Powerful women know how to flip feminine stereotypes to their advantage.
There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.
What you haven’t heard about much is the way successful women overcome this form of gender bias. I have interviewed about 200 women over the years in my research on gender and the workplace, and they all employ a similar set of strategies for escaping the likability trap. One former chief executive described hers this way: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraced a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom — but flipped it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward. I call it gender judo.
Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.
This version of masculinity maps perfectly onto what we expect from leaders, in business and politics. Women in leadership need to display these “masculine” qualities, but when they do they risk being seen as bad women, and also as bad people. So savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).
Other research finds that women make a similar finesse while negotiating. Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation. (“It wasn’t clear to me whether this salary offer represents the top of the pay range.”) When Sheryl Sandberg negotiated for what no doubt was an outlandishly high compensation package at Facebook, she told Mark Zuckerberg: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” She turned a salary negotiation (competitive and ambitious) into a touching testimony of team loyalty.
Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?
When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.
For women who want to master this strategy, the first step is to behave as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens. If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.If it is, try doing something masculine in a feminine way. Think of femininity as a tool kit, and choose something that feels authentic to you. But don’t choose deference. One study found that women who used a submissive conversational style, apologizing and hedging, just undercut themselves.
The most common anti-backlash strategy I found in the women I interviewed was to mix authoritativeness and warmth. “I got feedback I was intimidating, so I would make sure that I got to know people, and before a meeting I would share something personal to make myself more approachable,” one woman, who is now a chief executive, told me.
Some women use metaphors to recode behavior that is coded as masculine. A woman responsible for winning new clients at a major consulting firm, where rainmakers were called “hunters,” told me she rejected that label. “I always said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a gardener. I grow things,’” she told me. Just another dame who loves to nurture.
Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display. “For me, it’s pink lipstick,” one woman told me. She is the lone female member of the board of a public company.
In the most sophisticated form of this strategy, powerful women create an entirely new narrative, softening their hard-driving personas by highlighting that they are also communal, selfless mothers. A brilliant recent example is M.J. Hegar’s 2018 congressional campaign video. In it, a battered door — all that’s left of the helicopter she was shot down in while on an Air Force rescue mission — is tucked behind her dining table, where she sits contentedly with her family.
This is all a lot of hard work, and it’s work that men don’t have to do. Men, to be successful, just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.
What’s the solution? Organizations have to be vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to do this in the first place. The workplace is often structured in ways that reward behavior that’s considered socially appropriate in white men but socially inappropriate in women and people of color. This provides an invisible escalator for white men.
The goal is not to empower women to be as emotionally tone deaf and grabby as men are sometimes encouraged to be. Instead, we should work to make sure that both men and women are rewarded for displaying empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self-interest. These qualities have long been undervalued in work and in political life because they have been coded as feminine, and the world needs much more of them.
Robert Reich explains why Ayn Rand’s ideas have destroyed the common good.
Donald Trump once said he identified
with ayan rands character Howard Roark
in The Fountainhead an architect so
upset that a housing project he designed
didn’t meet specifications
he had it dynamited others in Trump
Circle were influenced by Rand Atlas
Shrugged was said to be the favorite
book of Rex Tillerson Trump Secretary of
State’s Randa also had a major influence
on Mike Pompeo from CIA chief Trump’s
first nominee for Secretary of Labor
Andrew Posner said he spent much of his
free time reading Rand the Republican
leader of the House of Representatives
required his staff to read Rams I grew
up reading Iran it inspired me so much
that it’s required waiting in my office
for all my interns of my staff Uber’s
founder and former CEO Travis kalanick
has described himself as a ran follower
before he was sacked he applied many of
her ideas to obras code of values and
even used the cover art for rands book
The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar
so who is iron Rand and why does she
matter line Rand best known for two
highly popular novels still widely read
today The Fountainhead
published in 1943 an Atlas Shrugged
in 1957 didn’t believe there was a
common good she wrote that selfishness
is a virtue an altruism an evil that
destroys nations when Rand offered these
ideas they seemed quaint
if not far-fetched anyone who lived
through the prior half-century witnessed
our interdependence through depression
and war and after the war we used our
seemingly boundless prosperity to
finance all sorts of public goods
schools and universities a national
highway system and health care for the
Aged and poor we rebuilt war-torn Europe
we sought to guarantee the civil rights
and voting rights of African Americans
we open doors of opportunity to women
of course there was a common good we
were living it
but then starting in the late 1970s
rands views gained ground she became the
intellectual godmother of modern-day
American conservatism this utter
selfishness this contempt for the public
this win at any cost mentality is it
roading American life without adherence
to a set of common notions about right
and wrong we’re living in a jungle where
only the strongest cleverest and most
unscrupulous get ahead and where
everyone must be wary in order to
survive this is not a society it’s not
even a civilization because there’s no
civility at its core it’s a disaster in
other words we have to understand who I
am Rand is so we can reject her
philosophy and dedicate ourselves to
rebuilding the common good the idea of
the common good was once widely
understood and accepted in America I
mean after all the US Constitution was
designed for We the People seeking to
promote the general welfare not for me
the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth
and power as possible yet today you find
growing evidence of its loss
- CEOs who
couch their customers loot their
corporations into fraud investors
- lawyers and accountants who look the
other way when corporate clients play
fast and loose
- who even collude with
them to skirt the law
- Wall Street
bankers who defraud customers and investors
- film producers and publicists
who choose not to see that a powerful
movie mogul they depend on is sexually
harassing and abusing young women
- politicians who take donations really
bribes from wealthy donors and corporations to enact laws their patrons
- shudder the government when they
don’t get the partisan results they seek
- president of the United States who
repeatedly lies about important issues
refuses to put his financial holdings
into a blind trust and then personally
profits off his office and Momence
racial and ethnic
conflict the common good consists of our
shared values about what we owe one
another as citizens or bound together in
the same society a concern for the
common good keeping the common good in
mind is a moral attitude it recognizes
that we’re all in it together if there
is no common good
there is no society
I live at the intersection of politics and religion. . . . My faith impels me into the public square. It is abundantly clear that Pope Francis is correct when he says that faith has real consequences in the world . . . and these consequences involve politics. . . .
.. At NETWORK, we often say that our care for the common good is care for “the 100%” instead of the 99% or the 1%. . . .
.. God is alive in all. No one can be left out of my care. Therefore this political work is anchored in caring for those whom we lobby as well as those whose cause we champion. This was illustrated for me . . . when I was with four of my colleagues lobbying a Republican Senator on healthcare legislation. I commented on the story of a constituent and asked her how her colleagues could turn their eyes away from the suffering and fear of their people. . . .
She said that many of her colleagues . . . did not get close to the candid stories of their people. In fact, some did not see these constituents as “their people.” Tears sprang to my eyes at her candor and the pain that keeps us sealed off from each other because of political partisanship.
.. our position “for the 100%” requires an empathy that stretches my being beyond my imagining. Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom.
Waiting periods, decried by American pro-choicers as infantilizing and unreasonably burdensome, are common in Western Europe.
.. In Germany, women seeking first-trimester abortions are subject to a mandatory three-day waiting period and a counseling session. Abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are forbidden except in cases of grave threat to the mother’s physical or mental health.
.. The Netherlands mandates a five-day waiting period between initial consultation and abortion; clinics must provide women with information about abortion alternatives. Abortion is then legal until viability (legally defined as 24 weeks, usually interpreted as 22 weeks).
In Belgium, where abortion was illegal until 1990, there’s a six-day waiting period and the woman must claim to be in “a state of distress” before receiving a first-trimester abortion.
.. In Finland (home of the now-famous Finnish baby boxes and other enviable government benefits), abortion is available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless the woman is under 17 years old, in which case she may have an abortion until she’s 20 weeks pregnant. But even for early abortions, women must provide a “social reason” for seeking to terminate her pregnancy, such as poverty, extreme distress, or already having at least four children.
.. In Denmark, abortion is available on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Afterward, exceptions are made for cases of rape, threats to the woman’s physical or mental health, risk of fetal defects, and — revealingly — in cases where the woman can demonstrate lack of financial resources to care for a child.
.. Eastern Europe, a stronghold of liberal abortion laws under Communism, has become increasingly strict of late. Russia recently passed a law restricting abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and Russian clinics are also now forced to give (medically dubious) warnings about the health risks of abortion, which supposedly include cancer and infertility.
.. So why are Europe’s abortion laws not as libertine and laissez-faire as our stereotypes about those countries might suggest?
Here’s one way of looking at the difference between abortion laws in Europe and those in the U.S.: in America, abortion laws are about morality, while in Europe, they reflect national ideas of what constitutes the common good.
.. In America, anti-abortion activists and politicians construe abortion as a clear-cut moral issue: “abortion is murder,” “I am a person, not a choice,” “It’s not right versus left, it’s right versus wrong,” etc. Exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother are political concessions, not morally consistent positions.
.. If you believe fetuses are people and abortion is murder, why would you think the murder of a person conceived in rape is more okay than the murder of a person conceived in a happy marriage?.. In Russia and other Eastern European countries with steeply declining populations, new abortion restrictions are explicitly aimed at boosting birth rates. The same is true of Israel, perhaps less explicitly. The Israeli restrictions on abortion have more to do with the idea that, as Roni Abramson writes in Haaretz, “The Jewish womb belongs to the Jewish people.” The baby of a married Jewish woman is considered a gain for the country that’s concerned about maintaining a Jewish majority in the region, so aborting is a social harm... So what are the countries with the most liberal abortion laws? Canada is a decent candidate, with abortion available on-demand, paid for by Canadian Medicare in most provinces. Though there is no federal criminal law governing abortion at any phase of pregnancy, in practice it is extremely difficult to find a doctor or facility willing to provide abortions past 20 weeks... In the end, though, the least restrictive country is probably China, where abortion is completely legal (and often encouraged, to combat overpopulation) throughout pregnancy.