A few weeks ago, a wonderful online literary journal accepted an essay I submitted. I was thrilled! But when I received a link to the soft launch of the issue, my heart dropped. A section of what I wrote had been changed. Now, this is not unusual. Editors makes changes to author’s work all the time. Most of those changes improve the pieces, but this edit just didn’t feel right. The link to the issue was tucked into a very kind email from the journal’s editor. She congratulated all those whose pieces she and her team picked and invited us to look over our work to make sure that all was ok. The editor welcomed questions and concerns, but, still, I was anxious.
What should I do? I asked myself. I was so happy to have a piece of my writing in this journal … should I just be “grateful” and keep my mouth shut? Or share my thoughts with the editor? Did I really have the right to push back for my piece, and, if so, how would I phrase my concern?
What’s So Hard About Negotiating?
My minor drama reflects a larger phenomenon that women have trouble with all the time—negotiating for themselves. What is that all about?
Do we have trouble negotiating because we were taught to “be nice” and “not make waves?” Do we lack confidence in our abilities and in our rights? Maybe.
But there is something even more troubling at play. According to an article published by the Women and Public Policy Program of the Harvard Kennedy School “Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask,” women are sometimes “punished” for asking for what they want or have earned. When women negotiate on their own behalf, they often negatively influence what’s known as their “likability” factor.
It’s true. Unfortunately, there really is such “a thing.” I had never heard the term likability factor until I read Jessica Bennett’s column “But is She Likable Enough” a few weeks ago. Bennett is one of my favorite writers at The New York Times, and this piece, like many of her others, really got me thinking. Here’s how she begins:
“I was recently asked if I could recommend a ‘likability coach’ for a woman who’d received feedback at work that she was a bit too brusque.
A likability coach, really?”
My thoughts exactly, Ms. Bennett!
Men Don’t Have to Smile
Bennett continues on a delicious rant I just have to share:
“ … men don’t hire likability coaches. They don’t pepper their emails with exclamation points (!) to sound nicer.” (Guilty! I do that all the time!) “They don’t ask each other for tips on how to appear less threatening or—if they happen to be running for president — get asked about their likability prospects.” Yes!
“They certainly don’t have to smile when they ask for raises (something that’s been shown to help women appear less aggressive). In fact, they don’t have to smile at all.”
No. Men don’t have to smile at all. But women do. Many women live within this no-win push-pull energy. If they are firm (without smiling), their co-workers will often describe them as bossy or bitchy or both. If they smile too much, on the other hand, they are not taken seriously, considered pushovers, or lacking in confidence and competence! (Sorry, I am very attached to the exclamation mark!)
Ladies! Let’s Get Off the Mat!
Women are used to juggling, to wearing many hats—and personas. And many of us do it well. But why should we have to? Turning yourself into a pretzel is the stuff of yogis, and God bless yogis, but while we are in the workforce, in the community center, in the family, we need to find our way off the mat!
In that article, Williams writes about gender bias influences in the workplace: “Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self- interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man,” (white man, I might add), “is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.”
Women who negotiate hard at work are often penalized, according to the research. They will have greater success if they add “softeners” to their requests for a raise, for example. Williams refers to this crazy balance that women must maintain as “gender judo.”
“Men, to be successful,” she continues, “just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.”
It is trickier. And exhausting.
Williams suggests that successful women see their “femininity” as an important tool in their success “toolbox.”
Something about this is starting to feel all wrong.
What Williams writes next, I believe, is the heart of the matter: “When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotypes that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.”
Maybe yes. Maybe no. Williams talks about the strategy of “embracing a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom” and then about “flipping it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward.”
When We’re Inauthentic, We Are Selling Ourselves, and Those Around Us, Short
I am not faulting Williams here. I would never want to shoot the messenger. William is just presenting strategies that have worked for women at work. She actually refers to the different ways that men and women need to ask for raises as “revolting.” (Men can straight up ask. Women not so much.)
Still, I am deeply troubled by these strategy lessons. Is this the form of mastery that we’re looking to as women? “Using” femininity seems so 1950s, like taking a huge step backward. It feels so … manipulative, calculating, so … inauthentic. And when we’re inauthentic, we are selling ourselves, and those around us, short.
Let’s Embrace All Traits as Human
I hope I’m around to see the day when we dump the gender dichotomy, stop labeling traits as male or female but, instead, embrace all traits as human. In some circumstances we may all need to lean harder on the assertive side, in others, to listen more and open up the space. I am not in the corporate world (thank goodness), nor do engage in social science research, but I am a student of humanity and of how to best connect with others. I think that when we’re over 50, all of us are.
“Change the system, not ourselves”
Bennett ends her piece with an important thought:
“As the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett once told me, it’s not women who are the problem. It’s that we still define leadership in male terms.
What if we tried to change the system, and not ourselves?”
Ahhh. That sounds much better to me. “Change the system and not ourselves.” And if we challenge ourselves to change the system—to step out of our comfort zones and have “ourselves” be seen—we will all have grown from the experience.
Are we ready for the challenge? I really think we are. (More about this next week when we discuss Reshma Saujani’s book Brave Not Perfect.)
I’d love to hear from women who work in male dominated fields. Or who have been asked to do the pretzel dance in their communities or families. How do you balance? Remain authentic? Please share your thoughts and experiences and what has worked for you—and what hasn’t.
See you next Friday!
P.S. Just in case you were wondering, I sent an email contesting the edit to my essay. I didn’t add any “softeners.” I simply stated my case clearly and respectfully and asked the editor to reconsider.
And she said “yes.” She changed the text back to the original … and she even thanked me.