In a recent article in The Chronicle , Mary Ann Mason discusses ways the deck is stacked against ambitious women. The entire article is worth reading, but this passage, in particular, evoked strong memories and mixed feelings:
As the only female dean at the University of California at Berkeley for several years, I sat in on countless meetings where men held the floor. One day a female colleague made a presentation to a meeting of the deans and received a cursory, bordering on rude, response. Afterward, she asked me how she could have been more effective.
"Speak low and slowly, but smile frequently," I replied. This advice (which did help her next presentation) was based on my observation that women must adhere to a narrow band of behavior in order to be effective in mostly male settings. Women who speak too fast, or in too shrill a tone, are overlooked. Women who act in a highly assertive manner, which might be acceptable for men, are attended to, but not invited back. Women must be friendly, but they cannot be too friendly or a sexual connotation may be inferred.
A few years ago, one of my clients, “Ellen,” a brilliant and forceful young woman, informed me that she had received a negative work evaluation. I was surprised to hear this, since her reports of her achievements reflected one success after another. “It’s not my work per se,” she clarified. “My actual work is fine. They told me I don’t have good ‘people skills,’ that I’m too abrasive and impatient. They suggested that I go to a coach, to learn how to communicate in a more tactful way. “We agreed that their stated objections were code for “not ladylike enough.”
This client’s job entailed coordinating the work of a diverse and independent staff, some members of which were oppositional and even hostile. It was hard to imagine the Buddha performing her duties without occasional abrasiveness. It was even harder to imagine Donna Reed, or Betty from “Mad Men,” commanding any respect from this crew. Yet Ellen was expected to be both soft/feminine and effective. “Do any of the men get this kind of feedback?” I asked, but we both knew the answer.
What was the more personal answer, though? We talked a great deal about what it would mean to change her “style” — how, on the one hand, it might be a valuable experience to learn other ways of relating; but on the other, she felt she was being told that her personality was unacceptable, and that it was necessary to paint a new, “feminine” face over her real one.
There is no question that it’s important to behave in a professional manner at work. Often, this entails less than full personal expression. Ellen understood this, though. By her report (and she was reliable), she didn’t talk about her personal life, or her outside interests, on work time. She wasn’t crude or abusive. She was direct, clear in expressing her expectations, and forceful in demanding that they be met. Her primary goal was not to be liked but to get the job done well. A few people on her team grumbled about her managerial style, but nobody quit or requested a transfer. And her bosses didn’t dispute this. She got high marks on everything except “interpersonal relations,” but this was considered a serious enough issue to warrant a warning and a recommendation for remedial counseling.
I was unsure how to advise her. Globally, I think workplaces need to get used to women who express the same spectrum of interpersonal styles as men do. Wiping out our personalities to replace them with the low-voiced, smiling, non-threatening Stepford persona that is sometimes demanded not only demeans us, but makes it harder for the next woman who doesn’t fit the mold.
But we have to eat. And we may have ambitions that can only be served through giving up pieces of ourselves. It’s unfair, but much of life is unfair.
Fortunately for Ellen, she found another position, where both her skills and her style are appreciated. (In fact, when I emailed her to ask permission to write this column, she responded with the following addendum: “I will briefly share that during the senior management meeting a few weeks ago, it was mentioned that they needed to get "another Ellen" to manage one of the other products, and then my manager said, "So if you were interested in duplicating yourself, or if you could recommend a duplicate," which was nice to hear. I am reasonably sure I am not doing anything different here - and have even been cranky on occasion - with the exception of the fact that I like coming here every day.”)
But the bind continues for other women, and I don’t know what the “right” response is. Do you?