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In a recent job, I was on a client visit with my boss after taking a red-eye flight, having had no sleep, and I powered my way through two taxing negotiations. I had easily been working more than 80-hour weeks at the time and had surpassed every performance goal he had ever set for me. Yet, as we sat at the airport waiting for our flights home, my boss told me that I needed to be more likeable at work. As I sat, first trying to defend myself and second frustrated that I was having the conversation at all, I thought, “I can’t believe that this conversation is still happening in the modern workplace.”
In the age of Uber and many others in the Bay area being slapped in recent months due to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexism in the workplace, it is time for us ladies to learn our way around these dubious discussions.
Read This: Disrupters by Dr. Patti Fletcher | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound
In her new book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, Jessica Bennett offers several tips for identifying and navigating the murky waters of modern office sexism. I’ve taken three to heart and suggest trying them on for size:
“You need to be more likeable” — when dependability breeds hostility
Many of us remember the not-so-distant criticisms of Hillary Clinton as she ran for President. In an article titled Why Is Clinton Disliked? David Brooks blamed Clinton’s unpopularity to the fact that she’s a “workaholic.”
“This formal, career-oriented persona puts her in direct contrast with the mores of the social media age, which is intimate, personalist, revealing, trusting and vulnerable. It puts her in conflict with most people’s lived experience. Most Americans feel more vivid and alive outside the work experience than within. So of course to many she seems Machiavellian, crafty, power-oriented, untrustworthy.”
So when we are paid and promoted according to our productivity, but by being productive, we are relegated to being untrustworthy, what is a woman to do?
First, assess your actual work product to determine if you are deficient in any way. If you aren’t meeting your sales goals or are having issues with punctuality, you open yourself up to coaching in a number of areas, including interpersonal weakness. However, if you are meeting and/or surpassing your quantifiable goals, remind your boss of this.
Second, determine whether male peers in similarly situated positions to yours are receiving the same feedback. If not, and if this type of feedback is a common occurrence, make note of it, both verbally and in writing, but do so lightly. Bennett suggests that humor can go a long way towards calling out issues that otherwise would make people feel defensive or attacked.
If someone shouldn’t be telling you what to do, humor can be a very effective way to let them know.
Third, pay close attention to the actions you take to invest yourself in others, offer to help and celebrate others’ successes. One of the best ways to combat this feedback is to actually heed it and work to build stronger bonds in your workplace.
Rewarding those who speak up first…even if they are often wrong
There has been quite a bit of recent debate about how we as women should or should not speak, whether it’s vocal fry (talking like a Kardashian) or ending our statements in a question (upspeak). But when we say these things don’t sound authoritative, Bennett posits, we’re actually defining authority in male terms. “If you were to take into account all of the different ways it seems other people would like us to speak, you would never to be able to get out a sentence without your brain exploding.”
But with an admittedly male-dominated communication style at work, we can strive to 1) be clear; 2) be confident; and 3) not apologize for voicing our opinions.
One of my biggest pet peeves, however, is losing credit or credibility because I didn’t speak first. Apparently the workplace is like a game show, where the first hand on the buzzer wins the prize. And even if the first person to speak up is wrong, research suggests that they are often given greater credit and or credibility than the person who spoke second or the person who didn’t speak at all.
A former mentor pushed me when I was young to practice blurting out the answer–to be the student who is constantly raising their hand in class. And while this may feel (and is often perceived as) annoying, it will pay dividends when an opinion is needed as you will be seen as the one with the opinion.
Taking credit for your work
Research has also recently shown that women are less likely to have their ideas correctly attributed to them, so if even a man repeats your idea–maybe even in support of you–the listener is likely to credit him with the idea, rather than you.
Bennett suggests that one trick you can try is the Thank ‘n’ Yank. You thank him: “Thanks so much for picking up on my idea!” You’re being nice, but the key word is “my:” my idea.
She also suggests the Wingman (or Wingwoman) approach or appointing a friend or peer in a meeting to support you in some way, whether it’s nodding or saying, “Great idea.” And if another person tries to take credit for one of your ideas, then your wingman can mention it and offer credit back to you. It’s a win-win situation: by giving credit to you for the idea, the person giving the credit look selfless, and in return for their kind gesture, research shows that they are associating themselves with the idea.
Finally, when you get credit, take it. Rather than deflecting, which comes more naturally to us, the simple act of saying, “Thank you,” is the best way to ensure that you do not get in your own way.
Even as I write this today, I’m frustrated that hard work still doesn’t speak for itself if you are a woman. We are still expected to deliver the same or better work product while paying closer attention to our mannerisms and social interactions than our male peers. But the best way to combat this in the long term is to move into leadership roles and change the paradigm ourselves. Until then, we’ll have to ensure we are as well-liked as well as we are capable.