The More Things Change

Change and the ability to adapt seem to be the informal rallying cry for business today. But I can’t help but think that in some matters of diversity, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For instance, while there are some bright spots to give hope, the trials that go along with being female don’t seem to be changing much.

Recently, I read an interview in Elle magazine with Chrystia Freeland about her latest book, Plutocrats. Freeland, a financial journalist, examines the increasingly large pool of global billionaires to find out what makes them tick, what it’s like in their world and what the rise of the super wealthy means for the rest of us.

One interview with a Russian oligarch led her to the idea that being a woman is useful in that kind of reporting because you’re completely outside the realm. “This elite lives in an entirely male universe,” she told Elle. “I think there’s a higher comfort level for them in talking to women because, after all, you were never really a contender.”

While few women have risen to the global plutocrats’ level of power and success, Freeland said plutocrats believe that women have the brain power to get there. What they lack is a willingness to take risks paired with a killer instinct. Freeland compares the plutocrats’ world to a middle America in which more and more women are the primary breadwinners. In the plutocrats’ world, women don’t work at all. It’s like the 1950s.

Consider those ideas alongside an article that appeared just a few pages later in the same issue. Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, discusses women’s difficulty overcoming office stereotypes. The author posits that men’s grip on the pinnacle of power isn’t as tight as it used to be. At the same time, many women still struggle to attain parity and overcome dated perceptions about how they should behave in the workplace. These perceptions are persistent and fierce and come from both internal and external sources.

The article references Sallie Krawcheck, former head of global wealth management at Citigroup, who earned a reputation for being blunt and honest after she challenged a new management structure in 2008. The media said she challenged then-CEO Vikram Pandit publicly. Krawcheck remembers the incident differently. She said she never even raised her voice.

This kind of overreaction to a supposed overreaction is a classic male response when a woman in a position of power pulls out the big guns. It’s like expressing a strong opinion is not appropriate when it comes from a female mouth. The article calls it the Twitch: an instinctive wince when a woman unsheathes her sword.

Another version of the Twitch happens when a high-performing woman is present in a traditionally male dominated arena. In a 2004 study, psychologist Madeline Heilman randomly passed out two packets of information about a rising organizational star. Sometimes the star’s name was James, sometimes it was Andrea. The two were judged equally competent, but Andrea was judged less likable and in some cases even hostile.

When Heilman redid the experiment three years later, she added that Andrea/James demands a lot from employees but also is caring and sensitive to their needs. That modification helped subjects like Andrea more. Heilman called it the “little bit of sugar” strategy and said it seems to be key to a woman’s success.

Women shouldn’t have to employ these tactics to get along and thrive in the world of work, but battling against centuries of sociological programming probably isn’t the best use of the average working woman’s time. So what do we have?

On one hand, there are women who don’t work and men who like it that way. On the other, there are tons of women who do but whose male peers may need reprogramming to deal with it.

Thankfully, we have diversity executives to metaphorically hold people’s hands. We can trust the chief diversity officer to put the processes in place to increase awareness, coach and develop and ensure that merit-based awards go to all who are worthy regardless of sex or skill at manipulation.

For women, the best thing we can do is to educate ourselves, ask for what we want and create a convincing, authentically feminine narrative illustrated by word and deed to propel us forward.