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Bad Advice Leads to Backlash for Working Women

Is conventional wisdom hurting women?

Co-authored with Rachel Dempsey

It's not your fault.

That's the message of the career advice book Rachel and I are working on together, and that's the message of this new report from nonprofit research group Catalyst. Despite all the advice women receive telling them that they fall behind men in the workplace because they don't ask for raises; because they don't network; because they don't promote themselves, it turns out that women actually do all of these things, as much as or more than men. The problem isn't us, it's them.

The Catalyst report takes aim at the claim--now almost taken for a truism in business literature--that women don't ask for promotions and salary increases at the same level as men. According to the Catalyst report, women were actually found to ask more than men for both increased compensation (63 percent of women to 54 percent of men) and a higher job position (19 percent of women and 17 percent of men) when they moved on from their first job. And yet, despite the popular wisdom that an employee willing to move to a new company has more negotiating power, women who moved around in their career earned an average of $53,472 less than their counterparts who stayed at the same company.

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What the Catalyst report doesn't say is that not only does a lot of the advice out there not help women, much of it actually hurts them. While the takeaway message from the book "Women Don't Ask" is that they should ask, the following caveat is buried in the middle, in a chapter called "Scaring the Boys:" "[W]omen may be perceived to be doing good work only as long as they are toiling away at less important jobs. Once they qualify for and start asking for more important, and therefore more "masculine" jobs, their work may begin to be devalued and their "personal style" may suddenly become a problem."

Masculine characteristics, like aggression, competitiveness, and dominance, overlap almost completely with the characteristics expected of a leader. Feminine characteristics, such as sensitivity and gentleness, overlap almost not at all. For women leaders, writes sociologist Madeline Heilman, the result is "a bad fit between what the woman is perceived to be like and conceptions of what she should be like." 

Social scientists call this phenomenon the Backlash Effect. If you're seen as too feminine, you won't get the same opportunities as men in the first place. If you're seen as too masculine, you'll be seen as capable, but judged as undeserving of realizing the opportunities you would otherwise merit, on account of your personality problems. It's a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Unfortunately, much of the advice out there only addresses one side of the problem.

The Catalyst report says that the one behavior that consistently netted women a higher salary was to make their achievements known. This may be true, but as a game plan it needs to be approached with caution. Because of the backlash against aggressive and confident women, women need to soften their strategies for self-promotion much more than men. We'll discuss how to stay on-key while trumpeting your achievements in our next post.

Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

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