What Works for Women at Work: Gender bias patterns women will probably encounter

On my first day of graduate school, I was shaking a little as I introduced myself to one of new graduate school classmates, who exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the Alyssa that all the graduate students are talking about.”

“What have I gotten myself into?” I thought.

That classmate and I laugh about that encounter now. All the older graduate students, including myself, discuss incoming graduate students because (we joke) we are getting old and have trouble connecting the names to the faces that we encountered on the weekends when accepted students visit the departments where they could spend the next four to seven years.  ne characteristic that distinguishes some incoming graduate students in particular – and prompted the outburst on my first day – is gender.

In the United States, the numbers of women in most science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (biology excepted) depend on the discipline you are looking at but are generally depressing. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, 28.3% of graduates students studying materials science in 2013 were female.  In chemical engineering, that percentage is 31.2%. The percentage of engineers working in industry who are women is 14.9%. So what is contributing to this low representation?

You can get an idea of at least one factor by listening to anecdotes from the women who have worked in STEM. I am incredibly lucky to have an electrical engineer for a mother; she has served as a powerful role model and an invaluable source of information. She has told me about how the older, male engineers never quite knew how to treat her. As a petite (5’ ½”), Chinese woman, she was told that she “looked like a China doll.” The implications of being a “China doll” are that you are tiny, delicate, and fragile and, thus, you are incapable of doing a “man’s” work – engineering.

What Works for Women at Work is a book that articulates that these types of unconscious biases are still present in the workforce. The authors Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey compiled interviews of successful women of a variety of colors, ages, and careers – including everything from lawyers to scientists – as well as studies on gender to outline clearly the external forces due to biases (often unconscious) that impede many women’s and trans-women’s careers compared to their male and trans-male counterparts’.[1] But what set this book apart was its discussion of strategies you can use to overcome those forces used by the successful women interviewed.

The simplistic and only partly helpful answer to “how can we give men and women the chance to be successful?” is to treat men and women exactly the same. Equal or identical treatment does not necessarily bring about equal opportunity. For instance, some people may flourish under more independence and freedom from a manager, whereas others want more direction. A simple example is shown in the cartoon below.  Everyone should be given the opportunity to enjoy the game.


Source: https://outfront.org/strategicplan

Women and men do not necessarily have to be treated the same, but everyone regardless of gender identity or perception should be given an equal opportunity to succeed in whatever career that person chooses.

So what are these currently unnamed demons that plague women’s careers? [2] The authors of What Works for Women at Work identified four major patterns that women encounter, stated in their own clear words:

  1. Prove-It-Again! is exactly what it sounds like: women have to prove themselves over and over again much more so than men in order to be seen as equally competent. Prove-It-Again!…stems from assumptions about the typical woman.
  2. The Tightrope…stems from assumptions about how women should behave. The Tightrope describes a double bind: women often find that if they behave in traditionally feminine ways, they exacerbate Prove-it-Again! problems; but if they behave in traditionally masculine ways, they are seen as lacking social skills.
  3. The Maternal Wall consists of both…[bias manifested] in the form of strong negative competence and commitment assumptions triggered by motherhood…and [bias manifested in] disapproval on the grounds that mothers should be at home or working fewer hours.  Women with children are routinely pushed to the margins of the professional world.
  4. The Tug of War occurs as each woman tries to navigate her own path between assimilating into masculine traditions and resisting them. Women’s different strategies divide them. Some women are tomboys, who just need access: all they want to do is to play the game as the boys play it. Other women want to preserve more of the traditions of femininity. Women’s different strategies often pit them against each other, as do workplaces that communicate that there’s room for only one woman. All of these pressures often lead women to judge each other on what’s the right way to be a woman.

(What Works for Women at Work, page xxi)

Not all women encounter all four, and some do not encounter all four at the same point in their careers. Joan Dempsey has an interactive and useful website discussing the information in her book and a place to play Gender Bias Bingo, where you can enter your own stories of gender bias. To give you an idea of how prevalent these patterns are, here are some numbers.  127 women were interviewed specifically on ways to combat these biases; only five women said they had not encountered any of these biases. None of those five were of color, and three of the five were in charge of their own businesses. To be clear, this sample was not random; thus, these experiences may not exactly match those of women in general.

  • 73% of all women interviewed reported Tightrope bias
  • 68% reported Prove-It-Again!
  • 59% reported Maternal Wall
  • 55% reported Tug of War
  • 13% of white women interviewed had encountered all four patterns
  • 10% of women of color interviewed had encountered all four patterns

Think of your ten closest friends. Seven of them were told they were not masculine or feminine enough, seven were told their bosses were not sure of their ability, six were told they could not be both good mothers (or fathers) and good workers, and five were told they needed to be more “like real women” or like “real men.”  And they did not get that promotion and salary raise because of that.

I encourage everyone (yes, that means the male readers too!) to read this book. If you do not have time immediately to do that, check out the resources on http://www.genderbiasbingo.com/. I also plan to spend the next post summarizing the strategies to combat these biases for those who would like a quick outline, but the book expounds on those strategies and offers more anecdotes in support of those strategies.

[1] There are many challenges that trans-men and trans-women face that cisgender men and women do not, but this book found that there are many challenges in addition that trans-men and trans-women face once they have transitioned that they share in common with their cisgender counterparts.

[2] I discuss obstacles and strategies for women here because of the material presented in the book. Trans-men and trans-women have additional obstacles to work against.


One thought on “What Works for Women at Work: Gender bias patterns women will probably encounter

  1. Pingback: What Works for Women at Work: Prove-It-Again Bias and How to Combat It | University of Minnesota Women's Center Blog

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