You Work Like a Girl: Changing Perceptions of Women in the Workplace

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Whether it is leaning in or standing up for ourselves, there has recently been much discussion about women in the workplace. Women have been speaking out about sexism in the Silicon Valley, and there have been several recent high profile lawsuits involving harassment, pregnancy discrimination and other issues. Yet despite this attention, we still have big problems with how women are perceived. A woman can have an amazing resume, work really hard and move up to a top position, but her perceived shortcomings may be distilled down to, “Well, it’s because she’s a woman.” Changing the way women are viewed will involve a big cultural shift in how we perceive gender and work.

How Women are Perceived
Women often struggle with likability in the workplace. Be too nice, and you are seen as the office mom. Be too mean, and you will get labeled as the office bitch. It is a fine line. Success for women is often equated with likability. Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

When we focus on a woman’s likability in the workplace, we are once again denying that her skills, expertise and experience are the things that really determine if she will be a good worker.

Media stories on women promoted to top positions at companies are a strong indicator of how women at the top are perceived. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines in 2013 when she banned telecommuting at Yahoo. As Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Guynn points out, “…working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements.” Mayer’s decision was seen as anti-working mom even though she also increased paid leave for both mothers and fathers (Carlson).

Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

What bothered me most about the portrayal of Mayer in the media was that it felt like people were quick to find ways to criticize Mayer’s policy change without seeing what else the company offers. Telecommuting can be a good option for some companies, but it does not always work well everywhere. Rather than criticize Mayer for the telecommuting ban, why wasn’t there more attention on the ways Mayer and Yahoo provide other benefits for working parents? And why did the headlines seem to avoid pointing out how Mayer’s decision could improve a failing business? As Guynn’s points out, Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting was part of her efforts to help turn Yahoo around. Guynn notes that Mayer was hoping to improve the company by bringing employees together in the same space rather than remotely. Given that Yahoo offers some generous benefits, was it fair to paint Mayer as a woman who did not support other working moms?

Why is Work Still Gendered?
Women have made major inroads in the workplace in the last few decades. We see women in a lot of positions, yet the age-old arguments about why women cannot do certain jobs still exist. Whether it is hormones, mood swings or lack of physical strength, there seem to be those out there who present these things as reasons why women cannot do certain jobs.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement that she is officially running for president, her detractors wasted no time in leveling criticism at her that focused on her femaleness rather than her abilities as a leader. Cheryl Rios recently posted on Facebook about why she thought a woman should not be president. Rios stated, “If this happens—I am moving to Canada. There is NO need for her as she is not the right person to run our country—but more importantly a female shouldn’t be president. Let the haters begin…but with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes, I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the President, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.”

Rios is the CEO of Go Ape Marketing, so one would think she would be supportive of a woman in a prominent leadership position. What is interesting is that Rios is relying on this outdated notion that a woman’s hormones may cause her to hit the proverbial red button and cause a nuclear apocalypse. Why is it that people are still hung up on thinking a woman is less capable than a man because of her hormones—something which both men and women have in their bodies? I would have more respect for Rios’s opinion if she focused on what she did not like about Clinton’s politics or experience as a politician.

This line of thinking also comes up in regards to physical strength. Women are often perceived as physically weaker and thus not fit for some jobs. Certain jobs are especially physically demanding (e.g. fire fighter, construction worker, oil rig worker), and women in these positions should be expected to meet the rigorous physical requirements. While it is true that some women will not meet the requirements, the same is true of men. Being a man does not necessarily physically qualify someone to be a fire fighter.

In addition, there are many jobs where the physical requirements are no more rigorous than sitting at a desk for long hours. Technology has made it possible for workers to perform many jobs with limited physical strain; however, lack of physical strength is still seen as something that may prohibit women from getting ahead.

In the 1960s, my mom worked as a computer programmer for NASA. One day she showed us a company picture of everyone she worked with. In a large group of well over 50 people, there were only two women, so it was not hard to pick her out. Back then, it was not common to see women in such professions, but this has changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. During my lifetime women have become heads of state and CEOs of companies, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and women scientists are changing the world. Yet people like Rios still use the tired, old argument that women’s bodies somehow limit their abilities to work.

Navigating Hostile Waters
Women who make it into leadership positions or male-dominated fields must find a way to navigate the hostile waters created by negative perceptions based on gender. Sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre conducted a study, which involved interviewing 32 female chefs about their experience in the culinary industry. Harris and Giuffre pointed out that, “Women described themselves as ‘invaders’ of men chefs’ turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.” Harris and Giuffre ultimately conclude that men and women chefs are not much different when it comes to their skills and abilities; it is perceptions of men and women that differ. These perceptions shape both how we all think about women as well as how women think about themselves.

Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace.

Women deal with external forces that can make the workplace hostile. Such things come in the form of comments like Rios made about Hillary Clinton not being suited to the job of president because of her femaleness. But women also must fight against internalized oppression. These are the things women begin to believe about themselves because of all those comments they hear about women being less qualified and able. If you are a woman, have you ever believed you cannot do something because of your gender? In a way, women fight the battle on two fronts: in the outside world and in their own minds. Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace. If we focus only on the individual as being the site of change, then we are not really fixing the problem that is making the woman worker believe she isn’t capable.

Am I Leaning In Enough?
When it comes to women in the workplace, change needs to happen everywhere and not just with the individual. After Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in 2013, she created an organization to take the Lean In philosophy out into the world. I commend Sandberg for her efforts to draw attention to unequal treatment in the workplace. It is important for women in power to draw attention to the continuing inequalities. But I also question an approach that asks women to lean into a system that still operates based on outdated gender norms.

Sandberg’s approach places the burden on individuals to change, and she acknowledges her critics: “I know some believe that by focusing on what women can change themselves—pressing them to lean in—it seems I am letting our institutions off the hook. Or even worse, they accuse me of blaming the victim. Far from blaming the victim, I believe that female leaders are key to the solution” (10-11). As I said, I like that Sandberg uses her position as COO of a major company to draw attention to women’s issues; however, I think change is going to require more than female leaders like Sandberg. There needs to be an institutional shift.

Sandberg’s approach aims to give women confidence to speak up, and she encourages women to support each other. These are good things, but at what point do we end up with a bunch of women asking, “Am I leaning in enough?” Women have been “leaning in” at work for a long time, and while there are more women in professions that tend to be male-dominated, women still face the negative perceptions I spoke about above. As Harris and Giuffre’s study on women chefs points out, “…it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs.” It's true that having women in more positions of power and in traditionally non-female jobs will help turn the tides, but women entering into those positions still have to work really hard to battle sexism and essentially prove they deserve to be there. If the problem is with perception, will leaning in really change the way women are perceived?

The Lean In philosophy falls short in that it asks women to work within the existing framework instead of ripping it apart and creating something new. In effect, it asks women to be responsible for creating the change that will end unequal treatment. Women are going to space, running major companies, saving lives and leaning in all over the place, yet there is still this perception that women are not capable because of their gender. At what point do we stop asking women to lean into a broken system and instead ask the system itself to change?

Why these Perceptions Hurt Everyone
When work is perceived as gendered, everyone gets hurt. Think of the men working in typically female professions such as nurses, nannies and teachers. How often are these men seen as somehow lesser because they work in a feminine profession? Their work is seen as less valuable. Look no further than the male nurse jokes made in Meet the Parents, and TV shows and movies still rely on making jokes about a male nanny.

When work is viewed through a gendered lens, we miss out on all the things people are capable of. I am not making a call to erase gender. Instead, I am arguing that workplace success needs to stop being tied to gender. Some women are good at being firefighters, and some men are good at being nurses. Even though these jobs have been historically perceived as gendered, it does not mean they need to continue being seen as such.

Is a Sexism-Free Workplace Possible?
So, what does a workplace free of sexism look like? How do we create the cultural shift necessary to make a big change in the workplace? For one, we all need to stop creating and paying attention to messages that reinforce gender stereotypes. Every time Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices are offered up  as proof of her inability to be president, whenever a woman is criticized for working and raising a family and each time someone says a woman is too emotional to handle the pressures of a restaurant kitchen, the gendered perceptions that underpin our current system are upheld.

It starts with asking ourselves if we are judging a worker based on performance and skill or on gender? Yes, more women should be in leadership positions and jobs in male-dominated fields, but there also needs to be emphasis on destroying the age-old tool of evaluating workers based on gender. Until then, women may find themselves leaning in until they fall over.

Carlson, Nicholas. “Marissa Mayer Doubles Yahoo’s Paid Maternity Leave Gives Dads Eigh Weeks Off.” Business Insider, 30 April 2013. Web. 18 May 2015.

Guynn, Jessica. “Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer causes uproar with telecommuting ban.” LA Times, 26 February 2013. Web. 16 May 2015.

Harris, Deborah and Patti Giuffre. “A Sociological Study of Why So Few Women Chefs in Restaurant Kitchens.” The Feminist Kitchen, 18 July 2011. Web. 12 March 2015.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.