Susan O’Doherty at Mama Ph.D. has some interesting thoughts about the gendered expectations of women in professional leadership positions. She writes,
A few years ago, one of my clients, “Ellen,” a brilliant and forceful young woman, informed me that she had received a negative work evaluation. I was surprised to hear this, since her reports of her achievements reflected one success after another. “It’s not my work per se,” she clarified. “My actual work is fine. They told me I don’t have good ‘people skills,’ that I’m too abrasive and impatient. They suggested that I go to a coach, to learn how to communicate in a more tactful way. “We agreed that their stated objections were code for “not ladylike enough.”
This client’s job entailed coordinating the work of a diverse and independent staff, some members of which were oppositional and even hostile. It was hard to imagine the Buddha performing her duties without occasional abrasiveness. It was even harder to imagine Donna Reed, or Betty from “Mad Men,” commanding any respect from this crew. Yet Ellen was expected to be both soft/feminine and effective. “Do any of the men get this kind of feedback?” I asked, but we both knew the answer.
What was the more personal answer, though? We talked a great deal about what it would mean to change her “style” — how, on the one hand, it might be a valuable experience to learn other ways of relating; but on the other, she felt she was being told that her personality was unacceptable, and that it was necessary to paint a new, “feminine” face over her real one.
Make no mistake, when they spend this much time worrying you about your “personality” or your “style,” it’s bullying. The reason they’re attacking the so-called problems with Ellen’s “communications style” is that they can’t find a way to attack her actual work record. (Furthermore, as the third commenter on O’Doherty’s post noted, this is a sneaky trick to introduce a paper trail of doubts about a person’s competence into hir work record, and it can and probably will be used against hir.) Unsurprisingly, this happens to women much more than it happens to men, because the very professional qualities and qualifications that win us the job–impressive training, significant accomplishment, and confidence–get used against us, and we’re somehow responsible for fixing other people’s “feelings” about us.
O’Doherty links to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Mary Ann Mason, in which Mason mulls the problems of women in leadership positions trying to pitch themselves as not too smart and aggressive, and as not too much of a pushover, but (like Goldilocks) just right. “One day a female colleague made a presentation to a meeting of the deans and received a cursory, bordering on rude, response. Afterward, she asked me how she could have been more effective. ‘Speak low and slowly, but smile frequently,’ I replied.” (I don’t know about you, but if someone made a presentation to me by speaking low and slowly, and smiling frequently, I would think that person is of well-below average intelligence!) But if you’re in an environment that scrutinizes your style to that degree, there really is no way to win. The game is rigged to ensure that women never achieve parity with men, so to suggest to another woman that there is a “magic formula” for career success and personality modification simultaneously implies that sex bias is women’s fault, because those other dumb broads just didn’t figure out the magic formula!
I have a friend in academia who is experiencing this same kind of bullying. “Jackie” has heard the exact same things that Ellen above did: “It’s not your academic work we’re concerned about, it’s just that your graduate students and the staff complain about your communication style. You don’t have good ‘people skills,’ so you need to sign this Memorandum of Understanding that says you’ll agree to seek counseling to help you communicate better.” Interestingly, no one ever has concrete examples of her poor communications skills–the critique all hinges on how she makes other people “feel,” without ever pointing to specific interactions or language she uses that might reasonably make people uncomfortable. My friend Jackie–who was hired to set up an innovative lab, and whose research is based on her (successful!) efforts to seek multi-million dollar grants to set up this lab, and whose grants are therefore paying in some part the salaries and graduate stipends of all of those staff and students–somehow it’s her problem that all of those people whose work she is funding find her “intimidating” to talk to. No one says, “well, maybe it’s OK to be intimidated talking to someone with such an impressive work record and who has been so successful in her field.” Or, “maybe it’s my problem if I feel intimidated talking to her.” No, other people’s *feelings* are Jackie’s problem.
As you might imagine, this information came as quite a surprise to Jackie, who managed to get through 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, a 4-year residency and the premier 3-year fellowship in her field without ever realizing she has a defective “communications style.” She has trained and worked in the top university hospitals in her field and even served a year as Chief Resident (which, as many of you may know, suggests that her supervisors saw her leadership skills as exemplary), all without ever hearing that she was a “difficult” person to work with.
Since starting this blog and hosting a few lively discussions, I’ve also noticed that I get accused of “rudeness” towards commenters with whom I disagree. Sometimes, there’s just no way for a woman to have a point of view and defend it, because that’s seen as a provocation in and of itself! I’ve never been to therapy, but I’ve learned a lot from friends of mine who have been through years of counseling, and it seems to me that one of the big messages is that people are responsible for their own feelings, yet our expectation is that women at home and in the workplace will clean up after the rest of us. (And this includes women as well as men–women too lay these unreasonable expectations on other women.)