Elizabeth Zott is a chemist masquerading as a 1960s cooking show host in Bonnie Garmus’ book Lessons in Chemistry. Her own career aspirations cut short by overt sexism and abuse, she uses cooking to teach chemistry and inspire women to break free from the work world’s impossible constraints.
The plot would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing. Sixty years later, many of Elizabeth’s struggles remain. The #metoo movement shone a bright light on the continuing sexualization of women. The pandemic disproportionately destroyed women’s jobs. Three years on, female jobs have been the slowest to recover. It’s ironic that most of the women in Iceland, the most gender equal country in the world, walked off the job and we seem content to sit and fume from the sidelines.
The “drop at the top” remains a significant problem for women, who represent 42% of the workforce overall but only 32% of senior leadership positions. Women fall off the ladder at the lowest rungs: for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 87 women progress. And for women of color, the numbers are much worse: only 54 Black and 76 Latina women move up to join their male colleagues. At current progress, the World Economic Forum predicts we won't close the gender gap for another 131 years. Sigh.
These obstacles put women on the defensive, squeezing them into corners too narrow to hold their talent. We silence our voices, make ourselves smaller and conform to perform. It wasn’t right a century ago. It’s not right today. And we certainly can’t wait another century for change. It's the clear obligation of employers to eradicate the institutional barriers that hold women back. But while we continue to advocate (and wait…) for sweeping systemic changes, what can we do to claw back some personal power? Here are three ideas to help level the playing field and rein in your frustrations, rather than your success.
- Speak Up
There’s strong evidence that many women struggle to speak up at work. Even when they do, they say less, have less influence and get interrupted more. And let me be clear, this is not a substance problem. It’s a culture problem. Even women are acculturated to defer to male voices, tempering their own contributions rather than challenging thestatus quo.
If we reframe these behaviors not as facts but as bad habits, they can be unlearned. If you have something to say, say it. And don’t defer to a man, especially one with less experience than you. If there are other women in the room, bring them into the discussion by seeking out their perspectives, using your voice as a role model for theirs. Failing to speak up not only deprives the organization of your expertise, it can even make you sick. Women who regularly silence themselves suffer double the depression, anxiety and chronic diseases as men and are more than twice as likely to die after a heart attack.
Even if you don’t have something to say. Don’t stay silent. Ask a thoughtful question. Questions signal your willingness to learn and help others feel needed and valued. A well-crafted question expands the conversation, and makes space for voices that aren’t always heard. By regularly asking questions, you model the value of curiosity and open your team’s aperture to new perspectives, shifting the balance away from dominating male voices.
- Don’t Do It Alone
A common workplace narrative asserts that women alone bear the brunt of balancing work and family. It’s obviously unfair that women are up to 2.5 times more likely to bear more work and family responsibilities than their partners do. And then to make it even worse, women are punished for it because dual devotion to family and work is seen as a career limiting liability.
Luckily that narrative is shifting, as younger generations enter the workforce. The Pew Research Center reports that millennial dads spend triple the time with their kids that their dads spent with them. But the workplace has been slow to catch up, still penalizing women for balancing work and home. A recent study of men and women in a global consulting company revealed that although both genders feel torn between work and family, only women are encouraged (and even forced) to take accommodations that irreparably damage their careers. The assumption that work and family is solely a woman’s issue is an outdated narrative that doubly hurts women, especially in workplaces with strong cultures of overwork.
Men, especially younger men, join women in wanting to achieve a more balanced life. Find these men and recruit their partnership and support. If your workplace prides itself on completing volumes of work in arbitrary time frames, challenge that practice together. Offer alternative approaches, revisit the structures that define success. Make the case for flexibility for all colleagues and offer different ways of recognizing high-value work. In challenging the status quo, there’s no need for women to do it all or do it alone.
- Stop Being Nice And Trying To Be Perfect
Research reveals that your boss, your colleagues and your reports assume that, because you are a woman, you will be a more financially generous and nicer (read: easier) boss. This has nothing to do with your actual personality but the biased belief that women are softer and less demanding. When a role is competitive, niceness (whether real or assumed) doesn’t pay. Perceptions of leniency, however false, may keep you from getting that next promotion.
You can’t change these perceptions alone, but you can decide not to fall for them. It’s about curtailing the “good girl” tendency so many women grow up with, letting go of the need to be liked. Any tendency to adapt or conform instead of asserting will derail your path and prevent you from reaching your full potential: perfection and sacrifice cost you not only your wellbeing but your chance at a full and satisfying career.
Take a page from your male colleagues. When you have an opportunity to tackle a new challenge, don’t question whether you are ready, grab it. And when your project goes well, don’t hesitate to own the success and collect the credit. Studies confirm that fewer women are promoted, even with stellar performance reviews, because managers underestimate their potential. Never downplay your strengths, nor question your expertise. Women often assume that good work will get the notice it deserves. Your best work needs a loud and confident champion: you.
In Elizabeth Zott’s day, women wore girdles to literally hold themselves in. Today, we may have ditched the girdle, but we're still holding ourselves back and making ourselves smaller. Far too many women are tightly bound in psychological girdles, especially at work. The gendered nature of workplace dynamics must go. Period. Obviously, none of us can solve that problem alone. Only sweeping structural and cultural changes can do that. I’m certainly not letting company leaders off the hook here – their responsibility is clear and urgent. And the women in Iceland are demanding they act. But, as individuals, we can do our part by rejecting the stories that no longer serve us: the myths that help perpetuate discriminatory workplaces. It’s long past time to let go of the ties that bind us.
First published on Forbes.com