What Works for Women at Work: Prove-It-Again Bias and How to Combat It

My mother and I were recently shopping for make-up, since make-up should be replaced every year or so. I detest cosmetics and grumbled, “Make-up doesn’t improve my looks!”

My mother responded, “People take you more seriously if you wear make-up. You look more put together.”

Really? Am I to be judged on the presentation of my face rather than on the presentation that my brain and hard work put together?

Conversations like that emphasize the importance of books like What Works for Women at Work. Most advice women are given is designed to fix the woman– ask for raises and promotions, dress more femininely, etc.– which boils down the problem into something so simple it does not account for the nuances and differences among women’s careers. To eliminate the problem, you have to fix the root cause in the majority of cases– the system. As women are waiting for that change, however, there are different ways to work around some of the barriers that the system throws up. Working around those barriers is important because of accumulation of disadvantages; small disadvantages in women’s careers lead to immense lags in salary, promotions, and influence.[i]

As summarized in my last post, the four main categories of barriers facing women are Prove-It-Again!, Tightrope, Maternal Wall, and Tug of War.  As I started writing this post, I realized the wealth of information in this book, and how a single blog post of 1,200 words could not do justice to either the biases or ways to get around them. Thus, I am only going to summarize Prove-It Again! here. However, I would encourage my readers (men and women) to get the book from a library, bookstore, or friend and peruse it. It’s worth your time.

Prove-It-Again!

Prove-It-Again! bias is when “women are forced to prove their competence over and over, whereas men are given the benefit of the doubt” (pg.  3). It is rooted in confirmation bias: information confirming stereotypes is noted, whereas information challenging stereotypes is dismissed.  Unfortunately for women, success is historically tied to masculinity, which is why most people picture a man in a suit as the typical professional.

Five Manifestations of Prove-It-Again! 

  1. “Men are judged on their potential; women are judged on their achievements” (pg. 25).

Women are not given important projects because they are seen as inexperienced, but because they are never given important projects, they never gain the experience judged necessary. In contrast, similarly inexperienced men are given the important projects because they are seen as having potential. This double standard unfairly denies women important projects needed for promotions or raises; worse, women may internalize the standard, making them less self-confident and thus less willing to self-promote.

  1. “What’s important for a given job? Whatever the male candidate has” (pg. 25).

Some people change criteria for a specific job based on their implicit biases about race, gender, etc.  In one study[ii] cited in the book, “study participants gave less weight to both education and work experience when a woman had them than when a man had them” (pg. 29), especially those who thought they were unbiased.

  1. “Men’s successes are attributed to skill, while women’s are overlooked or attributed to luck. With mistakes, it’s just the opposite” (pg. 25).

Men’s success– because they confirm the stereotype of the successful, male businessman– are noted whereas women’s are not.

  1. “Objective requirements are applied strictly to women but leniently to men” (pg. 25).

Disadvantage in women’s careers usually stems from favoritism for men. While objective criteria are employed to eliminate this favoritism, leniency bias, “which occurs when rules apply rigorously to members of an out-group but leniently to members of an in-group” (pg. 31), results in the ineffectiveness of these criteria while giving the appearance of objectivity.

  1. “Women are ‘gossiping’; men are ‘talking about business’” (pg. 25).

‘Nuff said.

Strategies

The most basic way to combat Prove-It-Again bias is to…prove your competence again. Sometimes, that is inadequate, and other strategies to combat this barrier include:

  1. “Trump the stereotype” (pg. 44)

Because Prove-It-Again is a bias based on the stereotypical woman’s behavior, it is lessened when people realize you are a human being with, for example, expertise in inorganic semiconductors and a loud laugh rather than simply a stereotype. The best way to ascertain that people know about your successes is to immediately, constantly, and carefully record them, especially based on objective metrics. In addition, record compliments. If emailed, copy your correspondence. If verbal, email back and “repeat enough of what was said so that someone reading the e-mail understands the compliment and the context in which it was given” (pg. 45).

  1. “Get over yourself” (pg. 46)

Sometimes, women can start to combat stereotypes by owning their successes and not internalizing failures, which prevents a cycle of degenerative thinking. Stop waiting ’til you satisfy every requirement to volunteer for a job. Stand in the hallway and declare that you “rocked that test!”

  1. “Know your limits” (pg. 49)

Working hard may be one way to prove your competence again but “can be stressful and distracting, isolating and inefficient, and can even lower the quality of the work you produce” (pg. 50). Even worse, anxiety about proving a stereotype can decrease your performance. Although working hard is crucial to success, know the biases you’re up against, and leave some energy for yourself.

  1. “Address the bias– with kid gloves” (pg. 51)

Accusing someone of sexism rarely leads to productive dialogue. When dealing with a receptive person, you can use your list of accomplishments to argue for the promotion, raise, etc. Another is to point out when others are not applying the same criteria to people of different genders. Finally, if you are dealing with a bully (which you can usually determine if you ask others), it is better to do so boldly so that you have witnesses and backup if needed.

  1. “Play a specialized or technical role” (pg. 53)

Excelling at a specialty is one way to attract business and acquire experience judged necessary for other important projects, but be careful to make sure you always have important projects of your own. Another way is to take your projects abroad, where treating someone poorly is not good business practice!

Because proving yourself over and over is exhausting, it is paramount to care for yourself.  Know what stresses and what relaxes you at both work and home, and leave time for rejuvenation, whatever that may be.


[i] One of the most common claims is that gender bias is not a problem because a certain company or university is a meritocracy.  Studies have found, however, that companies that espouse meritocratic values consider gender bias less often and thus display more gender bias than companies that do not!  Furthermore, implicit bias does not correlate with explicit bias, and everyone tends to think that their own actions are less influenced by bias than they are actually are. There is a problem, and the first step to overcoming our biases is to learn about them.

[ii] Michael I. Norton, Joseph A. Vandello, and John M. Darley, “Casuistry and Social Category Bias,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, no. 6 (2004): 817-831.

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