of big benefits, while the most stressed-out women go for the smaller, more guaranteed success.

Effective Decision-Making Strategies for Women

Huston offers practical strategies for women at the end of each chapter. Here are some that I found particularly thought-provoking and useful:
  • Use your intuition, an important source of data, as a starting point in your decision-making process—but only trust it up to a point. Then hunt down the data to ground your decision before you make it. Don’t rely on intuition alone.
  • When you are talking about your successes in a job interview, draw attention to the successful risks you have taken. This will help counteract the stereotype that women are not decisive and do not take risks.
  • Keep your confidence dialed down when making a decision to ensure it is grounded and smart. Then dial your confidence up when you need to sell your decisions to others.
Women receive a lot of mixed messages and are subject to many confusing double binds as leaders and decision makers. Huston offers an important playbook for how women can navigate these minefields and leverage their strengths. Reading this book will open your eyes and give you practical strategies for overcoming the challenges of making decisions as a woman. Let me know what you think.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Helpsg.  ]]>