Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

What works for women at work

A woman’s road to the c-suite is full of hurdles. Her input in a meeting is ignored. She negotiates skillfully, and she's told she’s full of herself.  While these roadblocks may feel like personal criticisms, they don’t have to, according to legal scholar Joan C. Williams.

Williams categorizes these hurdles into four overarching patterns of gender bias that limit women’s participation and advancement in the labor force: “prove it again,” “the tight rope,” “the maternal wall,” and “tug-of-war.”  To overcome these biases, Williams offers real-world strategies based on interviews with over one hundred successful women. Williams outlines these strategies in a new online Voice & Influence module, What Works for Women at Work. The module is seventh in the series offered by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.  

Prove it again: He’s skilled, she’s lucky

“Men are often judged on their potential, but women are judged on their achievements,” Williams explains, adding that women have to provide moreevidence of competence to be considered as competent as their male colleagues. What's more, “women’s mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer, but women’s successes tend to be attributed to luck.” 

“Men are often judged on their potential, but women are judged on their achievements."

Williams calls this pattern “prove it again.” Women literally need to prove themselves over and over again, where a similarly situated male colleague does not, she explains.

The obvious solution to this problem would be for women to engage in serious self-promotion, by broadcasting their accomplishments and minimizing their faults. But, says Williams, self-promotion has its pitfalls. No one likes a braggart, especially if she is a woman. Instead, coworkers expect women to be modest and community-minded.

The posse solution

The solution?  The “posse.”  The posse is a group of people that agree to celebrate each other’s successes, explains Williams.

“Women are supposed to be modest,” Williams says, but “the posse allows you to do… something very appropriate—to celebrate someone else’s successes. Meanwhile, of course, though, they are celebrating yours.” So, rather than Sally sending a company-wide e-mail to announce her own achievement, a posse member, Rhonda, sends  a company-wide email announcing Sally’s achievement.

Williams shows that “the posse works because it takes traditionally feminine behavior—being selfless and communal—and uses it to soften [self-promoting] behavior that might be seen as too masculine otherwise.”

The tightrope between like and respect

The second patters of bias that Williams identifies is “the tightrope.” Here, Williams refers to the way women walk a line between being liked but not respected—or respected but not liked. An example of how women experience the tightrope is “office housework, ” meaning the important work that keeps an office running but that does not advance one’s career. Often these tasks default to women, who are expected to do the housework to be liked. But, if do too much, they do not get their “real” job done, and they lose respect.

As a solution, Williams suggests using a strategic “No.” Women can say “Yes” to one or two pieces of office housework, then say “No” and provide alternatives for the rest. By agreeing to some office housework, a woman demonstrates her commitment to the team. And by saying “No” in a way that offers a solution, she is still showing her commitment to the team but putting her foot down just enough to allow time to get to the rest of her important work.

The online module also outlines the two remaining patterns of bias—“the maternal wall” and “tug-of-war”—and offers proven strategies for overcoming them.

A step today, a posse tomorrow

“Organizational change is tricky and it takes time,” Williams acknowledges. “But if more women survive and thrive in their careers, you’ll have more women and a more diverse leadership, and that also is important for institutional change.”

In this light, the strategies that Williams provides do more than simply offering women tools for dealing with stereotypes today. By advancing women leaders, Williams offers hope for undoing these gender stereotypes in the future.