By Joan C. Williams
University of California, Hastings College of the Law
Fifty years after discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed, women have made tremendous progress moving into high-level careers, but the glass ceiling still exists, only it rests on different support mechanisms than the past.
Prior to 1964, newspapers listed men’s and women’s jobs separately, and it was legal to exclude women from high-paying jobs, promotions, and pay raises. Since then, women have increased their representation in high-level jobs, yet relatively few women make it to the very top. Women comprise only 15 percent of law firm equity partners and 23 percent of full professors. At the current rate of hiring, it would take 278 years for equal numbers of men and women to be CEOs.
While outright discrimination is illegal, office politics are still shaped by subtle biases, forcing women to be more accomplished—and savvier—than men to survive and thrive in high-level jobs. A new collection of interviews published last month with highly successful women in business, science and law confirm the large body of research suggesting that getting ahead involves more than “leaning in.” It requires women to navigate four distinct patterns of bias.
- Prove-It-Again! The default image of a hard-driving banker, litigator or engineer is of a man. To be rated as equally capable, women need to show more evidence of competence than men. Nearly two-thirds of the 127 female leaders we interviewed reported seeing this pattern, with men hired on their “potential” and women required to have a much more extensive track record.
- The Tightrope. Women in high status jobs can be penalized either for being too feminine or too masculine. Even in powerful and responsible positions, women reported feeling pressure to take notes, bake cupcakes, and fill helpmeet roles (e.g. servicing other partners’ clients instead of developing their own). When they engaged in such activities, this not only took up valuable time. They also undercut their credibility. Yet women who refused were often regarded as hostile or were seen as “not team players.” This pattern was reported more than any other—nearly all of those interviewed experienced it.
- The Maternal Wall. Motherhood triggers the strongest form of gender bias, with both supervisors and co-workers assuming that women’s commitment and productivity falls off when they become mothers. Said one lawyer, “I traveled all the time, I was in the court all the time. [But] I missed one meeting because I had to take my child to the emergency room, and that kept getting highlighted in my evaluations…year after year.”
- Tug of War Loyalty Conflicts. Some observers deny that these problems are real issues of gender discrimination since female business leaders may be even tougher on their own sex than their male colleagues. This is often attributed to the personality problems of “Queen Bees.” But new studies and our interviews show that tugs of war originate in workplaces where aligning with men against other women represents the best – and sometimes the only – chance for one individual woman to move up. Here are some of the ways this works:
- Zero Sum Tugs of War. When women receive the message that there’s room for only one woman at the top, this breeds a destructive competition where some women target other women to ensure that they receive the one “woman’s” position.
- Pass-It-Along Tugs of War. Some women who have made sacrifices to prove themselves resent the idea that other women may not have to work as hard. “I’m going 900 mph, and if you can’t keep up with me, the hell with you,” remarked one highly accomplished woman, describing her harsh judgment of women who could not solve the prove-it-again problem by continuously exceeding expectations.
- Tightrope Tugs of War. Women who embrace their feminine side often criticize women who fit in by being “one of the boys.” But other colleagues sometimes feel that women who emphasize their femininity are perpetuating stereotypes that should be challenged. These differences often fuel conflict among women.
Our research included 71 interviews with women of color, and their answers revealed some of the ways the experience of gender bias differs by race.
- Some black women interviewed reported they could not afford to make a single mistake, a fear validated by a lab study documenting that black women are penalized more harshly for failure than are white women, white men, and black men. Yet others found that stereotypes about angry black women could work in their favor, giving them more space to behave in dominant ways than white women are allowed—another finding confirmed by a lab study.
- Latinas faced both strong negative assumptions about their competence along with pressure to play subordinate mothering roles.
- Asian-American women’s situation was complicated. “I’m more acceptable as an Asian woman scientist than as a woman scientist,” one woman observed, suggesting that Asian-Americans may have an easier time proving their intellectual competence than other women. Yet Asian-American women who contradict the stereotypes of pliability and submissiveness often encounter virulent stereotypes of Asians as crafty or become seen as “dragon ladies.”
For Further Information
For further information on these patterns and accounts of the strategies successful women use to navigate through them, see What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, which Williams co-wrote with her daughter Rachel Dempsey. Contact: Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor, Hastings Foundation Chair, Director, Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Williams@uchastings.edu; cell: 202-365-8013 or Rachel Dempsey, Yale Law Student; Rachel.W.Dempsey@gmail.com; cell: 202-250-1053.