This originally appeared on BossedUp.org. Republished here with permission.
The same qualities deemed necessary for leadership in our culture are positively correlated with likeability for men and negatively correlated with likeability for women.
Lean in, they say. Crack the confidence code, we’re told. Boss up, we say, by investing in your personal sustainability to achieve those long-term professional goals.
Well, what if the world isn’t ready for us? What if the mere presence of a woman demanding what she’s worth is too grating for our colleagues to bear?
Yesterday’s New Yorker exposé on the firing of The New York Times’ first-ever female chief editor, Jill Abramson, is yet another maddening example of how our workplace culture is failing to keep pace with mainstream culture.
The article gave brazen women everywhere reason to pause over the fact that even someone as powerful and accomplished as Abramson can be categorically underpaid when compared to her male colleagues and then seen as “pushy” when demanding equal treatment. Pushy enough, in fact, to be pushed out.
The “pushy” perception is key here. How many of us have been called “difficult,” “pushy,” or “intense” for acting like a boss? How about being called – *gasp!* – a bitch?
These aren’t isolated incidents. This is where the subtle, pervasive nature of second-generation gender bias is the real bitch.
The same qualities deemed necessary for leadership in our culture (including being assertive, independent, and a decision-maker), are positively correlated with likeability for men and negatively correlated with likeability for women.
Let’s break that down.
The same exact behaviors, when carried out by a male leader are more likely to be received without damaging his likeability, whereas if by a female leader, are more likely to come with what scientists call “social penalties.”
“When I am assertive, I’m a bitch,” says Nicki Minaj, “when a man is assertive, he’s a boss.”
Marianna Cooper, the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, reviewed the data behind decades of research on gender bias just last month, concluding that “success and likeability do not go together for women.”
She continued, with alarming foresight:
This conclusion is all too familiar to the many women on the receiving end of these penalties. The ones who are applauded for delivering results at work but then reprimanded for being “too aggressive,” “out for herself,” “difficult,” and “abrasive.” Just look at Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, who was described by staffers as “impossible to work with,” and “not approachable,” in a Politico article just days after the paper won four Pulitzer prizes (the third highest number ever received by the newspaper).
Would Abramson’s ground-breaking achievements, if attained by a male colleague, have been coupled with these negative “personality” perceptions? Perhaps. But would they also warrant categorically lower compensation and eventual ouster? No way.
This is a refreshing reminder that if we as a culture want to unlock our workforce’s full potential, as Warren Buffet preaches, we must do a better job of training employers and employees alike to understand the subtle trappings of gender bias.
We owe it to the hard-working women who we’re encouraging to Ask for More! to be equally vigilant and mindful of how we review and reward (or penalize) employees for their results—without overreacting to others’ perceptions of them.
If we are to honestly continue encouraging women to focus on their leadership purpose over perception, we must be equally adamant about training our workplace cultures to evolve as a whole.
Broader solutions include passing the Paycheck Fairness Act (though that would require congressional cooperation, so we’re not holding our breath…) and for organizations to commit to pay transparency. This simple, clear step toward leveling the playing field doesn’t require a sweeping act of government—simply the commitment of bold, authentic leaders like Nancy Gibbs of TIME.
Today Ultraviolet launched a petition demanding such transparency of The New York Times, should it want to truly demonstrate its support for equal pay for equal work, and we’re eager to support their efforts.
I look forward to being part of the solution at Bossed Up—my organization dedicated to helping women build sustainable careers—by continuing to provide data-driven training and coaching for organizations ready to make good on their commitments to leveling the playing field and unlocking the full potential of women in their workplaces, and invite like-minded organizations to join us in making such training and coaching widely accessible.
Perhaps we can start by offering our services to The New York Times.
Emilie Aries is a digital strategist and organizer who recently launched Bossed Up, a women’s empowerment startup focused on providing hands-on training for women entering the workforce with a holistic approach centered on health, happiness, and assertive communication.