9 TIPS FOR WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE
Recent comments by a top SA executive have highlighted that women workers are still seen as somehow different to their male counterparts in the workplace. Here’s how to challenge gender bias.
among the many tools at their disposal, women recently discovered, courtesy of Cell C’s CEO, that they also come equipped with a “bitch switch” (which they can flick on to become super aggressive). José dos Santos, who also had a thing or two to say about the impact of attractive women on workplace morale, has since apologised for his comments.
However, his observations underscored the fact that women often are still seen as “the other” in the workplace, somehow different from men. And unfortunately, “different” almost never means equal. Women have been making huge progress, but men have been shaping the terms of workplace engagement for centuries – and often they ultimately still control the game (97% of SA’s CEOs are men). Many women still confront considerable prejudice and stereotyping in the workplace, and often face different rules.
Take for example the fact that successful women are not viewed in the same light as men. In a well-known study at Columbia Business School, students were presented with a case study detailing the career of venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. For one group of students, all details of her career were kept exactly the same, but her name was changed to “Howard”. Those students rated “Howard” as likeable, while another group reviewed exactly the same case study but with her real gender, and described Heidi as “selfish” and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.
Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women, wrote Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. “When a man is successful, his peers often like him more; when a woman is successful, both men and women often like her less.”
Women are also heavily penalised for going against type – in particular for violating the female stereotype of being nurturing and caring. Forceful women are often criticised, called “pushy” or “bossy” (words never used for men), or saddled with a perceived “bitch switch”. Says Sandberg: “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”
So how do you navigate your way through the gender bias?
Conquer your inner insecurity. Women who lack confidence and are uncomfortable in themselves have the most difficulty when encountering discrimination in the workplace, says Nerina Visser, director of etfSA and a well-known figure in investment circles. “When you are the only woman in the room, insecurity makes you extra sensitive to any snubs, and breeds defensiveness and a feeling of failure. If you are naturally comfortable with yourself, these slights won’t make a dent.” Greater confidence starts with changing your inner dialogue; be less critical of yourself and stop dwelling on your mistakes (which according to research is something women tend to do more). Focus instead on your strengths, establish a support network, and start taking informed risks. Manage your manager. When you feel your superiors are not taking you seriously, or have some prejudices, the only way to address these obstacles are through open communication, says Asanda Gcoyi, who coaches highpotential employees and is CEO of human capital development firm CB Talent. “Take your manager to one side and challenge his actions or comments, before his misjudgements and your resentment spiral out of control,” says Gcoyi. Also, demand feedback. Often, male managers don’t feel comfortable with giving a female employee critical feedback to her face. In the long run, this can be a serious obstacle to your professional growth. Ask probing questions and demand honest feedback from your boss and other colleagues. Don’t shy away from negotiation.
Studies show that women are much more uncomfortable with negotiating, particularly on behalf of themselves (and especially on their own pay packages). When they do negotiate, women are proven to be skilful – although
Women have been making huge progress, but men have been shaping the terms of workplace engagement for centuries – and often they ultimately still control the game (97% of SA’s CEOs are men).
when they succeed in driving a hard bargain, research shows they give back the gains right at the end, perhaps because of some misplaced feeling of communality or guilt. Make sure that you avoid this trap by having a clear goal when you start any negotiation. Don’t put yourself down to be funny.
A recent UK study showed a big difference in the way that men and women use humour in meetings, and also how co-workers react to these quips. Male managers tend to use witticisms or funny banter to lighten the mood, and the vast majority of these (90%, according to the study) evoke a positive response, including laughter. In contrast, women usually revert to self-deprecating humour – which fell flat in the majority of cases (80%). While women may believe making fun of themselves is a safe option, the feedback from the participants were that self-deprecating humour can be contrived and defensive. Don’t leave before you leave.
This refers to the fact that many women diminish their career aspirations in preparation for being a mother and wanting greater work-life balance – even long before they want or have kids, or a partner. “Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave,” Sandberg says. Don’t do “office housework”.
Often women are tasked with support jobs like being a scribe in meetings, organising food or client gifts. These tasks are often thankless, and will divert your attention from making more strategic contributions. Don’t try to be a domestic goddess.
While women have made great progress at work, they still also do the bulk of housework and childcare at home. Choose your partner well, and make sure that responsibilities are shared equally. This will mean you will sometimes have to let go of your ideals of how certain domestic tasks are done; abandon your perfectionist approach to folding T-shirts, and allow your partner to do it their way. Stand your ground.
Studies show that women are much more frequently interrupted in meetings – push back when you feel someone is trying to talk over you. Quit if you feel uncomfortable.
“I didn’t stick around when I didn’t feel wanted,” says Visser about her own career. Remember also, the law is on your side if you feel discriminated against. Visser believes SA is in some ways far ahead of western countries when it comes to gender diversity, in part due to BEE, which has highlighted the importance of female representation. “SA has a number of very strong female business figures. Black women in particular have had to overcome hard times, which is serving them very well in boardrooms and for the challenges of business.”
Black women in particular have had to overcome hard times, which is serving them very well in boardrooms and for the challenges of business.
Sheryl Sandberg Chief operating officer of Facebook
Asanda Gcoyi CEO of the CB Talent
Heidi Roizen Venture capitalist