Women in business contend with subtle — and not so subtle — gender bias every day. As we work together to confront and change those attitudes, we also recognize that’s a long-term journey. In fact, those of us who have been around for a few decades are often astounded by the battles still being fought in 2016. In the meantime, real women have to navigate real challenges on a daily basis.
To get some advice for women trying to fight their way forward in the workplace, we talked to Andie Kramer, prominent Chicago lawyer and co-author of Breaking through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, which she wrote with her husband and former law partner, Al Harris. Her book offers specific suggestions for how women can survive and thrive in the workplace, and I was lucky enough to hear her share more advice and experience a few weeks ago at Bernstein Private Wealth Management’s Women’s Idea Series. Kramer calls out the challenge women face to balance being “communal” — warm, considerate, approachable — with being “agentic” — powerful, strong, effective — and then offers specific behavioral advice for handling common experiences like being interrupted, not being introduced as part of a team, or having your idea appropriated by a male colleague. She was kind enough to talk with me about her book and to offer up some negotiation tips.
Have you experienced bias in your career?
One of my favorite stories — of many thousands — is when, as a young lawyer, I was called into a meeting that was already in progress in one of my law firm’s conference rooms. As I walked in, I heard our client, who had his back to the door I had just walked through, say: “Andie’s a girl? I can’t possibly work with a woman.”
So, I put my hand on his shoulder and made some sort of a joke about needing to start our introduction off on a different note. I walked out of the room, and when I came back in, our first awkward meeting was behind us. Over the years, we worked together on several important projects, occasionally laughing about our awkward first meeting.
When I look back on that meeting, I often wonder what might have happened if my first reaction had been to take offense and get angry, rather than to smile, make a joke, and move on.
What do you think is the most destructive kind of bias women face?
The most destructive bias women face is what I call the Goldilocks Dilemma. Women are often seen as too tough, too soft, but rarely just right.
Women who seek to be leaders are often seen as either competent but too strident and insensitive on the one hand, or likable but too soft and lacking confidence on the other hand. They are rarely seen as being just right. If a woman acts with authority and decisiveness, both men and women criticize her. She is seen as an aggressive bitch. If, on the other hand, a woman conforms to common female stereotypes — cautious, deferential, careful — she is seen as not being cut out to be a leader, that she doesn’t have the right stuff.
The key to overcoming the Goldilocks Dilemma and getting it “just right” is what Al and I call “attuned gender communication.” Essentially, this means that a woman communicates that she is both competitive and welcoming, decisive and sensitive, authoritative and inclusive. When she can use both tough and soft characteristics as needed and often at the same time, she can lead without a negative backlash. We’ve written our book to show women how to navigate between “too hard” and “too soft” to be seen as JUST RIGHT.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in business or the professions, what would you say?
Women in traditionally male careers — lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers, tech entrepreneurs, fighter pilots, and just about all high status, high financially rewarded careers — face negative stereotypes about women, family, job commitment, and leadership.
As the stereotypes go: A woman just doesn’t have the right set of characteristics to be an effective and successful professional or business leader. And if she does, then there must be something wrong with her: she must not be a nice person and she is certainly not feminine.
So, to distinguish herself and effectively deal with negative gender stereotypes, I would suggest three preliminary steps and then four next steps that follow on from the preliminary ones.
First, monitor her communication so she is positive and supportive of herself. This is so very important. Second, learn how to manage the impression other people have of her so she can identify when she should be tough and when she should dial it down. And third, understand what triggers negative gender stereotypes and how she can sidestep them, avoid them, or face them head on.
When she can do these three things, she can achieve her career goals if she focuses on four more things:
- Seek out challenging projects and opportunities. Don’t hang back because of long hours or travels. Speak up, so that the men do not dominate meetings and discussions.
- Avoid providing too much information to her colleagues about her family responsibilities, her fears, and her concerns. Save those discussions for family and friends. She does not need to say she is leaving to take care of her kids or go to a softball game. She can simply say she is not available for a call at 2:00 p.m. but she would be happy to talk any time after 3:30 p.m.
- Show a sense of humor. She doesn’t need to join in the men’s locker room jokes, but she needs to be a good sport with a capacity to laugh. And, when things get difficult, she can stay focused by relying on a coping sense of humor.
- Don’t worry about being “likeable.” She needs to be talented, willing to promote herself, and in the right place at the right time. She doesn’t need to be seen as nice or sweet or caring. She needs to be seen as a competent person who can get the job done.
What do you think is the worst mistake a woman can make that undermines her professional reputation?
A woman is much more likely than a man to believe that her workplace is a meritocracy and that all she needs to do to get ahead is to put her head down and do a good job. Believing that her talents and contributions will be recognized without efforts to make sure others know about her contributions is likely to leave her disillusioned and unhappy. And she is more likely to blame herself for her inability to move up in her career rather than to recognize the gender bias in her workplace.
How about some good advice for women on how to handle a tough negotiation?
Women who buy into the stereotypes that women are supposed to be modest, unpretentious and diffident can find it difficult to negotiate for themselves. They fear that if they forcefully advocate for themselves they will face criticism, be seen as unlikeable, and face negative backlash.
A man can demand recognition for his achievements in an assertive way, and he is likely to be seen as hard-charging with a good sense of his own worth. A man acting assertively is conforming to traditional gender stereotypes. A woman acting in the same way, however, is violating traditional gender stereotypes and is likely to be seen by women and men as pushy, conceited, and unlikeable. This means that she needs to be able to show that she can be both tough and soft. With that said, effective self-promotion requires three pieces. First, she needs to make a clear, strong case for herself. Second, she must make her case in an inviting and pleasant way to show that she is both competent and likeable, confident and warm, and competitive and friendly. And third, she must be willing to push for what she wants while remaining warm and pleasant.
Ultimately, what has to change to end bias? Is it actions by individuals, or a switch in policy at a company or industry level?
There is no question that organizations and the men who run them must become more gender neutral for gender bias to end. But, as we set out in Breaking Through Bias, women do not need to wait for their workplaces to become gender neutral to end the harmful effects of gender bias. Although this is really a topic for a much longer discussion, let me set out a few steps that women can take to avoid or overcome gender bias.
- Studies show that a woman is most successful in her career when she shows a mixture of tough and warm characteristics.
- To do this, she needs to be highly aware of how she is being perceived. She needs to accurately interpret the signals — verbal and nonverbal — others give her as she gets the job done.
- She needs to be able to pivot and change the way she is communicating if she believes she is not being perceived as she wants to be — indeed, needs to be — as an effective leader.
- A woman does not need to be phony or inauthentic, but she must present those aspects of her personality that will be most effective in each particular situation.