Thursday, May 5, 2016

Women at Work: Sexism, money, and career

I just finished this really excellent book, What Works for Women at Work, and I feel like I need to talk about it with someone.

I've had kind of a weird career, maybe, in that for the first time (after about a decade in the workforce), my direct supervisor is a man. Previously I've always reported to a woman, and in most cases, those women also reported to women. Three of the four CEOs at my various jobs have been women. Most of the people in my master's program were women (easily 75%) and even more of the professors were women (easily 90%). Publishing is pretty heavily dominated by women in all divisions, so my experience isn't unusual for the industry but it's in no way representative of business as a whole, even in the United States in 2016. That's sad but it's a fact. What's also startling is that there can be a lot of sexism (conscious or unconscious) that holds women back, and is even perpetrated by women against women - and I was pretty startled to find myself in some of the examples given in this book.

What Works for Women at Work was written by a mother-daughter team and is based on social science research and interviews with women in different places in their careers. They've identified four buckets of sexism and have strategies for coping with each. The four buckets are Prove-It-Again (how women's past accomplishments aren't enough to gain faith in their future accomplishments whereas men are often promoted based on their potential rather than their accomplishments), The Maternal Wall (and rather simply decrying the way society isn't set up to accommodate families, they talk about the unconscious attitudes we have towards women who work and women who have children and how we need to resolve those), The Tightrope (how women get typecast as either a bimbo or a bitch), and The Tug of War (how womens' issues in the workplace are exacerbated by generational conflicts and other ways womens' actions can support or hinder progress for women as a whole). There's also a chapter about the additional bias faced by women of color which was super eye-opening for this white girl.

As an employee, I've not often had cause to think that I might be the target of sexism in the workplace. I've had to deal with a twinge of it since becoming a mother (worrying about what people might think when I went back to work while Pickle was still in the NICU - shouldn't a good mother stay at her side? Never mind that Peanut had gone back to work within a few days after her birth, and no one was judging him for being a bad father for doing so). I've also had to consider whether sexism would prevent me from re-entering the workforce in a way that would keep my career on track (thankfully, that didn't end up happening - but it was definitely harder road to get a job with a three-year gap on my resume). But on the whole I haven't bumped up against outright visible sexism.

And I think that's why this book is so important - because it showed me areas of unconscious sexism that I not only have encountered by have been guilty of perpetrating myself. I have noticed how my perception of a female colleague starts to change upon learning she has children, whereas my perception of a male colleague does not. I don't think that the woman is less competent; in fact, it's almost always the opposite - but why should it change only for women and not for men? I've also made assumptions about whether female colleagues will announce a maternity leave shortly after getting married. I've never done anything besides make those assumptions, like give them bad projects or anything like that, but it was still surprising to realize that as egalitarian as I like to think myself, I've got unconscious bias just like everyone else. The first step to eradicating it is to become aware of it, and What Works for Women at Work is so helpful at bringing that awareness about.

1 comment:

  1. I just was reading the pieces of this that were available on Google books preview a few days ago! I do intend to buy it and read it, but haven't yet due to a list of other unfinished books.

    I'm no longer in a corporate environment where this stuff is most applicable, but I still think it will be a great read.

    So far, what I appreciated was how young women are optimistic that sexism isn't hurting them, but once they get past the lower rungs of their career (and/or have kids), it starts to show up. This rang true to me.

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