How to Hack 3 Sexist Things Every Woman Has Heard in the Office


The following is an excerpt from the new bookFeminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace) by Jessica Bennett (Harper Wave, 2016). In the book, Bennett provides the types of sexist archetypes women encounter in the workplace. Below you'll find a few things these people say—and even feminists may unconsciously pick up some of these misogynist assumptions. That's OK, though, because Bennett also provides the tools, or "hacks," (some subtle changes in ways of thinking, others overt actions to combat the sexism head-on) to overcome statements, or "traps," like these: 

The Trap: "Female bosses are the worst."

You may think she fits the stereotype of the ice-cold female boss, but you are likely the colleague, or underling, who is actually more critical (and demanding) of her because she’s female*—expecting her to fill the role of boss, mommy, and best friend at once, running the show with both authority and grace while being warm, nurturing, and supportive (and look good while she’s doing it). It is not untrue that some female bosses may be harder on women because they’re women—but it is most certainly true, statistically, that their employees are harder on them because they’re women, too.

(*Yup, research confirms that female employees hold their female managers to different standards than they do their male managers.)

The Hack: Femlightenment

So yes, Americans may think they prefer male bosses—by an average of 33 percent, no matter their gender or education level, according to recent studies. (Ooof.) But if you dig deeper into that data you’ll find a revealing caveat: that the majority of people who say they prefer having a male boss have never actually had a female boss. Those who had worked for a woman before in fact preferred reporting to women. So help your fellow woman out and give her the benefit of the doubt—and remind your colleagues to do the same.

The Trap: "Bitchy, Bossy, too Ambitious"

In early 2016, if you were to google “Bernie Sanders” and “ambition,” you would have found a host of articles about his “ambitious plans,” think pieces about “ambitious health-care goals,” and assorted other posts commending his professional determination. But the same web search for Hillary Clinton would yield just the opposite. Of more than 1 million results, the top hits would focus on her “lifelong” personal ambition: “unbridled,” “ruthless,” even “pathological.” In a word: unappealing.

Behold the catch-22 of women and power. To be successful a woman must be liked, but to be liked she must not be too successful: her likability eroded by her professional status. We may all know—or at least like to say we know—that women are perfectly capable as leaders. Yet on a deep, unconscious level we still find the image of an ambitious woman hard to swallow. The reasoning makes sense: for hundreds of years, it’s been culturally ingrained in us that men lead and women nurture. So when a woman turns around and exhibits “male” traits—ambition, assertion, sometimes even aggression—we somehow see her as too masculine, not ladylike enough, and thus we like her less.

The Hacks: 

Get Your Sexism in Check

All of us—yes, really, all of us—are a little bit sexist (racist, too). It’s what scholars call “unconscious bias,” and each of us has it; the result of cognitive shortcuts made by our brains. The good news is that if we acknowledge our inner sexist we can check it. So the next time an ambitious woman rubs you the wrong way, ask yourself: Would I dislike her if she were a man?

Gender Judo

As research by the Harvard professor Amy Cuddy has shown, “warmth” has been shown to help offset the trap of being “too ambitious,” because it counters the stereotype that ambitious women are cold, power-hungry bitches. We shouldn’t have to do it, no, but it’s what the law professor Joan C. Williams has called “gender judo”—or combining communal behaviors like friendliness, humor, empathy, or kindness (the sugar) with aggression or ambition. Studies show it works. If you think about it, most of the world’s best leaders have mastered this art: they may be tough, but they’re known for their grace and humor, too.

Make Female Power the Norm

As the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett once told me, it’s not women who are the problem—it’s that we still define leadership in male terms. So use that sweetness, that ambition, or the combination of the two, to get the fuck in power. Make ambition a female trait. Chip away at that glass ceiling and don’t apologize for it. And when you’ve trailblazed your way to the top, remember your FFC duty: to bring other women with you.

The Trap: "She's Too Nice to Lead the Team."

Ebonee was everything a political campaign might want in an intern. She was smart: sailing through college in three years and graduating at the top of her class. She was committed: volunteering to stay late and helping others finish their work. She was unwavering: when voters would stop by the office, she knew them by name. Yet when it was announced that the campaign would hire from its intern pool for a staff position, Ebonee didn’t get the job. As the campaign manager put it: “Ebonee is too nice. She can’t be taken seriously.”

Being nice shouldn’t undermine the perception of a person’s competence, yet when it comes to women we tend to view the two traits as inversely related—a surplus of one leading to the belief you’re deficient in the other. So when a woman is nice, or even just described as nice, we assume she’s dumb, ditzy, or a pushover—when in fact we have no information about her skills at all.

The Hack:

Sweet Like Arsenic

Use niceness to your advantage—by mastering the art of being nice and tough at once. Cloak your demands in sweetness, but make the demand. Become a master of giving orders or asking for what you need in a pleasant tone. Don’t become the office shoulder to cry on and don’t become the Office Mom. But it is possible to play nice while still being taken seriously.

Watch Your Words

Cut the word “nice” from your vocabulary—along with all those other nurturing words we use to describe women (“kind,” “helpful,” “a team player”). Not only are women only more likely to be described by such language, but research has found that those words cause them to be viewed as less qualified—perceived as pushovers, not somebody capable of running a team. So next time you have the urge to describe your female colleague as “sympathetic,” try one of these “male” words instead: independent, confident, intelligent, fair.


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