Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces
by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris
What follows is Part One of an edited version of a chapter from our forthcoming book, Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces. We would welcome your thoughts and comments as we prepare the book for publication.
Gender-based obstacles to women’s career advancement are real, substantial, and not likely to go away any time soon. It is simply a fact of business and professional life that women have a tougher time moving up the leadership ladder than do similarly qualified men. Women and men need many of the same skills for career success: “social presentability, visibility, organizational demeanor and political skill, as well as competent job performance.”1 But women need skills that men don’t, most particularly skills to cope with the biases they face simply because they are women. Whether it is the “double bind,” the “double standard,” the “maternal wall,” the “baby penalty,” or any number of other subtle and not so subtle gender putdowns, women need a set of communication skills that are irrelevant for men. We will have a great deal to say about the acquisition and nature of these skills in our book, but here our discussion is limited to why these skills are needed and what women need to do to start using them. In other words, this article is about women taking control.
The Problem – And the Solution
Imagine a typical mixed-gender business situation. It could be a conference, presentation, negotiation, performance review, brain- storming session, or any other task-oriented meeting. Whatever the purpose of the session, everyone there, the women as well as the men, will be operating with at least three stereotypes. First, they will expect independent and assertive. Second, they will expect the women to be “communal,” that is, friendly, unselfish, warm, compassionate, supportive, and nurturing. And third, they will expect whoever leads the session to be agentic.
Given these stereotypes, one of two scenarios is likely to play out if a woman tries to assume a leadership role. If she attempts to take charge without communicating agentic qualities, she is almost certain to be ignored. On the other hand, if she seeks a leadership role by using agentic qualities, she is likely to be regarded as “masculine” (or at least not feminine) and, therefore, socially clumsy and unlikeable. Moreover, because she will be seen as having violated traditional gender roles, she is likely to have difficulty in exercising leadership and may suffer economic penalties and professional and social isolation. The practical reality is that whichever approach a woman takes, in seeking a leadership role in a mixed-gender business situation, she is going to encounter obstacles that a man will not.
After having lived through a number of such situations, an ambitious woman may very well start to curse the unfairness of the business world and come to believe that her time will come only when that world is “fixed” and becomes gender-neutral. When the “fix” doesn’t come, she is likely then either to drop out of the competitive struggle for career success altogether or settle into a vocational existence of frustration, anger, and disappointment.2
In stating the picture of women’s career prospects so bleakly, we do not mean to suggest that the male-dominated business culture in the United States does not need to be “fixed.” Nor do we want to suggest that women seeking to advance in that culture need themselves to be “fixed.” We firmly believe that our business culture is profoundly biased against women and would be far more productive if fundamental changes were made so that long-term successful careers were more accessible and attractive for women. The problem is that we don’t see those changes coming in the foreseeable future, and we are unwilling to advise talented and ambitious women who want successful careers now to wait. As for the need to “fix” women who want a career, we think women are just fine the way they are, thank you. There is no need for career women to become “more like men” or to “suck it up” or to “try harder.”
But we do think there is something that women need to do. They need to learn techniques that will allow them to work smarter within our gender-biased economic system so that those biases don’t hold them back. They need to take control of their careers by anticipating the biases they will face and acquiring the skills to deal with them. If they will do this, we are convinced that women can play the career advancement game with and against men with a real fighting chance of winning.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this article…
This article originally appeared in the WBAI Winter 2015 Newsletter.
1 W. Heisler and G. Gemmill, Executive and MBA student review of corporate promotion practies: A structural comparison, Academy of Management Journal, 21, 1978, pp. 731-737. See also Martin Kilduff and David V. Day, Do Chameleons Get Ahead? The Effects of Self-Monitoring on Managerial Careers, Academy of Management Journal, 37(4), Aug. 1994, pp. 1047-1060. The researchers tracked, for five years, 139 graduates form the same American university’s MBA program.
2 Generational issues may also play a major role here. We discuss these issues at length in our book but largely ignore them in this article.