Sep 18, 2020 | Come on, Ladies!

As we all know, women don’t have an easy time in their professional lives. Even though we live in the XXIst century, women are still burdened with more house chores, lower salaries, and unfair gender stereotypes at work. They also need to struggle with many disadvantages that cannot easily be proven or prevented, such as microaggressions and patronizing behaviors.

However, while working with lots of people in pursuit of improving their situation in the job market, I noticed that some women also involuntarily make their situation in the job market even harder than it already is — in at least five different ways. I informally discussed this topic with many female professionals and they tended to agree with my points. I also received some very positive comments about the added value of my discoveries. Thus, eventually, I decided to write them down in a form of an open blog post. I understand that this topic might be controversial and probably, not every female reader will identify the phenomena mentioned below. But, even if you disagree, I’m open to the discussion and I would be happy to receive comments under this blog post.

SEXISM AMONG WOMEN ALSO EXISTS

A lot of attention is paid to sexist behaviors of males towards females, but in fact, 95% of sexist behaviors I have ever experienced, came from women. I got the impression that this topic is tabboo, but I talked about this issue with female professionals on multiple occasions, and many of them shared my impressions.

What do I mean by “sexism coming from women“? In the first two years after my PhD contract expired, I was applying to lots of jobs, and eventually, I got several job offers. I eventually decided to go my own way and set a company, yet still, I learned a lot from that stage of my professional life. One thing I noticed, was one clear pattern that emerged from all my job applications. Namely, every job offer I have ever received, I received from men, not from women. Every time women had a majority voting power in the committee or a unit choosing the top candidate, I was not selected. Sometimes, I was getting the most ridiculous arguments for that decision. For instance, I was being told on the phone that another candidate was chosen because of factor A, which a direct opposite of what was introduced in the job offer. And when I was asking, “why,” I was told that they “changed their mind in the process.” So, there was always yet another reason to reject me — they could even make up the reasons on the fly.

As a matter of fact, most women treat other women as competition at the job interview — especially if the candidate is younger, full of energy, has a good answer to every question, and is independent. In other words, if the candidate is everything they are not. I experienced many situations in which the female hiring managers were stuttering, had difficulties to hold an intellectual conversation with me, and I’m not even sure if they followed what I was saying as it was hard to catch any connection with them. All I saw was this look of panic in their eyes, screaming, “OMG, she knows more than me! Over my dead body…“ In the same situation, guys were taking up the challenge, and if they were not experts in some topics or couldn’t follow, they interpreted the situation as hilarious — were just laughing at themselves and making jokes about it. They usually enjoyed the conversation, they were praising me as an intelligent and colorful person, and they were giving me the job. In other words, the same situation which women were interpreting as a problem, men were interpreting as an opportunity.

I feel that this phenomenon has much to do with the “queen bee effect.“ This effect means that a woman who achieved senior position in an organization, discriminates other, more junior women in order to keep her status as the “queen,” i.e., the only woman in her close environment. This effect was reported in corporations but also, unfortunately, in academia. Moreover, as was found in research about political views in the US, most women declare themselves as willing to back up other women… but only when they are likable. In practice, this, unfortunately, means “worse at something” or “harmless”: goofy, clumsy, not too pretty, meek, intimidated, overly modest. Not the strong and independent ones.

I don’t know the official statistics on the hard numbers in recruitment (women hiring men versus women) as all I could find online was statistics on declared preferences which might be very different from the truth. It’s interesting to see that it’s so hard to find the hard statistics — I’m quite sure that a few years ago, there was quite a lot of information available online on how women discriminate other women at work or in politics. All this information magically evaporated from www by now. Or perhaps, Google changed the ratings, who knows. If you know any hard data in this area, please let me know asap!

Anyways, there comes a question: how do women expect to be treated well in the workplace if they don’t treat each other well in the first place? This is just ridiculous.

And it’s sad to see that it’s so hard to get jobs from female recruiters — especially given that all the female leaders I had to do with so far, were very good. I must admit that most of my superiors were men so far, mostly because my research topic was mathematically oriented and this discipline of science is populated by men rather than women. However, my Master’s thesis in Mathematics was co-supervised by a woman, Prof. Urszula Foryś, and I had two female superiors at a time I was a member of the OHBM Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group. I have very positive memories from those times and I find all these leaders as strong, competent, hard-working, and at the same time, highly compassionate. Unfortunately, to get accepted for the job and get under the wings of a strong female leader, you usually need to first face this wall of female hiring managers. And that’s often a barrier of ice that I cannot cross for the aforementioned reasons.

SOME WOMEN DEVELOP A PERSONA IN THE WORKPLACE

The next self-destructive behavior I see in women in the workplace is that, they sometimes develop a persona — and this persona doesn’t work in their favor at all. Fortunately, I don’t see this happening as much in academia. However, in business, I see it very often.

What do I mean by persona? I mean a situation when you care way too much about how they are perceived by others so you develop some image to present in the workplace — an image that you believe will serve on your behalf at work. In the context of this article, this often ends up in one of the two extremes.

The first extreme is the all-knowing, cold machine who needs to show off how much they know about the subject matter, and how competent and well-organized they are. When I talk to people with this type of persona, I don’t even feel like talking to a human being in the first place — all such people do, is a never-ending demonstration of power. This is so unnecessary… Being yourself and showing your real personality doesn’t mean that you will appear incompetent! And, I’m quite sure that if you behave like a machine, then in the long run, you will lose more opportunities than you can gain from this. Dealing with someone who always needs to have the last word and always knows everything best, is very energy-consuming and draining for the environment after all. I’m conscious that in many cases, women develop this persona in a reaction to the male dominant and patronizing behavior. Culture also provokes this attitude: in Western culture, traditionally male behaviors (such as wearing a suit) are typically associated with professionalism while traditionally female behaviors (such as wearing a dress) – with being casual and unprofessional. Yet still, when expressed to the extreme, this persona can bring a lot of harm in the workplace, especially to the junior female employees.

The second extreme is the enchanting, flirty, kinky girl who uses her charm and looks to build her network and influence. This is yet another way of advancing your career but only in short term — eventually, no one will take such a person seriously, namely as a contender to become an equal business partner or an authority in any discipline. Such women will always be treated as a mere scene decoration for someone else. And this is such a plague in business! I see this situation so often… Women coming to the business meeting dressed like they were attending a prom, all of a sudden raising the tone of their voice by two octaves, and behaving like sweet idiots. This is so sad to watch!

I believe there is some sweet spot exactly halfway between these two extremes in which one can just show genuine personality without building any persona, and thrive at work. We don’t need to develop an alternative personality to impress our working environment — our natural, genuine personality is just good enough. Come on, Ladies!

SOME WOMEN DON’T LET GO

From my experience, women also put very high expectations on themselves and rarely put a stop-loss on what they do. Whenever their research projects or businesses don’t work, or whenever their boss doesn’t appreciate them enough, they tend to think, “I don’t try hard enough, I need to try harder.” And then, they exert themselves with work to their very limits. From what I see, in the same situation, men tend to think, “This doesn’t work for me, so I need to change my plans. Perhaps, something better waits for me next door?” And, if they feel under-appreciated and underpaid, they start working less instead of working more — which works much better with employers. It’s a cognitive error to believe that in case you are underpaid, your situation will improve once you start to work more. In fact, nothing will change; you will only make your employer accustomed to the fact that they can get more out of you at the same price.

I don’t know what advice to give here, as I feel I had the same tendency once I was a PhD candidate. If something didn’t work, I was just putting more and more work on my shoulders — this is why I’m aware of how hard it is to fight with this cognitive error. It’s hard to take a chill pill and trust that what you do within eight hours is good enough, and if someone else had a different opinion, they are just wrong.

SOME WOMEN USE NON-EFFICIENT COPING STRATEGIES

I can also see — what makes me very sad — is that women often interpret the same situations in a very different way than men do in the same situations. Let me explain. I grad school, I witnessed a few situations in which some professor in my close research environment was aggressive towards their students. In some cases, these were passive-aggressive behaviors. Sometimes it was more of verbal aggression. In some cases, it was open aggression such as raising their voice, offensive comments, and legal threats. Anyways, all male and female PhD candidates in those labs were in exactly the same situation: they were in similar age range, they had contracts of the same length, the same salaries, and they were the same mistreated by their bosses. However, all the PhD candidates who ended up on sick leave were women.

Why was that the case? Well, from what I noticed, they were using different, less efficient coping strategies than men in this type of situation. Firstly, male PhD candidates accepted the situation much faster. They were paying attention to objectively assess their options, and they were quickly concluding that this time, they were just unlucky with their boss, they were not in a position of power. Therefore, there was no point in fighting with windmills. So, they were looking forward to finding a better boss next time. At the same time, female PhD candidates switched on the missionary mode and tried to educate or change that person. They were complaining to the department, filling complaints to the dean, and trying to seek help in the network of mentors offered by the graduate school. Most of these women had a deep belief that they were fighting not only for themselves but also for their peers and for the next PhD students to come. Unfortunately, the academic system is strictly hierarchical and quite dysfunctional. Therefore, no surprise here: they were not helped. And sometimes, it was turning quite the opposite: they were going under the scrutiny of the department. Next to losing time and nerves on taking these actions at the department, women were also spending plenty of time on complaining to each other in informal mutual support groups. At the same time, men were working towards finishing their projects as fast as possible and were actively looking for another job and another boss. As a summary, women tried to do the right thing and fix the situation, while men focused on doing things that would help them get out of the situation as fast as possible.

Secondly, men tried to mentally distance themselves from the situation as much as they could. At a beer, they would say, “So, it seems that my boss is crazy!”. They would tell anecdotes about the ridiculous things that their boss say or did, and laughed at everything. At the same time, women were turning the same anecdotes into dramatic stories, and they were bursting into tears over beers.

Thirdly, men tried to physically distance themselves from the situation. They were leaving work at 5 pm, taking vacations, and trying to physically avoid the boss as often as possible. At work, they were using a coping strategy known as the strategic appeasement, or “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” — they were very polite to their boss and nodded to everything their boss would ask them to do. But behind the boss’ back, they were spending most of their time on the things that advance their careers, and not necessarily the things that their boss would want them to do: networking, searching for other jobs, hobbies, reading about applications of their research line in industry. On the contrary, women felt that they had to “stay on the battlefield”: they were barely ever taking their vacations, and getting into confrontations with their boss at work whenever they disagreed with the person.

As a result, most women in my environment who found themselves in such a situation, experienced 1-2 year long, severe burnouts (often accompanied by suicidal thoughts) while most men just found themselves other jobs and fled without a major mental damage. The conclusion is: sometimes, accepting that you are in a weaker position, and just change the place rather than fighting, is better. At the end of the day, is it more important to be right, or to be happy? Men just choose to be happy, and perhaps, we should do too.

Come on ladies

SOME WOMEN LISTEN TO OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINION TOO MUCH AND RESIGN FROM THEIR DREAMS TOO EASILY

Once you cross 30 as a woman, then, unfortunately, everyone around you will suddenly become an expert on what you should or shouldn’t do with your life. I’m blessed to have very liberal parents who never tell me what to do or suggest anything. Yet still, friends often ask my these itchy questions such as “Aren’t you afraid that it will be too late for you?”, accompanied by tons of unwanted life advice. It seems that they feel responsible for helping me put my life on the right path — although I am on the right path already.

To some people, every woman has some responsibility towards society: she should get married before 30 (not with just anyone but with “the right guy”, which usually means someone of the same age and at the same education level, taller, earning more, etc.), have kids before 35 (because after 35, you are old, right?), be a good wife (whatever that means), and a good employee who kindly smiles to everyone in the office from behind her desk all day long. And you are supposed to cast Sunday barbecues in your garden together with other couples and their children, grin to the camera, make cute photos, and post them on Instagram to document your happiness and share your positivity with others.

Well, my life doesn’t look like this, and it doesn’t seem that this will change any time soon. Actually, the older I am, the more my life deviates from this golden standard, and I‘m starting to enjoy it. But I’m sad to see that many women bend under these expectations, and resign from what they want to do on behalf of what others expect them to do. They crush under pressure to have children in the wrong moment and resign from their careers because “they might lose their chance otherwise.” They resign from their dreams of building their own business because of the pressure to be a good wife and mother and to make everyone around them happy. They resign from their academic careers because the environment successfully persuades them that the chances are too slim, and that “it’s time to grow up.”

So, don’t let others pull you into this spiral of fear. One of the reasons why many women prematurely lose fertility is stress caused by pressure… to be fertile. One of the main reasons for women breaking their shiny careers is pressure to prioritize other people’s careers. If you have friends who put the pressure “to grow up“ on you every time you meet, just change friends. Good luck!

CONCLUSIONS / ACTIONABLE ITEMS

As mentioned above, women don’t have easy lives at work. However, I believe that many women also make their professional lives harder than they need to be. In pursuit to simplify your life, If you feel that you recognize some of the aforementioned points from your own life, I would propose to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you believe that you, as a person, have a vibrant personality and stand out from the crowd? Do you believe that your professionalism comes across when you speak about what you do in private? Do you trust that you have a natural charisma that will prompt other people to follow you at work? If not, perhaps it’s good to work on your self-confidence — as otherwise, you are in danger of (either consciously or subconsciously) developing a persona.

  2. When you feel undervalued at work, do you have a tendency to work more than you are paid for? Perhaps it would be good if you monitor yourself for a month and reflect on the reasons for working overtime every time this happens to you.

  3. What is you approach to solving conflicts at work? Perhaps it’s good to put more focus on your own well-being, and try to get out from difficult situations at work as fast as possible rather than on doing things right and “fighting for the cause.”

  4. Have you ever been worried/stressed after having a private meeting with friends because they have put some expectations on you? What was the expectation that bothered you? It’s good to identify these worrying expectations and remember than once you turn 18, you don’t have any obligations towards other people other than following the law.

Do you know about any other ways in which women sabotage their own career development? If so, please share this information with me!

DISCLAIMER

The studies on women’s attitude to other women at work mentioned in this blog post only describe statistical effects and were performed on specific groups. These results do not imply that the percentage of women who don’t support other women at work, is high.

Furthermore, many of the behaviors described here concern men too. For instance, men also tend to develop personas at work — the set of personas is a bit different than in case of women, but they are equally detrimental to coworkers. This post is dedicated solely to women, and talking about how men make their own (and others’!) lives at work harder, is a topic for yet another text!

FURTHER LITERATURE ON THE SUBJECT

[1] Rietdijk, C. (2020). Combating Sexism in Academia: Gender-specific Actionable Changes. BiomedBadass blog. Retrieved from https://biomedbadass.com/combating-sexism-in-academia/

[2] Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf. ISBN: 978-0-385-34994-9. https://www.amazon.com/Lean-Women-Work-Will-Lead/dp/0385349947

2 thoughts on “Come on, Ladies!”

  1. Hi Natalia,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking blogpost. If I may add another way in which women may be unconsciously sabotaging themselves: taking up/accepting too much ’emotional work’ and picking up unassigned tasks on the job – mostly in some kind of (instinctive? nurtured?) attempt to make everyone feel safe, welcome, heard… or out of being uncomfortable with saying no (or just saying nothing long enough until someone else picks up the unwanted task).
    I am of course talking about tasks that do not fall within the job description or at least have no name assigned to them but simply need to be done ‘by someone’. Often it is menial: setting coffee, tidying up the conference room, organizing birthday/retirement/welcome celebration, making sure the new employees feel welcomed and can ask their questions… Doing these simple tasks can become more time-consuming than first intended and either way they take time, concentration and energy away from substantial work projects. But that’s not all, they affect what people see you do and their expectations and understanding of your role in a team or company. And its a self-reinforcing image: by doing these tasks you signal to your colleagues, bosses, clients… that you are willing to do it; that you are the person to ask these things from – de facto devaluating your professional position.
    I forgot the reference to the study, but I read a while back that an experiment found that – when the question of who is going to do an unwanted task is left hanging in a group, women feel compelled to cave faster than men E.g. if someone remarks that ‘after the event, the conference room should be cleared and tidied while the clients attend the reception’, none of the employees will receive credit or benefit in any kind from taking up this improper task and no-one wants to do it – but women will cave faster to the uncomfortable silence compared to their male colleagues.
    Keep up the good work on your blog, I am enjoying its value!

    1. Hi Isabelle,

      thank you so much for reading, and for your wonderful insights! It is so true… I feel I committed lots of caving myself in my PhD and afterwards. Women often adapt caving behaviors hoping that one day, their efforts will pay of and that they will be appreciated members of the community but more often than not, it turns against them, as they just let their bosses get accustomed to the fact that they can get extra work for free. And that’s a huge mistake… as it also puts you in a position of a servant (as you mentioned) and changes other prople’s perception of you.

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