Tightrope-walking and "gender judo": What women have to do to get ahead

Author Joan Williams on the biases that hold women back, and how to fight them

Published March 20, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Joan Williams
Joan Williams

Joan Williams doesn't just study the gender double standard -- she's experienced it firsthand. In the preface of her new book, "What Works for Women at Work," she writes of the years she spent being disliked for her outspokenness at work, while men who acted similarly were praised: "I was a selfish prima donna. They were smart and quirky."

And when Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, started looking at research on women in the workplace, she found this experience mirrored again and again. "What Works for Women at Work" distills this research, and firsthand interviews with women, into four types of bias, which Williams calls "Prove It Again" (women are forced to demonstrate their worth over and over), "Tightrope" (they walk a perilous path between being "too masculine" and "too feminine"), "Maternal Wall" (they face discrimination when they have kids), and "Tug of War" (their strategies for succeeding in a sexist workplace can pit them against each other). She also offers strategies for combating each type.

The result is perhaps less optimistic than "Lean In" -- Williams notes that sometimes bias just can't be overcome, and includes advice for deciding when to leave. But it's also far more specific -- those who found the advice in Sandberg's book contradictory or unclear may find "What Works" a better guide. And it specifically addresses how racial and gender bias can intersect, using interviews with a group of women of color in science.

Williams also didn't work alone -- her coauthor was her daughter, Rachel Dempsey. Together, the two were able to address some of the generational conflicts that emerge among women at work -- from younger women's frustration that their elders don't help them more, to older women's fear of being judged for their choices. I talked to Williams about these conflicts, the infamous "mommy wars," and her advice for women -- and men -- who want to change the status quo.

What did you feel was the biggest difference between your experience at work and the experiences your daughter and women of her generation have had?

I very consciously chose to write this book with someone of Rachel’s generation because I think that when women my age give advice it often alienates the women we’re trying to help. And I think that the generations tend to differ in a patterned way. When I came up, my attitude was: “I’m going to do everything the boys do 10 times better.” Because I knew that if I didn’t, I would be crushed like a beetle. I was in the second entering class of women at Yale. We were at the very long tail of drivenness, the women among us who survived in these careers.

In Rachel’s generation a much broader range of women enter traditionally male careers, and you know what? That’s success. But that also means that, from the point of view of my generation, a lot of the women entering traditionally male careers are a lot savvier and a lot more conventional than we ever were. And if we say to those women, “Just be a tomboy just like me,” they look up at us and go, “Well, you just turned into a man. Can you explain why I might want that? I don’t.” This is what Rachel calls “genderational conflict” and I hear it all the time.

It’s really important for women my age to remember that women younger, their experience is simply different. That’s what we worked for. But I also think it’s important for younger women who feel like older women aren’t supporting them enough to realize that the older women often don’t have as much power as the younger women think they do. That the older women are still navigating every single one of the four patterns of gender bias.

One thing that I think really fuels misunderstandings between older and younger women is that often older women are not advertising their challenges as mothers because they’re covering in order not to trigger this extremely strong "Maternal Wall" bias. But then younger women look up at the older women and since the older women aren’t advertising their experiences as mothers, the younger women write off the experience of the older women as completely irrelevant. Another classic example of how gender bias against women fuels conflict among women.

You write that we might wish the world of work were fair, but it isn’t. So women end up having to do these things that men don’t really have to do. What's your advice for not feeling defeated by that unfairness?

I’m someone who’s been working for 20 years to try and change organizations and they just aren’t changing fast. And so my feeling is that women need strategies to navigate organizations as they are rather than as we wish they were. And at some level that’s a sorry commentary. But if women need those kinds of strategies I’m going to provide them with some.

You also talk about "Prove It Again" bias -- this pressure that women face to prove their worth over and over. How can women do that without getting totally burned out?

There’s no one global answer to that. One of the things that I found most sobering is that I assumed that women would have "Prove It Again" problems early in their careers and then that those would dissipate and maybe disappear as they got older. And that didn’t happen. Women have "Prove It Again" problems from the beginning of their careers until the end of their careers.

First of all, you see highly placed women abruptly losing corporate jobs, much more abrupt, and one wonders what’s going on there. And one wonders if a mistake, even in a highly placed woman, somehow counts more than in a highly placed man?

When I was coming up, I knew the standard for tenure was to write two articles, so I wrote eight. And I think women are still doing that, because they understand at some molecular level that they’re going to have to really shine in order even to qualify.

Is this fair? No. This isn’t fair. One important message to women is if you think this is happening, it’s not that you’re crazy. The second important message is if you feel like you’re working so hard that you hate the job you’re doing and you just want to escape, then you’re not in the right place. Although roughly two-thirds of the highly accomplished women I talked to had encountered "Prove It Again" bias, one-third had not. So walking papers are a good option in some contexts. We also provide some very concrete strategies for women given that they know that sometimes their successes will be overlooked and their mistakes focused on — concrete ways they can counter that kind of bias.

What are some of those strategies?

Well, if people are going to tend to overlook your successes and focus on your mistakes, you need to keep careful real-time records of all objective metrics that you’ve met and, to the extent that you can, important compliments that you receive so you can trot them out in an appropriate context. The important accompanying strategy is what I call the “posse”: to form a group of women and men who celebrate each other's accomplishments. So, for example, I was talking yesterday to a reporter about a study showing that women academics cite themselves less than men do and that it has an overall depressive effect on the number of citations that women have. And the reason they do, of course, is that a woman who cites herself is a shameless self-promoter whereas a man just knows his own worth. That’s “Tightrope" bias.

But what I recommend — of course, organizations should change; let’s move on to the second recommendation — is that at an early stage women get to know other people in their fields and very purposely round up a posse. Just say, “I think your work is fabulous. I’ll cite you and I hope you’ll do the same for me.” Because what’s more appropriate in a woman than selflessly celebrating someone else's success, especially that of a man? That’s what I call “gender judo.”

When you talked specifically to women of color, what were some of the differences you found between the bias that they face and what white women experience?

I think this is really the awesomest part because there is an important conversation going on about race in this country. There’s also an important conversation around gender. My job is to make sure that the conversation around gender is a conversation around gender, not around white women.

Let’s just start with "Prove It Again": Black women, even once they’ve reached very high levels of organizations, feel they can’t afford to make a single mistake. Talk about exhausting. No wonder women my age are utterly exhausted. On the other hand, Asian-American women — one woman said explicitly that she tried to make sure she was seen as Asian rather than as a woman because being seen as Asian helped her, whereas being seen as a woman hurt her. Although that was one woman. Many more of the Asian women who were interviewed reported that they were seen as passive and docile, and that raised, in my mind, the question of whether the "model minority" stereotype is chiefly a stereotype that benefits Asian-American men, rather than Asian-American women.

On the "Tightrope," more really fascinating differences: First of all, all women face large loads of what we call the “office housework.”  Whether that’s baking cupcakes and arranging parties, answering the phones, or whether it’s remaining service partners in law firms, all of that is office housework and all women face that. What was striking among the women in science — and keep in mind, there were two differences: These were women of color and women in science — but the women of color in science I talked to were asked to do really low-level administrative work of the sort that I’ve never heard a white woman describe, such as literally scheduling meetings and acting as an administrative assistant. This is a Ph.D. science professor. The office housework is universal but what it means differs by race.

One of the striking things found both in experimental studies, and I confirmed it in my study, is that African-American women often, not all the time but often, are allowed to behave in more dominant ways than white women before they meet pushback. Although, of course, at a certain point they’re "angry black women" and then God help them. Latinas appeared to have more “too feminine” problems rather than too masculine problems. They often felt constrained about dress. The Latinas were more likely to talk about avoiding loud colors because they didn’t want to trigger stereotypes of Latinas and one woman even said, “If you dressed well, you weren’t taken seriously."

One other striking difference was that the women of color were far more gentle in their judgments of the older generations of women than white women. White women just went after each other more often than the women of color. Women of color were incredibly understanding, even of some very tactless things that older mentors had done to them, saying, “I know they were just trying to help.” Women of color often have a political consciousness that is less common among white women.

A lot of the examples you cite are female scientists and women in corporate jobs. How does the kind of bias you write about play out with women in more working-class occupations?

What I know is not based on original research but based on the literature. But the working-class women in traditionally male jobs — blue-collar jobs — the bias seems to be breathtaking and take the form of very severe sexual harassment that can go as far as loosening the screw on a tool so when a woman tries to use it, it puts her eye out. I would assume that the four patterns of bias also show up against working-class women. But one of the reason most of those blue-collar jobs are still over 90 percent male is because of the extraordinary level of very, very severe sexual harassment.

You give a lot of advice to women in the book, but what advice would you give to men working with women, to help them avoid feeding into these biases?

Well, two bits of advice for men. The first is that caregiver bias is actually even stronger for men than it is for women. So if a man has a child and doesn’t have caregiving responsibility and his caregiving responsibilities aren’t salient on the job — or aren’t disclosed on the job — then having a child helps him. But if a man has a child and tries to take parental leave, I mean, look what happened to Josh Levs, right? And we run a hotline [at the] Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, for people who encounter family responsibility discrimination. So we’re now getting lots of calls from men in Josh Levs' situation. Lots. So "Maternal Wall" bias is really caregiver bias and it affects any man with the temerity to make caregiving responsibilities evident on the job.

The other way, though, that men — I think this is more what you were asking — is that this book is really important, as Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her foreword, for men to read. There are a lot of men in corporate America who feel that they really have tried hard to retain and advance women and they are frankly confused and confounded about why women simply don’t advance to the higher ranks. And up to now, about all that they have is the Implicit Association Test and trainings that say, “Oh golly, everyone is biased.” That actually doesn’t provide them with very much useful information.

This book provides them with very concrete ways of seeing the bias as it happens and very concrete ways to interrupt it. For example, a man sits in a room where a committee is looking through piles of résumés and men are being judged on their potential, women on their achievements, or any other double standards are being applied. He can just say, “Gee, you know, I think we finally understood what we’re looking for so let’s go back to the top of the pile and make sure we’ve picked up everyone who has it.” It’s a very nonconfrontational way to interrupt "Prove It Again" bias.

This book is very much also written for men who are mentors, sponsors, allies of women. I think there’s a large group of men who sincerely feel that they are working hard to advance women and they need to read this book to find out exactly what works for women, which is very different often than what works for men. So, if a man is a sponsor of a woman and he’s telling her, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel. I never did, and it’s served me well,” that actually may be poor advice because it’s important that she not hide her light under a bushel, but she may need to use gender judo as she does that.

What are the systemic things we as a society can do to change these kinds of biases?

I have a very clear picture of how I think organizations need to change. Unfortunately, they only need to do two things and most of them are doing neither one of them. The first step is the hours problem. Full-time in most of these jobs is over 50 hours a week. Only 9 percent of American mothers work over 50 hours a week during the key years of career advancement. So unless employers address the hours problem we are not going to have equal representation of women at the top. Period. The second thing employers need to do is interrupt implicit bias, and that does not mean a single training on the implicit association test. What it means is they need to redesign their basic business system to interrupt bias, and this book shows how to do it.

This book provides a concrete description of the way these biases play out in workplace interactions—in hiring, in assignments, in promotion, and in compensation. And one of the major initiatives of the Center for WorkLife Law now is to work with employers to redesign basic business systems to interrupt implicit bias. It sounds a lot harder than it is. There are some very simple hacks that should be used, that could be used and that we hope will be used. And that’s what we are working on now.

What are some of those hacks?

The simplest to describe is if men are going to be judged on their potential, and women on their achievements, you design your performance evaluations to ask first about potential of all candidates and then about achievements of all candidates. You control for the bias. These are not complicated and you don’t even have to talk about the existence of bias in order to implement many of them. But nobody’s taking that approach that we’re aware of.

Why do you think nobody's taking it?

Nobody has ever, that I’m aware of, taken this entire literature and asked women: “Does this describe your experience?” Corporate America has been very focused on the implicit association test, and that’s a very good first step. But the implicit association test doesn’t tell you what, concretely, you’re trying to interrupt. It just measures the bias that’s there. It doesn’t say, “OK, look for the potential versus achievement. Control for that problem.” It doesn’t do that. I’m sort of a network broker between the social psychologists and corporate America. It’s a different approach.

Anything else that you want to mention about the book that we didn’t touch on?

I guess I would just say about the "Tug of War," it really also entails a pass-through of the three other types of bias. There was a study of legal secretaries a while back that found that most didn’t care whether they worked for a man or a woman, but [of] those who had a preference, not one expressed preference for working with a woman.

And one of the secretaries said, “Women lawyers,” and this is not an exact quote but, “they’re so paranoid about making mistakes that they’re incredibly picayune.” In other words, the women lawyers are passing through "Prove It Again" bias.

And then mommy wars are just a pass-through of "Maternal Wall" bias. I can’t tell you, every time I give a speech, young women come up to me and talk about the mommy wars. And the last thing I’ll say, on the mommy wars, often it’s women my age talking to women your age or Rachel’s and saying, “I don’t understand what the big deal is. I work full-time and my kids are fine.” And it’s a classic difficult conversation because those women’s identities are at risk. "If younger women take a long leave or a career break, am I really a good mother? I had it all figured out. I had to do what I had to do to be taken seriously and my kids are fine." And then younger women raise the question of: well, maybe you didn’t have to do that. So the older woman’s identity as a good mother is on the line and so is the younger woman’s identity as a good worker. So the older woman is calling the younger woman a bad worker and the younger woman is calling the older woman a bad mother. Are we having fun yet? No wonder these women have trouble supporting each other. 

By Anna North

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