What Works for Women at Work
I never got more than a couple of dozen pages into Sandberg’s Lean In, but I’ve just finished Williams and Dempsey’s What Works for Women at Work and loved it. Drawing on a ton of research and interviews, they put forward four concrete patterns, quoted below:
Prove-It-Again! is exactly what it sounds like: women have to prove themselves over and over again much more so than men in order to be seen as equally competent. Prove-It-Again! is descriptive bias that stems from assumptions about the typical woman.
The Tightrope is prescriptive bias, which stems from assumptions about how women should behave. The Tightrope describes a double bind: women often find that if they behave in traditionally feminine ways, they exacerbate Prove-It-Again! problems; but if they behave in traditionally masculine ways, they are seen as lacking social skills.
The Maternal Wall consists of both descriptive bias, in the form of strong negative competence and commitment assumptions triggered by motherhood, and presctive bias—disapproval on the grounds that mothers should be at home or working fewer hours. Women with children are routinely pushed to the margins of the professional world.
The Tug of War occurs as each women tries to navigate her own path between assimilating into masculine traditions and resisting them. Women’s different strategies divide them. Some women are tomboys, who just need access: all they want to do is to play the game as the boys play it. Other women want to preserve more of the traditions of femininity. Women’s different strategies often pit them against each other, as do workplaces that communicate that there’s room for only one woman. All of these pressures often lead women to judge each other on what’s the right way to be a woman.
If I ever teach an undergrad software engineering course again, this is going to be required reading. I don’t expect it will be news to the women in the class (though it might give them terminology for their lived experience), but I hope it will help men like my younger self to realize what they’re doing wrong and how it’s harmful.