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Fighting Gender Bias: 'Women Need To Be Savvier Than Men'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. With all the talk about Hillary Clinton possibly running for president again and the first woman CEO was just named at one of the big three automakers - that's General Motors - women like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook telling women to lean in, it might seem as if the glass ceiling has finally shattered or is about to and that the biases that have long plagued women at work are long gone.

But scholar Joan Williams, who spent her career studying work life conflict says that is not true. In fact, she suggests that women must be politically savvier than men to survive and thrive in their careers. Joan Williams is director of the Center for Worklife Law at University of California Hastings College of Law. She recently teamed up with her daughter Rachel Dempsey to write a new book, it's called "What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know." And they are both with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

RACHEL DEMPSEY: It's great to be here.

JOAN WILLIAMS: We're delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So, Joan, you know, a lot of people, I think, will look at the successful women we just named - or people like yourself let's just say - and say that this can't be happening anymore, that women don't have disadvantages, there are more women in college than men, there are women, you know, outpacing men in terms of education and in earnings in a number of areas. So why do you say that this is still true?

WILLIAMS: Well, everything you say is true and yet women as a group pretty much leveled out in the mid-1990s and haven't risen a lot since in terms of their representation in high-level jobs.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the four patterns of behavior that you say prevent women from advancing to leadership positions it work, and maybe the two of you will divide them. So, Rachel, why don't you start. The first that you talk about is prove it again.

DEMPSEY: The studies that we looked at found that women need to show more competence and have more concrete evidence of success to be viewed as being as successful as a comparable man. So people are more likely to notice women's mistakes and more likely to notice men's success.

MARTIN: So if Mark Zuckerberg's stock tanks then that's a blip, but if Marissa Mayer's stock tanks then she messed up.

DEMPSEY: Exactly. That's a good example.

MARTIN: What about the tight rope?

DEMPSEY: The tight rope is - people tend to see women as being inconsistent with the idea of what a successful business person looks like. And because of this link between success and masculinity, women have to walk a fine line between being seen as too feminine and therefore not appropriate for these leadership roles, and too masculine and therefore being a witch, having rough elbow, being too aggressive.

MARTIN: The maternal wall, what's that, Joan?

WILLIAMS: The maternal wall is when motherhood triggers gender bias. And it's actually the strongest form of gender bias. It's an order of magnitude larger than glass ceiling gender bias.

MARTIN: And the tug-of-war?

WILLIAMS: The tug-of-war is when gender bias against women turns into fights among women. So we often hear this talked about in terms of the Queen bee, as if there were an individual woman with a personality problem - that's not typically what's going on. If you have those kinds of conflicts, it's a symptom of gender bias in the environment.

MARTIN: So what do you do? I mean, you've identified four really kind of weighty issues here. And, you know, people - let's just say for the sake of this conversation - people can quarrel about whether these patterns exist, but you feel very strongly that they do based on, you know, years of work and research that you've done on this topic - what can you do about this? I mean, you can't change your gender and, for the women of color, you can't change your race.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I mean, these patterns actually have been documented over and over again for like 35 years. This is not new news that these patterns exist. So what we tried to do is to provide a guidebook that provides women with very specific strategies for each pattern. Let me give an example - for prove it again, if you know people are going to remember your mistakes and kind of forget your successes, it's very important to keep careful real-time records of every objective metric that you've met, of every complement that you get - for example, by e-mail, so that you can provide those to trigger people's memory. Another important strategy is what we call the posse. It's important to have a group of people, of peers - actually men as well as women - so you can celebrate each other's successes, so that you're very appropriately for a woman celebrating someone else's success but meanwhile he's celebrating yours.

MARTIN: And you can cook that? You're saying that you don't have to wait for a chance to have that, you can actually make that intentional? You can say, hey, buddy, I've got your back, you've got mine?

WILLIAMS: Michel, you're right, this is a cookbook. This provides the recipe for how to navigate each one of these patters very concretely.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about conflicts for women at work, the biases that still exist today and what women can do about them. Our guests are Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey. They are mother and daughter, and co-authors of "What Works for Women at Work." Rachel, I wanted to dig in on one behavior that you highlight. You know, I will confess to you, we see this a lot when we are trying to book guests for this program.

We very often reach out to women who we know are experts in her field and who have an expertise - a demonstrated expertise in their field - and often they will demur. They will say, oh, you know, I'm not an expert on insects of the Civil War, you should call my colleague Jim. You know, first of all, what is that about? And I'm doing a little bit of broad-brush here, but very often, you know, we'll call similarly situated men and they'll say, OK, what time do you want me to be there, what do I need to talk about? You know, so what about that?

DEMPSEY: I think there's two separate things at issue here. One is the prove it again issue where women often, in order to feel capable of, say, getting a promotion or applying to a job, if there's nine requirements for the job, they'll wait until they have 10 requirements to apply to the job. Men will apply when they have six. And that means that women take themselves out of the running for a lot of these jobs. And when I say that they take themselves out of the running, that's not entirely fair because the way prove it again works is that women really do need to show a higher level of confidence in order to be seen as as competent as men. I think another issue though is that - especially in sort of situations where you're looking for an expert in a field - there are often fewer women than men in that field and so they'll be reached out to again and again and again, and that's a huge time suck that can take up a huge amount of time.

MARTIN: Oh, so it's like the junior - what they call the junior faculty phenomena, which is that the woman or the person of color is expected to mentor and give emotional support and to do all this other stuff that other people don't have to do, they're just busy getting tenure.

DEMPSEY: Exactly.

MARTIN: But what do you do? So tell me, this is strategy oriented, so tell me - what should you do about that? I mean...

DEMPSEY: So, we...

MARTIN: Would you advise these experts, just answer the phone, you know? My advice would be answer the phone. Come on my show, that's my first piece of advice. Come on my show when I call you.

DEMPSEY: Well, I would obviously tell them to come on your show, first piece of advice. But second piece of advice is when you're getting all of these sort of opportunities to do things that are maybe helpful maybe interesting but don't necessarily advance your career, you really need to look at sort of the totality of your options and pick what you think is the most important to you. And often that will be something helps you in some other way. So maybe if you're a partner at a firm, you're not going to make partner because you went on the radio, but you may help drum up business.

MARTIN: So, you know what, Joan, we have a couple of minutes left and I would like to hear from each of you on this - you know, the book acknowledges that this information can be depressing to people. And you say - quite candidly in the book - that you were really angry in your own career and life for a long time. You wrote that you didn't get rid of a heavy load anger that really - that you felt in your - both your personal and your professional life for some time until you achieved a level of success and freedom and flexibility to kind of call the shots. So what do you say to some women who just want to opt out and they just say, you know, I just don't want to deal with all that?

WILLIAMS: Well, if some guys got their seat and the woman's happy about it - this isn't the book for her. But if you want to pursue your career, forewarned is forearmed. I mean, women haven't known about these patterns of gender bias and how's that been working for us? They're out there, they're very, very commonplace. You probably will meet them. And so you might as well have a toolkit consisting of the advice and the strategies of the savviest women I know so that you can use their strategies because women literally do have to be savvier than men to survive and thrive in these careers.

MARTIN: Rachel, what about you as a personal of a different generation? I mean, do you agree with me on this - you often hear from younger women that they find this kind of dialogue a turnoff. They say, oh, I don't want to deal with all that, oh, that's just not - you know, my parents told me I could do anything I want.

DEMPSEY: I think that my generation came to the workplace, and is coming currently to the workplace, with very different expectations. Women of your generation and of Joan's generation really knew that they were going to have to work very, very hard and combat all of these sort of direct and explicit stereotypes. And women of my generation grew up thinking they could be whatever they wanted to be. And we get to the workplace and realize that that's not always true and that we do have these extra burdens because we're women. And I think that that can be very overwhelming sometimes and very exhausting.

MARTIN: What about the using sexuality to get ahead piece. I mean, I know a lot of people think that's something out of "Mad Men," but I have heard younger women sort of say what's the problem - you know, so if I get, you know, an extra leg up? And there are certain fields in which it is absolutely the case that when young women have certain advantages because they are appealing to the older men that are making the decisions, and their attitude is what's wrong with that? What's so - you know, what's so terrible about that, I don't owe the feminist movement my loyalty? If this is what helps me get ahead that's fine, what do you say about that?

DEMPSEY: This is a genderational issue, is what we refer to it.

MARTIN: OK, I've not heard that, genderational. OK.

DEMPSEY: Yes, we call this a genderational issue in the book, where there are very different expectations, and there are very different understandings for women of different generations. So I don't necessarily think that flirting should be entirely outside of the workplace, some people do. And I think that one of the things the book does is try to help those two different sides of the argument - see where each other is coming from.

WILLIAMS: I just want to say that we had a group of very wise women who helped us write the book and we actually brought up flirting twice in that group. The first time we brought up flirting, a couple of people admitted they flirted in the office and then everybody else said, oh, my god, that's so terrible. We brought it up again and I brought it up in a different way, and nearly every women in the room acknowledged that at some point in her career she had used flirting.

MARTIN: Including you?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, including me. And it was effective. Now we give very careful advice in the book about if you're going to use it, you have to use it very carefully and you have to be very - you know, to handle with care. But this is a book not about what women should have to do at work, but about what works for women at work. We didn't make this world. We're just trying to make our way in it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go I wanted to ask you about this Professor Williams because you do - you're very clear that you sought out a diverse group of people to interview for this and that half of the people you interviewed - more than half...

WILLIAMS: More than half.

MARTIN: Actually more than half were women of color. But I still have to ask you about that there's an aspect about this kind of focus on gender that feels very alien to some women of color, and that they feel that this kind of permission to focus on just women is kind of still a privilege of white women. That they don't feel that they can afford to just focus on themselves. You know, that they still have to worry about the Trayvon Martins, they still have to worry about the Oscar Grants.

WILLIAMS: First of all, one of the things that I found in the study is that women of color encountered more of every single one of the four patterns of gender bias. The other thing I found is that African-American women, when they experience prove it again bias, where they have to prove themselves over and over again, they attribute that to race - the other three groups of women attribute it to gender - and that that's only one of the four patterns.

So I do think it's very important to have a conversation about race in this country, very sorely needed, but it's also important in this country to have a conversation about gender and have the conversation about gender be about gender, not about white women.

MARTIN: Joan Williams is the director of the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Rachel Dempsey is a writer and student at Yale University School of Law. Their new book is called "What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know." And they were both kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Rachel, Joan, thank you both so much for speaking to us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

DEMPSEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.