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Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris on Gender Biases and Conflicts at Work: An interview by Bob Morris

Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris are co-authors of It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict At Work and the Bias That Built It (Nicholas Brealey/Hachette 2019). Andie and Al have both served in senior management positions and have in-depth experience with all aspects of personnel management including recruiting, hiring and firing, individual and team supervision, compensation, and promotion. For more than 30 years they have worked to promote gender equality in the workplace.

Before discussing It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth and your professional development? How so?

Andie: My grandfather always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and my husband, Al, tells me the same thing and encourages my curiosity and love of learning.

Al: With respect to my professional development, the senior partner where I began my career shaped my interests, work habits, and career aspirations. With respect to my personal development, my wife, Andie, has significantly expanded who I am, what I can be, and what I can accomplish.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Al: I thought when I began my career that business was a pure meritocracy. I thought that anyone who had ability, did a good job, didn’t screw up, and was patient, they would rise to the top. It has taken me a long time to realize all of the ways in which our workplaces are not fair, the full extent of white male privilege, and the unfair obstacles to career advancement that women and minorities face.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

We think this is an interesting perspective but it does not jibe with our view of real change-makers. A recent example is the #MeToo movement. People seem to think that this movement is something that women spontaneously and collectively brought about. In reality, #MeToo would never have happened without the dogged determination of a few courageous reporters and editors at the New York Times and The New Yorker.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Very true but it is advice that is often very hard to follow. The desire to accommodate, to go along with the group, and to appear eager to help can work against the importance of saying “no.” It takes discipline and guts not to succumb to the temptation to be a “nice person.”

From H.L. Mencken “To every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

The deeper we dig into issues concerning gender, diversity, and bias, the more complex we realize the issues are and how profoundly misguided are the commonly accepted solutions. Mencken is right that people will seek simple, seemingly straightforward solutions to complex problems. But if there were simple answers to complex problems, we would already have solved them.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Custom and culture create stereotypes on which all of us too often rely. When unaware of the stereotypes we use in evaluating situations, people, and accomplishments, we fall prey to “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”  Each of us must recognize the stereotypes we hold and find ways to prevent them from distorting our objectivity.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

In our research and consulting, we have found that most career advancement depends in large part on being “like” the people who hold the power, the “ingroup.”  Since white straight men are most likely to be the ingroup, women and minorities face biases from being an “outgroup.” We call these organizations “gendered workplaces,” which are not places where personal growth and professional development thrive. People thrive in workplaces where everyone has the same opportunities to succeed.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization. How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Gendered workplaces are often the problem. When people don’t feel challenged, don’t feel they are given opportunities to move up, or think they are treated with a lack of respect they “tune out” and turn off .

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

We believe that organizations need to make it harder for stereotypes and biases to prevent women and minorities from being held back. We have developed a seven-step program to take subjectivity out of those decisions that affect people’s opportunities for career-enhancing assignments, projects, and responsibilities. It also assures that everyone has an opportunity to achieve a satisfactory balance between their careers and their personal lives. We discuss our seven-step program in our new book, It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias that Built It.

Please shift your attention to It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

After we started conducting workshops based on our first book, Breaking Through Bias:  Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, women would come up to us and say something about how mean or antagonistic the women they work with are, or that they don’t have problems working with the men but have serious trouble working with other women. We’d long been aware of the extensive literature about “mean girls,” “queen bees,” and women’s competitiveness with each other, but we’d always assumed that these were exaggerations. With so many women now telling us about their difficulties in working with other women, we decided we needed to understand what was behind their experiences.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

What we found in our research and our interviews with hundreds of women confirmed our initial suspicions. There is no empirical evidence that women are more mean spirited, antagonistic or untrustworthy in dealing with women than men are in dealing with men. Moreover, there is considerable empirical evidence that women actually spend more time supporting, counseling and advocating for women than men do. So if these findings are correct—and we are confident they are—there is a major disconnect between the ways women often perceive their working relationships with other women and the reality of women’s efforts to help and advocate for other women.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

We found that women do tend to have different expectations of their same-gender relationships at work than men do. Women (in general) care far more than men (in general) about having close, harmonious, and mutually supportive relationships with other women. A major problem, however, is that women have different expectations as to how they should be treated by women and men. As a result, when women in leadership roles behave exactly the same way that men in similar positions do, they are often regarded by the women who work for them as cold, uncaring, and worse.

A part of the explanation lies in the title of our book, It’s Not You, It’s the WorkplaceBecause women operate in gendered workplaces—organizations led and dominated by men that have strong masculine norms, values, and expectations—women have fewer advancement opportunities than men, and they are evaluated far more critically than men. This environment forces women into conflict with other women as they compete with each other for limited opportunities.

In your opinion, what are the most dangerous misconceptions about women’s relationships with other women at work? 

The most dangerous misconception about women’s workplace relationships with other women is that they result from women being instinctively prone—whether because of evolution or socialization—to be antagonistic to and competitive with other women.

Women do have conflicts with other women at work. Some are of the same sort as men’s—tensions, frustrations, and resentments because of disagreements over how to perform a task or direct a project—and some are distinctive to women. But women’s distinctive same-gender conflicts are not because women are inherently competitive with or hostile to other women. They are because women attempt to navigate workplaces that are inherently biased against their success. As women seek to advance in spite of these biases, women are put into situations in which conflict with other women is all but inevitable.

 What in fact is true?

In gendered workplaces, career advancement largely depends on being “like” the people that hold power, the “ingroup.” This means that women and men are not dealt with, evaluated, compensated, or promoted in the same ways. Women are subject to negative gender stereotypes held by men in the ingroup. Women and men may have similar educational backgrounds and start their careers with similar ambitions, abilities, and expectations. But because women are generally a distinct outgroup, they experience more formidable career advancement obstacles than do men. Women’s opportunities for career-enhancing assignments, projects, and responsibilities are far more limited than men’s, and their ability to achieve a satisfactory balance between their careers and their personal lives is far more difficult than it is for men.

What about women’s relationships with men at work?

Women’s relationships with men at work can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy relationships involve mutual respect, recognition of valuable differences, and a willingness to root for each other’s success. Unhealthy relationships involve the assertion of sexual dominance by men through harassment, or sycophancy on the part of the women as they seek to identify with men, become part of the “boy’s club,” and demonstrate how different they are from other women.

In your opinion, what is the best example of what you characterize as a “stereotype straitjacket”?

People often think women should be communal—that is, unselfish, friendly, modest, deferential, empathetic, cooperative, and concerned with others. By contrast, people often think men should be agentic—that is, independent, assertive, forceful, unemotional, decisive, competitive, and risk-taking. Communal and agentic characteristics are often (incorrectly) believed to be non-overlapping, contrasting qualities. As a result, people often think women should not be agentic and men should not be communal. These proscriptive and prescriptive stereotypes are gender stereotype straightjackets. Because of these “stereotype straitjackets,” when women want to establish themselves as capable leaders by behaving agentically, they are often shunned by both women and men. Women who behave in line with gender norms and only demonstrate communal characteristics, are not seen as a talented, capable leaders.

You have excellent chapter titles. Please share your thoughts about each of these. First, Chapter 3: “Not My Sisterhood”

We are great believers in the value and power of women’s support of and advocacy for one another that is a true sisterhood. Many forces, however, that pull various groups of women away each other. Among the groups that find it hard to join together in sisterhood are women with strong and weak identification with feminist ideas; views about women’s appropriate place in society and the workplace; and sharply divergent career aspirations. These and other forces lead women to look at groups of other women and say, “they’re not my sisters.”

Next, Chapter 6: “Gender Isn’t the Whole Story”

In this chapter we address the fact that women have many distinct social identities that intersect with their common gender to create what are now called intersectionalities. Women with differing intersectionalities can face significantly different stereotype-driven obstacles to their career advancement. Women often come into conflict with “different” women because of distinctive stereotypes:  African-American women are like this, Asian women are like that, Hispanic women are different still, Millennial women do this, older women aren’t good at that, women with a differing sexual identity are not like other women, and mothers of young children expect this.

When looking to create or develop stronger relationships with women of a differing intersectionality, women need to remember we are all influenced by stereotypes and the biases that flow from them. Understanding the different and often conflicting stereotypes about women who are different from us can provide us with powerful information to build stronger workplace relationships. We all need allies. Reach out to women who are different and listen.

Then, Chapter 9: “Mothers and Others”

Despite America’s seeming reverence for motherhood, mothers are seriously discriminated against in the workplace. They often find themselves at odds with the women who do not have children. The discrimination problem is largely caused by the stereotype that mothers should to be fully devoted to their children and, therefore, cannot be fully committed to their careers. Other conflicts are caused by differing views about what a truly fulfilling life consists of, who should pick up the workplace slack when mothers can’t be available, and who should receive challenging, time-consuming projects.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when “attacking workplace bias”?

Much of our book addresses what women can do to attack workplace bias. Gendered workplaces are difficult to navigate even for the most talented, hardworking, and ambitious women. But we believe that by being aware of biases and how they manifest themselves in workplace, women will be prepared to avoid or overcome them. The most effective way women can do this is by using a combination of attitudes, postures, and actions that manage the impressions they make on the people with whom they are dealing. We talk a lot about impression management in our first book, Breaking Through Bias, but it is basically a combination of grit, a positive perspective, and a coping sense of humor that, when coupled with a variety of communication techniques, can be used to overcome or avoid gender biases that can diminish or derail their careers.

Long ago, Walt Kelly’s Pogo the Possum observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I agree that many barriers and many wounds are self-inflicted. For women who encounter gender bias in the workplace, to what extent can it be said, “We have met the enemy and she is us”? Please explain.

Women are often their own worst enemy when they assume that if they keep their heads down and do outstanding work they will be recognized and rewarded. Self-promotion is a critical skill precisely because workplaces are not meritocracies. Again, because of gender stereotypes and biases, women need to make a concerted effort to be certain they are being recognized for their talented hard work.

This can be tricky, however, because in our gender- biased workplaces, self-promotion is viewed differently when done by men and women. Self-promotion—even bragging—by men is typically seen as normal and expected. As a result, men have a great deal of latitude in tooting their own horns. For women, however, self-promotion can be dangerous because of gender stereotypes. Because women are expected to be pleasant, caring, deferential, and not assertive—in a word, communal—if they self-promote too aggressively, too frequently, at the wrong time, or in the wrong place they can be seen as unpleasant, egotistical, and selfish—in a word, unlikeable.

For women to come across as confident but not arrogant, they should follow three basic rules. First, tell the truth without holding back because of a desire to be modest. Second, be prepared to back up and support everything you say or write. If you make a big sale, explain how you prepared, what your presentation was, and what resistance you needed to overcome. And third, a woman wants to appear pleasant as well as competent and confident.

Therefore, women need to combine enough communal characteristics to come off as doing just what they should be doing:  presenting a well-reasoned, calm, and forceful presentation about their talents, accomplishments, and potential. Self-promotion is telling your story in a convincing, persuasive way. In gendered workplaces, studies show that women have the best chance of success when they balance communal characteristics with agentic characteristics.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

You will need a sponsor to help you move your career ahead. A sponsor is different from a mentor. A mentor is someone with whom you can share hopes and fears, successes and failures, and who can offer you wise, practical career advice. A sponsor actively advocates for you. Try your best to develop one. Who do you work for? Who likes your work? Who gives you the most interesting and challenging assignments? Cultivate a relationship with that person. Share your ambitions, ask about available opportunities, and go out of your way to make that person look good. Don’t specifically ask him or her to sponsor you, but make it clear to that person that you are highly deserving of advancement.

Andie and Al cordially invite you to check out the following resources:

Their website

Facebook: BreakingThroughBias

Twitter: @AndieandAl

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