The Double-Edged Sword

It’s official – women are having a hard time advancing to the upper ranks of corporate leadership. Doesn’t feel like breaking news, does it? Sadly, we remain in a demoralizing holding pattern that reflects years of stalled upward advancement for female professionals.

McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org just released another affirmation of this reality in their Women In The Workplace report. Based on data analysis of HR records from 132 companies, along with a survey of 34,000 professionals on the topics of gender, opportunity, career and work-life balance, the report concludes that women often fall behind their male counterparts early in their careers and stay a step behind throughout. They are less likely to be promoted to manager, citing that for every 100 women promoted to the all-important first manager role, 130 men are promoted. When it comes to bringing in outside talent, companies find room more often for men than women, notably in senior management hirings. No wonder the highest ranks of companies are, at best, 20% female.

If you’ve been a reader of DailyWorkLife, you’ll note the issue of women’s minor representation in leadership ranks as a common theme. In my view, it is one of the most important calamities facing public and private progress, this lack of equal representation of half the world’s population. It’s obviously seen as a critical issue judging by the scores of reports by the likes of McKinsey, Deloitte, Catalyst and others. It’s spurred oceans of copy in publications and billions of dollars in research and aid. Yet we are still talking about it as an imbalance yet to be remedied.

Perhaps all this outward proclamation hides some painful realities that no diversity program or Board efforts can address. Perhaps we need to be clear about the double-edged sword placed upon working women, or all women for that matter.

Per the Women In The Workplace study, 46% of men receive difficult constructive feedback from their managers while slightly more than a third of women do. When asked, managers themselves report the discrepancy is driven by concern over women’s emotional reactions to hard truths or fear of being perceived as mean or hurtful to their female employees. Difficult feedback delivered well can spur true growth for subordinates. Holding this back creates career blind spots that become difficult to overcome later on.

The study also found that women who negotiate for a raise or promotion are 30% more likely than their male counterparts to be seen as intimidating or bossy and 67% more troublesome than women who do nothing.

These findings point at the heart of a double-edged sword held over women: the belief that women must be both highly proficient AND able to conduct themselves within acceptable parameters. What do I mean by acceptable? Supportive, concerned with others before self, patient, sensitive, humble. Otherwise, her flaws have very specific titles: Ambitious, Single Minded, Power Hungry, Aggressive, Outpsoken. If a woman actively advocates for herself she risks being seen negatively; a bossy, nasty bitch. If she seeks honest dialogue about her performance and behavior, there is a fear she cannot take it or will resort to emotionally inappropriate reactions. These are assumptions made by both men and women, which underlines how insidious the expectations of female behavior are in the world. They show that women are seen as women first, individual human beings second. Until the frame changes, until women can be viewed primarily as unique individuals, such assumptions and stereotypes will continue to erode their ability to advance in equal measure with men.

Removing the double-edged sword is a universal effort, since it has universal impact. Tactical programs and frank talk about work-life balance, especially during the child rearing years, matters a great deal. So does helping women recognize the ingrained expectations we carry within and dissolving the grip these expectations hold over how freely we move in the world. Pretending that access to the Big Game means automatic fair play for all is naïve. You can’t fully participate if your field of vision is rendered narrower than other players. We deserve an equal place at the top, regardless of how bossy we need to become to get there.

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