Written by Ashley Milne-Tyte, Producer & Host of The Broad Experience
Women get a lot of advice, and much of it centers around changing our behavior. We’re told we’ll do better if we speak up (but no vocal fry or upspeak, please), embrace competition, and negotiate for higher pay once we start work. I’m mostly supportive of this type of guidance, and especially of organizations that teach young girls how to better stand up for themselves and carry that confidence into the workplace.
Still, the reality is that young women now make up around 60 percent of university graduates around the world. That’s huge. Yet while we’re now the majority entering the workplace, the workplace’s default setting is male. It was made by men, for men. Women have always had to fit in and embrace male norms, or struggle.
I think about all this a lot, partly because of my own stereotypically female behavior at work – not promoting myself, hating to ask for more money – and partly because of the bi-monthly podcast I produce on women and the workplace, The Broad Experience. One of my favorite interviews was with a woman who made me think more carefully than ever about the expectation that women need to change themselves to thrive.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox runs a Paris-based consultancy called 20 First, which works with companies to help them achieve gender balance at the top. And when I say balance I mean it. You won’t hear Wittenberg-Cox talking about ‘more women’. This is deliberate. She says male leaders are much more receptive to words like ‘balance’ than ‘women.’
Women and men start their careers on the same trajectory, but the further up the ladder they go, the more women stall. In the US, a mere five percent of CEOs are female, and research shows many women quit corporate life because they find the culture so alienating. Cox says it’s high time we stopped trying to ‘fix’ women and instead turn our attention to the companies that hire them. Given the influx of educated women now coming through their doors, shouldn’t companies be the ones adapting themselves to women rather than vice versa?
If you’re skeptical that women do anything differently, consider the issue of self-promotion. Many women labor under the delusion that all you need to do is work hard at the office, and you’ll be recognized. This is utterly untrue. Advancing in your career requires you to put yourself forward, to promote yourself and your work to your superiors. Many men have no trouble with this. Yet even today, few women are raised to engage in this kind of behavior. We’re brought up to be people pleasers, to be ‘nice’ and accommodating. That doesn’t always mesh with the culture of the workplace.
Wittenberg-Cox says part of her job is to persuade companies that their work environment isn’t as fair as they believe. Many male leaders assume men and women are exactly the same, and that they’ve created an even playing field – so if women aren’t advancing, it’s their own fault. She educates her clients about the different ways in which men and women are socialized.
“What I say to these guys is they’ll have to pull women into power over the next decade, sometimes against their [women’s] will.”
That means actually encouraging women to apply for certain jobs and promotions. This is something Google has also been working on as part of its push to get more women into leadership roles. What Google found was that when women were formally asked to nominate themselves for promotion, many did – and the number of women being promoted went up. When the company did not nudge them, however, the women stopped applying.
This tells us something: women as a group are inherently uncomfortable promoting ourselves and we won’t do it unless pushed. Companies need to push.
At the moment Wittenberg-Cox’s work centers on getting more women into top roles (I can say ‘more women’ even if she won’t), but she says she’s already working in some countries – China, Russia, the Philippines – where talented, ambitious women are beginning to fill the ranks. Companies there are worried not enough men are coming up through the pipeline. “Very soon we’ll be working on the other side of the population,” she says.
I can’t wait.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a British-born writer and public radio reporter based in New York. As well as producing and hosting The Broad Experience show she is a writer, teacher and public radio reporter. She also consults on podcasting and women-and-workplace issues. You can find out more at her personal site.