One of the notable studies Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explores in her popular 2013 book “Lean In” is “The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” a report by research group Catalyst that explores the many paradoxes professional women face in their careers.
According to the report, women leaders in Western nations are either “too soft or too tough;” they face “higher standards and lower rewards;” and are “perceived as competent or likable, but never both.”
The degree to which these stereotypes and biases exist is directly proportional to how many women are in a workplace. If there are fewer women in the office, there will likely be more stereotypes and biases that hold women back.
Business Insider pored through the report and “Lean In” to pinpoint some of the most common Catch-22s professional women still face.
1. If women don’t aspire to reach the next level, they won’t get ahead — but being openly ambitious often holds women back, since it can be seen as aggressive.
What happens: “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty,” Sandberg writes, citing the findings of a 2007 study by Madeline E. Heilman and Tyler G. Okimoto. For example, a female manager’s likability often goes down as her ambition rises, which results in a drop in her employees’ and colleagues’ willingness to work with her.
What you can do: Catalyst interviewed executives who recommended that women don’t curb their ambition, but instead remain steadfast in their goals and find a mentor to ally themselves with. “I think the most effective female leaders I’ve seen are women who cannot lose their personality, but remain focused on their performance and the task at hand and know how to do it, without any of the crap that goes along with a lot of other people and how they do it right,” an American executive tells Catalyst.
2. If women don’t actively participate in meetings, they may go unnoticed — but when they are vocal and interrupt, it can be perceived as rude and inappropriate.
What happens: Sandberg writes that not too long ago she was at a small dinner with executives and that the guest of honour spoke without taking a break. “This meant that the only way to ask a question or make an observation was to interrupt,” she says.
A few men jumped in and got their questions answered, but when Sandberg did the same, the guest said, “Let me finish! You people are not good at listening!” As the speech continued, a few more men asked questions and had them answered, but when another woman asked one, she was also chastised for speaking out of turn.
What you can do: Women shouldn’t be afraid of expressing themselves at meetings, and if one is wrongfully interrupted or shut down, a fellow employee should tell the meeting’s moderator that they are actually interested in hearing what that employee had to say, Sandberg says. As for the moderator, Sandberg cites American Express CEO Ken Chenault’s practice of stopping a meeting to point out any time he notices an employee, regardless of gender, interrupt a woman or “give credit to a man for an idea first proposed by a woman.”
3. If women don’t have male mentors, it’s harder to climb the ranks — but when they do develop meaningful professional relationships with male mentors, it can be perceived by others as sexual in nature.
What happens: Sandberg considers her old boss Larry Summers, former US secretary of the Treasury, to be one of her greatest mentors. She remembers one time when they were in South Africa going over a speech that Summers had to make in the morning. When they were finished, they realised that it was 3 a.m. She writes, “We both knew it would look awful if anyone saw me leaving his hotel suite at that time.” Luckily, the hall was empty.
We need to get over our assumption “that interactions between men and women have a sexual component,” Sandberg explains, if we’re actually going to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions.
What you can do: It’s 2015 — male and female colleagues shouldn’t have to treat grabbing coffee to discuss career advancement as if it were an illicit affair. To help take employees beyond this viewpoint, it’s necessary for an organisation to create a culture of inclusion. For example, Catalyst points to Lockheed Martin’s workshops that place an emphasis on getting male executives to mentor their female employees.
4. If women don’t negotiate, they miss out on significant salary increases — but when women do negotiate, they risk being seen as less likable and thus potentially limiting their chances of future promotions.
What happens: Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University looked at the starting salaries of students graduating with a master’s from the school. She “found that 57% of the male students, but only 7% of the female students, tried to negotiate for a higher offer,” Sandberg explains.
In a follow-up study, Babcock and Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles found that, as Sandberg summarizes, “Both male and female colleagues often resist working with a woman who has negotiated for a higher salary because she’s seen as more demanding than a woman who refrained from negotiating.”
What you can do: Sandberg says she recommends women outright preface a salary negotiation “by explaining that they know that women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer.” This sides the employee with a community of women, which gives them an edge, she argues. Bowles writes that women need to legitimise their offers with details explaining why they deserve the raise, something that is usually not necessary for men. Mary Sue Coleman, former president of the University of Michigan, suggests women be “relentlessly pleasant,” meaning they stick to their argument but with a smile.
It’s frustrating that women should follow these “archaic rules,” Sandberg says, but managers can help phase them out by educating themselves on biases and stereotypes they may ascribe to.
5. If women agree to help coworkers, they can be seen as behaving in a gender-appropriate way and so aren’t rewarded for it — but if they decline to help, they risk being perceived as selfish and not team players.
What happens: In 2005, NYU’s Madeline Heilman and Julie Chen published the report “Same Behaviour, Different Consequences,” which found that women are expected to be helpful and are treated accordingly.
According to their report, women who help a colleague by doing additional work gain no reward, while a man who does the same is celebrated. When a woman declines to help, her performance review can take a hit, while a man receives no penalty. Additional work is perceived as an imposition only for men, according to the study.
Further, if women spend too much time working on other people’s projects, they lose valuable time to focus on their own success.
What you can do: Interviewees cited in the Catalyst study say that women should not let themselves be punished or ignored for doing what is in their favour. One female European manager says that she learned the importance of clear communication, “to speak out on things that you feel are not being spoken about, and to make a decision in the place of somebody else.”
6. If women aren’t married with kids, they can be looked at with suspicion or be seen as too young to lead — but when they do have families, their commitment to the job is questioned.
What happens: Women face a very narrow range of what’s considered the right age for leadership, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Being seen as too young can be a liability, she says.
Yet when women take on the responsibilities associated with maturity, marriage and kids, many managers become wary that they will no longer be focused on their work. The investor Heidi Roizen writes on her blog that when she was five months pregnant and raising capital for her first company, T/Maker, a venture capital firm’s partner told her, “My partners are concerned that when you have this baby you are going to lose interest in the company and not be a good CEO. How can you assure us that won’t happen?”
What you can do: Women should not scale back their careers before they decide to have children, but when they make the decision, they should discuss their career options with their manager. “At Facebook, I teach managers to encourage women to talk about their plans to have children and help them continue to reach for opportunities,” Sandberg writes.