Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women are not lesser than men, no matter what Harvard Business Review says

Recently a friend of mine posted the article "Women Need to Realize Work Isn't School" from the Harvard Business Review.  Chelle & I are both interested in women's rights (which is why we included those themes in our novel VEILED), so the article's title had me intrigued. However, from its opening paragraph, I was irate.

Feel free to read the article for yourself, but if you have high blood pressure, I recommend you let me sum it up for you:

Women make up 51.4% of middle managers, but only 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs.  This is all women's fault because they don't know how to navigate the business world properly. If they only followed these five steps, there would be equality right away (but silly women, they just don't seem to want to!).

The five steps are:

1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority.
2. Prepare, but also learn to improvise.
3. Find effective forms of self-promotion.
4. Welcome a less prescribed, full of surprise, career path.
5. Go for being respected, not just liked.

Now, I proudly call myself a feminist (because I'm for equal rights of women--I hope you'd proudly consider yourself a feminist too), but you don't have to run out and buy a shirt declaring "This is what a Feminist looks like" to see that there are horrible--and absolutely damaging--assumptions built into this article.  In fact, it's these very same sexist assumptions that are the real root of why women lag way behind men in positions of power.

Let's go through just the ones that jumped out at me first.

First, the entire premise of the article is that the reason women lag behind men in positions of power is because women are in some way doing something wrong. There is absolutely no consideration that the disparity between women at the top (4.2%) versus men (95.8%) might be at least partly due to, I don't know, the actions of men.  I know people don't like to discuss it,  but there is still very real overt sexism out there--especially in the business world. I ran across it all the time when I was still a practicing attorney, and every single female attorney I've spoken to has encountered it too.

When we were both starting out as young attorneys, my husband was never: (1) asked in a job interview if he thought he would be able to "keep up with the men," (2) asked to do clearly secretarial tasks, or (3) confused with the court reporter (at a deposition, the deponent came up to me and said, "And I know who you are--you must be the court reporter!" because I was the only female in the room.  This was even though I was wearing a nice suit and the actual court reporter was in front of his keyboard. I shook the man's hand, smiled, and informed him that, in fact, I'd be the attorney deposing him.)  I could go on, but I'll spare you.

So the fact that this article doesn't even consider that a good portion of the disparity could be due to the hiring decisions made by the old men handing out promotions should, right there, tell you to disregard the article.

But wait, it gets worse.  The article goes on to basically argue that the reason women can't get ahead is because they focus too much on being competent at their jobs rather than jockeying for attention and respect from their peers.  They're not assertive or risk-taking enough.

To this I have two responses:

First, it has been proven in social psychological experiments over and over that when women act with the same amount of assertiveness as men, they are judged far more harshly for their behavior.  Without even realizing it, people will see men as acting "assertively" while women doing the precise same thing are more often described as "bitchy."  On the other hand, if women are more friendly, then they are judged as being pushovers--the precise judgment being levied against them by the Harvard Business Review.  Women *cannot* win.  However, rather than acknowledging this, the Harvard Business Review does the precise thing that perpetuates this sort of inequality: blaming the victim.

[BTW, if you'd like to read a discussion of gender differences in business from a publication that actually sites data or sources, I highly recommend the European Business Review's discussion on the topic.]

Secondly, let's assume for a moment that it's true that women aren't as assertive as men. Let's assume that there's some sort of biological imperative that causes women to focus more on doing good work rather than jockeying for attention and respect from their peers. Why is the conclusion, then, that *women* should change to gain equality? It seems to me that we might have, say, avoided that whole financial crash in 2008 if business leaders were more focused on the quality of their work rather than looking for a new angle to get ahead.  Maybe it's the patriarchal system that should change to include the values of women rather than women who should be forced to cram their interpersonal style into the mold men have made for us.

There are a lot of systematic changes that need to be made in both our business culture and our society at large to get us to a point of equality between men and women.  But do you know what would be a good first step?  No longer blaming the victim and assuming that to the extent women aren't getting ahead, it's all their fault.

1 comment:

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