Top 10 Unwritten Rules That Could Sabotage Your Career

These are complicated times for ambitious women. On the one hand, there are record numbers of women at the top of industry. This year’s woman-to-woman CEO succession at Xerox was a remarkable milestone. On the other hand, the glass ceiling remains firmly in place: Although women hold 50.8% of managerial positions in the labor market, they represent only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

The media is crammed with pundits who claim the final word on what women want, need, or lack. There is a lot of statistical number-crunching and even more speculation. Women make better managers. Women are less happy. Women would have saved Wall Street.

But for all this attention to women in the workplace, we live in an age of mommy bloggers and hope, not an age of activism. Despite the fact that women remain grossly underpaid, taking home 78% of what men do, we are no longer inspired by feminist fervor. In fact, there is a pervasive reluctance to even acknowledge that sexism still exists, Harriet Rubin reported last year in a Portfolio magazine cover story.

Come to think of it, when was the last time you heard or read the word “sexism”?

Researchers have had to invent new terms, like “neo-sexism” or “modern sexism.” They point out that the 21st-century version of sexism is nothing blatant, nothing “Mad Men.” After all, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment are now illegal. Men, for the most part, have learned to appear politically correct. Most of them are savvy enough not to engage, at least consciously, in so-called “gender stereotyping.”

So why, then, are women still lagging behind? Why are women’s success stories still the exceptions that prove the rule?

Because beyond laws and regulations and attitude is the deepest, most pervasive, most unconscious and ingrained layer of our lives: culture. All of our laws and all of our diversity training won’t close the gender gap, because it’s the culture, sweetheart.

It’s the culture that insists on coding babies as blue or pink. It’s the culture that assumes men in the public sphere and women in the domestic sphere. It’s the culture that defines active qualities as “masculine” and passive qualities as “feminine.” It’s the culture of patriarchy, in which power and privilege accrue to the men.

If you doubt that male privilege endures, just replay to Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.

Or consider the story I heard from Sarah, a mid-level manager in the tech industry. After organizing transportation for a team project, a male colleague recognized her success by describing her as “a great team mom.” “Why was I ‘a great team mom,'” she wondered, “while a male colleague who had performed the same task was praised as ‘a great team manager’?”

Culture is the web of signs and symbols that enmeshes us so completely that we imagine it is inevitable, or “natural.” Everything from language to images and institutions to rituals are part of this deep structure for our everyday lives. That’s why patriarchy is so hard to pin down, let alone change.

It’s subliminal, like the bass line of a song. You don’t pick out the bass line to hum, because the melody is so much catchier. But it’s actually that bass line that provides the rhythmic support for the music. You may not hum it, but you feel it in your bones.

Now, I realize that this is a moment when women want to focus on the positive. We want to emphasize the strides, not the stumbles. We despair of being pre-judged and pre-labeled as women. We would prefer, like Carly Fiorina, the Hewlett Packard CEO who (in)famously remarked that “there is not a glass ceiling,” to deny reality rather than be defined by it.

As tempting as that tactic may be, reality ultimately refuses to be denied. Patriarchy doesn’t disappear when we close our eyes. I say, it’s better to know exactly what you’re up against. To that end, I’ve pulled together the top 10 unwritten rules for working women. Don’t let them sabotage your ambitions.

1. Men get the benefit of the doubt. Men generally get hired on their promise and women on their demonstrated experience. Men are usually taken at their word, while women get challenged more, required to deliver data and substantiation for their views. Chicken or egg: Do men get the benefit of the doubt because they are better qualified, or are they better qualified because they get the benefit of the doubt?

2. Looks matter. When is the last time you saw a CEO in shorts or a short-sleeved shirt? Bare those arms and legs at your own risk: flesh conjures up images of the beach and the boudoir, not the boardroom.

3. You won’t get sufficient feedback. Professional development depends upon rigorous, comprehensive, ongoing feedback on your performance. How else will you grow and improve? According to the research, your male boss may not feel comfortable delivering that information to you, so you’ll need to be direct in asking for it from him and from other colleagues and team members.

4. A working mother’s commitment is assumed to be ambivalent. At worst, mothers are seen as potential flight risks from the organization, and therefore not worthy of any further investment. At best, mothers are denied plum travel and assignments, under the guise of benevolent protectionism, because “they won’t want to leave home so much.” Don’t let anyone else speak or decide for you.

5. Actually, it is personal. In mid-career, at the point where everyone brings comparable talent to the table, it’s who you know, not what you know, that gets you promoted. As HR pros will tell you, you don’t push yourself to the top, you get pulled there. Men knew what they were doing when they invented the old boys’ club. From the get-go, women need to be just as savvy, cultivating loose ties, close ties, mentors, allies, and champions.

6. Men are bred for self-confidence. From Little League to fraternities to the golf course, men’s lives emphasize competition. By the time they get to the workplace, they are seasoned competitors, with all of the self-confidence that comes from having successfully weathered both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Consider the consequences: one internal corporate study showed that women will apply for an open job only if they meet 100% of the criteria listed, while men will apply if they meet just 60%. In order to assume that same level of self-possession (and entitlement), you have to design your own path to self-confidence.

7. Women are rendered invisible until they demonstrate otherwise. If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to offer your ideas, approach a mentor, ask for the assignments, build a network, convey your aspirations, and communicate your achievements. I’ve heard Sharon Allen, chairman of Deloitte LLP, tell this cautionary tale from her early career, when she was passed over for a promotion that she had earned. Allen went to her boss and asked why she had been passed over, since she had done x, y, and z to earn it. “Oh,” he replied, “I didn’t realize that you’d done x, y, and z.” It’s one thing to lose the game because you were outperformed, but it’s another thing altogether to lose because you were never in play.

8. Women don’t take charge, they take care. Research has shown that both men and women will judge a woman less favorably who asks for a higher starting salary than a man with the same credentials asking for the same thing. Men are rewarded for their out-spokenness, while women are expected to go along for the greater good. In order to negotiate this “woman penalty,” you’ve got to dance that fine line between assertive and pushy, authoritative and bossy, smart and arrogant. Brush up on your cha-cha.

9. Women are different. Make no mistake. “Different” never means “equal.” “Different” is code for “other.” And in any us-them situation, you know what happens to the outsiders. Just think back to the “separate but equal” credo of racial segregation. Defining women as “different” (whether it’s done by men or by women) serves to keep women positioned as outsiders, despite our increasingly dominant numbers in the workplace.

10. Women make great worker-bees, but visionary leaders–not so much. Margaret Thatcher is often quoted as saying: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” Unfortunately, that’s the kind of thinking that keeps the vast majority of women stuck in middle management, while men move forward into leadership roles. At a certain point, you’ve got to give up the grindstone to pursue vision and strategy.


0 Responses to Top 10 Unwritten Rules That Could Sabotage Your Career

  1. Lisa Gates October 15, 2009 at 9:14 pm #

    Ann, this is such a great call to action. A call to action for each of us personally, and to those of us who choose it, publicly.

    I have nothing to add to the list except to foster our female relationships in a way that holds us to the higher good. No more “yeah, that’s the way it is” kind of agreements and colluding, but “what do you want to do about it?”

    Worthy fodder for another book?

  2. Ann Daly October 18, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Funny you should ask about a book. Lately I’ve been feeling the itch to take on another one.

  3. George Russell October 18, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    I love this list. It just exposes a whole bunch of stuff we’re not supposed to look at cuz supposedly feminism is either done or dead. Something I’ve noticed in many workplaces and as a doctor and movement teacher is that women are taught, and reminded, even by those of us who think we’re sophisticated, to experience themselves in terms of how they look to other women and men. Men are taught, and reminded, again, unconsciously and consciously, to experience themselves in terms of what they can do, that is, how they can make things happen — hit balls, lift things, run and jump, win battles, etc. In a sense, women are objectified and men are subjectified — with lots of ramifications including women tending to hold their “inner selves” responsible for their discomfort while men often look outside themselves when they are uncomfortable in a situation. It’s really subtle and pervasive… and I think both sexes suffer. A related thing my teaching mentor Cheryl Cutler always says to me: women tend to think they’re too heavy, in every sense, and men tend to think they’re not strong enough, in every sense. Cheers!

  4. Ann Daly October 19, 2009 at 1:46 am #

    How do you, as a chiropractor, see this played out in the functional body issues women present in your office?

  5. jhomiak October 28, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    Ann, you touch on such great points in this article. Like it says though, I wish there were specific references to the research and background of these topics. I’m not asking you because you’re a woman, of course, but only because I’d like to know more about the statistical data about these issues. Similarly, I just read an article about women’s dress in the workplace. It is another indicator of how women are perceived.

  6. Ann Daly October 30, 2009 at 1:45 am #

    One of the great joys of academia was being released from references and footnotes! Seriously, several people have asked about sources, so when I have some free time I’ll put together at least the highlights of my bibliography for this essay and post it. In the meantime, is a great, if not exhaustive, one-stop-shopping site for information on women in the workplace. And thanks for that link!

  7. staccee July 18, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    Working at a boys club (Police Dept) for the last 9 years, I have learned that they want women to “Dumb Down” for them. A quote from the book, “The Gift of Fear” says it like it is, “A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is seen as uncertain (opposite of explicit).” Although I had the second most seniority of all 7 of the civilian managers, and am very intelligent, it was ME who was the only civilian manager laid off recently while they kept managers who cannot spell or write a complete sentence. My boss told me, “Stacie, you are a strong, confident, intelligent woman” and I said, “Yea, that’s what got me laid off” and he said, “Some places that works, some places that doesn’t”….. Amazing!