Have young women been socialized to fail in professional environments?
By: Issy Golding
When I was in high school, I decided to take a woodshop class. It was basically carpentry for dummies and mainly made up of entirely male classmates. Woodshop was an hour of jokes made at the expense of those not in the room, largely our female peers for things completely out of their control. Being the only girl in a room was not new to me, but this room, used to sawdust and male privilege, emphasised the differences between me and them. The miniature nightstand’s wobbly legs I screwed on were more rewarding than any interaction I had in the class. I entered the year feeling hopeful and excited, but soon my sense of self was altered by how the 14-year old boys viewed me—a 14-year-old girl. It was in this room, with all its sawdust and loud tools, that I lost my confidence. They laughed at my apparent incompetence of being a girl, diminishing my future as something that would never amount to anything in comparison to theirs.
The teacher never helped, the lesson plans more important than the changing attitudes of the next generation. When he was substituting for my Year 11 history class, he made a sly comment to one of my classmates about how she’d never need to do any work because she could wear a short skirt and boys would pay for everything. The laughter of the guys in the class echoed, but I watched as she sunk deeper into her chair. She later dropped the class, and the next year dropped out of school altogether.
Almost 8 years later, I can pinpoint this exact moment as one that determined how I see myself even now. I never realised how a classroom full of teenagers could shift one's own perception of themselves; socialised into an ideal for the workplace. But, in my professional life I’ve come to realize that the consequences of my socialization are by no means unique to me. Perhaps not everyone can as easily determine the moment the dynamic between girls and boys, of relative equality, shifts to one between men and women, one dictated by the values of a misogynic society, and how these awkward high school classes transition into a patriarchal hierarchy in meeting rooms.
These ideas get carried on one's back through to adulthood, the memories of disapproval weighing on applications, interviews, boardroom meetings. There’s an idea going around and has been for a while, that if a woman has 9 of 10 requirements for a job application, she won’t apply. If a man has 6 out of 10 he will. There is a doubt that pulls women away from even opening the door for herself, even when it’s not locked. But, once women make their way through the door, into the workplace, does this doubt end? Would it end once I stepped out of the woodshop class door?
The issues affecting women’s careers - familial responsibilities, child rearing, social pressures, etc - are evident as more women take up leadership roles that have been traditionally taken up by men. Have you ever been in a professional group meeting and a woman has made her point eloquently, but concludes with “does that make sense?” or “is everyone ok with that?” Or another phrase that dismisses the quality of what she’s just said? Have you ever been in a heated conversation and noticed the differences between masculine and feminine ways of dealing with conflict? Women, especially young women, have tendencies to doubt their worth and roles within workplaces and avoid confrontation to the detriment of their authority at work. We’ve been socialised and psychologically conditioned to place doubt in the minds of others in order to not come across as too authoritative, arrogant or antisocial, and this can harm our perception at work. In the classroom at 14, this was me not wanting to be too authoritative because I knew that they had strength in numbers, that the boys could side with each other and leave me isolated, in workplaces its strength in normalised language, strength ingrained into the dynamics of a workplace. It is this divided strength that slams doors shut before they’ve been opened.
I have been in many professional teams where I have been the youngest in the room and the only woman. A conversation with a mentor and coworker opened my eyes to the way language misconstrued my ideas, limiting the potential of what I communicated. She gave examples of how it had affected her early in her career, of being in a meeting room with male clients only to have her validity as a professional underhanded by norms around leadership and professionals. This experience catalysed me into a research black hole of exploring how social factors and language influences how women are interpreted and respected in the professional world.
Don’t leave room for disagreement
You’ve sent off an email, and in the final line you finish with ‘as soon as you can’ or ‘if that works for you.’ This language leaves room for disagreement. As younger employees still finding their place in the workplace, find themselves using language that sets them back.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) Women at Work speaks of the issue of women encouraging conflict in the workplace by undermining their own ideas, something I never really was mindful of. Suddenly, I realized how often I invalidate my own thoughts and ideas. I caught myself doing it so frequently. I’d finish a point in class with an invitation for my classmates to completely negate my own point. I’d send an email encouraging coworkers to deprioritize me since they already had so much more on their plate.
The term ‘glass ceiling,’ coined over 35 years ago, is an idea generally understood as the obstacles which stand to limit the achievement of women; there’s something that’s stopping them from further advancing their career. The wage gap sets in as women are further into their careers, as to be mothers take time away from work to create their family and thus their values and attitudes to work tend to change. As men climb the career ladder, the expectation stands that working long hours is the way to be seen by managers, while the social and familial responsibilities of women restrict this, meaning in women being seen as not working as hard or as promotable as their colleagues who are not as socialised to focus on their personal responsibilities.
A study conducted by HBR showed how the disconnection between personal values and institutional values can have the consequence of disadvantaging women, such as prioritising family needs (childcare and childrearing), or unpaid carer positions (for elderly parents, etc.). Women can see themselves as devalued in the workplace regardless of the words they use to communicate, and the psychology of that innately highlights the importance of values and representation in business settings, ‘People’s core values are connected to their feelings of self-worth in a similar way that being a member of a devalued group is.’ It is integral to equality and diversity in the workplace that the values of individuals are considered.
Don’t grow too tall
Tall Poppy Syndrome is a term commonly used in Australia, referring to the idea that poppies should grow collectively and if one grows too fast or too tall for the group, it will be cut down. In an office environment, this would manifest in the way women communicate with their colleagues in meetings, volunteer for administrative tasks despite knowing it won’t advance their careers, not nominating themselves for promotions or in a salary negotiation setting. A study by the Human Resources Directory shows that 81% of women surveyed had experienced hostility or were penalised because of their accomplishments and success. The similarities between what women are expected to strive for, and what they are then penalised for is extreme; a circle masquerading as a venn diagram.
Women and the workplace have been a topic of much analysis since the widespread shift of family structures in the western world. As more and more women climb the ladder to leadership, opening the doors for those who come behind them, it is important we understand the language and psychology to ensure that everyone has such opportunities to grow without self-doubt. As we develop our skills as communicators, it is worth considering how we use language to benefit others rather than considering the importance of our own satisfaction and success. Being clear and assertive does not necessitate being selfish or bossy, overly flexible language can have an adverse effect on our team, so we must consider what we say, and how this can be interpreted.
Issy is a student journalist from Sydney, has a keen interest in Australian social politics, post-soviet feminism and surrealist poetry. When not writing, she can be found exploring cafes on her lifelong quest to find the best caramel slice and tending to her (way too many) houseplants. Find her on Twitter @goldingissy