The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work by Michelle P. King
Companies that devote resources to promoting a diverse, gender-balanced workforce mostly fall short because they try to “fix” workers to fit the “ideal worker” prototype. Women learn new skills, find mentors, speak up, negotiate and lean in – all to no avail. Gender expert Michelle P. King says these tactics don’t work because women aren’t men. King describes numerous “invisible barriers” that women and other minorities face. Firms that remove these barriers can unleash the full potential of their workforce.
- Women who want to advance often try to “fix” themselves to fit their corporate culture, but the flaws are in the workplace.
- The so-called ideal corporate worker is male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-class.
- Many people deny sexism exists. They can’t change what they don’t acknowledge.
- Most people aren’t aware of accruing privilege due to their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, class or perceived ability.
- Women face multiple invisible barriers to their success that arise due to inequality, patriarchal ideas and privilege.
- In the middle “endurance phase” of their careers, women must balance work and home.
- Women leaders face invisible barriers in the “contribution phase” of their careers.
- Workplace gender equality benefits men as much as women.
- Commit to equality as part of your company’s culture.
- Stereotypical images of men and women force everyone to conform.
The Fix Book Summary
Women who want to advance often try to “fix” themselves to fit their corporate culture, but the flaws are in the workplace.
Patriarchy supports the beliefs that women aren’t as good or as valuable as men. Patriarchy is so much a part of society that most people don’t realize they hold those beliefs. Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens that humans developed a hierarchical division of labor at the time of the Agricultural Revolution. Men farmed; women tended the hearth and children. Even today, people accept gender roles early and without question, and those roles form unconscious expectations. Society monetized agricultural work, giving men’s work value, but not home and child care. People came to associate leadership and power with masculinity.
“At best, these work environments are blind to the needs of women, and at worst, they function to uphold the belief that men are supreme and women are simply not as valuable.”
Companies spend time and money on diversity and anti-harassment training, flexible work schemes and parental leave, but these are stopgaps for underrepresented groups. Firms design these programs to help workers fit the idea of perfect employees. Women are often excellent leaders – creative, collaborative and democratic. They are skilled, savvy and tough. The workplace – not the women – needs to change.
The so-called ideal corporate worker is male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-class.
In the TV program Mad Men, the Don Draper character who works grueling hours and prioritizes his company over his family symbolizes the ideal worker. He’s ambitious, decisive, competitive and commanding, and he dominates his office with aggressive, competitive behavior.
“If women choose to be themselves at work, they are unlikely to be accepted, included, valued and rewarded in the same way as men. This is inequality. And this cannot be solved by women alone.”
Only a white man can fit the Draper model – but only if he has no family, or a wife raising their kids. The less people resemble this prototype, the less others see them as leaders.
Many people deny sexism exists. They can’t change what they don’t acknowledge.
People tend to like and trust those who resemble them. Modern sexism denies inequality. Modern racism is apparent when people say they “don’t see color.”
“Modern sexism is underpinned by the belief that biological differences are responsible for gender segregation at work rather than discrimination.”
Women experience gender inequality daily. Denying their experience is a form of gas-lighting and erodes their self-confidence. “Visible barriers” in the gendered workplace include discriminatory policies based on male preferences and expectations, such as no parental leave, or the unspoken requirement to work extended hours. “Invisible barriers” impede women’s advancement. For instance, companies often value women’s collaborative leadership style less than a dominant, aggressive male style. Diversity programs threaten male white workers. Rather than seeing that a woman colleague earned her leadership role, male peers view her as a token. Gender parity in leadership comes naturally in equality-minded cultures.
Most people aren’t aware of accruing privilege due to their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, class or perceived ability.
Males fit the perfect worker model by default, a kind of privilege. You’re working in a male-privileged environment if you must make sure people see you as a leader as well as a woman – since the two are different – or if people think you’re pushy while a man is assertive or if you have to worry about dressing to seem feminine without inviting harassment. Male leaders build informal work relationships with men, not women. Men gain promotion over women because males are good at office politics and spend time with company leaders – gathering for drinks or lunch or bonding over sports.
“Women and men have different experiences and challenges advancing at work because they are different and organizations were not designed to accommodate this. This is true whether workplaces accept this fact or not.”
Women can’t build relationships the same way, because male peers will see them as too masculine. But being more feminine doesn’t work either. Office politics are often aggressive and competitive – putting individual pursuits over company goals and privileging stereotypical masculinity. Navigating this system is mentally exhausting for women.
Women face multiple invisible barriers to their success that arise due to inequality, patriarchal ideas and privilege.
Six invisible barriers arise in the “achievement phase” at the beginning of women’s careers:
- “Conditioned expectations” – Older adults condition young women to see higher education as a path to success. They assume that hard work equals success. That’s how school works. Nobody warns women about gender bias; not knowing sets up women to fail.
- “Matching women to the male standard of success” – Leaders look for the Draper prototype and subconsciously prefer male applicants.
- “The conformity bind” – Women must conform to imposed gender roles by acting more feminine, but if they do, others don’t see them as leadership material.
- “The confidence/competence catch-22” – On the one hand, your confidence level convinces people that you are competent. On the other hand, women need to be assertive, but warm – ambitious, not dominant. These contradictory standards damage women’s confidence. Managers should connect women to opportunities that demonstrate their competence.
- “Performance and pay inequality” – Women often must prove their competence by exceeding expectations. This “performance tax” impedes getting raises and advancing.
- “The invisible load” – As women progress, they become more aware of gender biases that wear them down. They begin to believe they aren’t good enough. People see men’s successes as being due to ability and men’s failures as bad luck. They view women’s wins as luck and women’s failures as lack of ability. To stop internalizing these barriers, identify them and share your experiences of inequality with other women.
In the middle “endurance phase” of their careers, women must balance work and home.
Although women enter the workforce at about the same rates as men, when you count managers later in their careers, only 39% are women. The middle phase in a woman’s career often demands suffering “enduring inequality” and facing several barriers, including:
- “Negative gender norms” – When your boss makes a gendered joke at your expense, he undermines your colleagues’ respect for you. If you complain, the assumption is that you “can’t take a joke.” These “inequality moments” show up daily with men who want to call attention to women’s lower status. If such events are allowed to continue unchecked, they bake gender inequality into a firm’s culture.
- “Role conflict: manager or mommy?” – Around mid-career, women face the perceived conflict between the “ideal worker” versus the “ideal mother.” Help the parents on your team by understanding and supporting their needs.
- “The part-time penalty” – Many people believe that women work because they want to; in fact, most women have to work. Labor statistics for 2017 show that 70% of women with dependent children hold jobs. Often, mothers find that working part-time is their only option. To show that your firm values equality, embrace the idea that working women and men will most likely become parents.
- “The motherhood tax” – Pregnant women tend to work hard to prove their competence. Moms work even harder to overcome bias that says they won’t work diligently. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that mothers generally outperform childless women at every career stage and that women with two children have the highest productivity.
- “Carrying the mental and emotional load” – Women who try to be both the ideal mother and the ideal worker feel they’re in a no-win situation. This affects their well-being. When fathers and mothers mutually commit to managing their careers and their home responsibilities, life gets easier for mothers.
Women leaders face invisible barriers in the “contribution phase” of their careers.
Even when women attain a higher status at work and want to give back, they still face specific hidden barricades:
- “Access to quality leadership opportunities” – When women become leaders, gender discrimination multiplies. Companies often set women up to fail by hiring them for challenging roles, such as being named CEO during a period of upheaval or jeopardy. The woman then becomes the scapegoat, which reinforces the incompetence bias. Women have no latitude to fail. Women of color must perform to even higher standards, but people recognize their contributions less. Men can help by grooming women for leadership positions from the start.
- “Stereotypical typecasting” – Calling a woman “sweetheart, girl” or “ice maiden” sets the tone for how co-workers view her.
- “Identity conflict: leading like women” – People judge male leaders by their work, but they judge women by their looks as well as their work. Appearance should not be a measure of a woman’s success.
- “Backlash: influencing without authority” – When women do well in male-dominated workplaces, they defy gendered expectations. This can draw social penalties, such as isolation, reduced incentives and sexual harassment. Women lead without the presumption of likability or competence given to men. It helps for men to support women leaders.
- “Isolation: in-group favoritism” – Women leaders often feel lonely. Reach out to your colleagues, and show your respect. Help minority workers achieve their career goals.
- “Legitimacy: from token to trophy” – In 2016, the Global Gender Gap Report predicted the gender wage gap would close in 83 years. In 2017, it upped that to 100 years. Inequality won’t solve itself, and quotas and initiatives aren’t making the difference.
Instead of promoting women to fill a quota, work to stop inequality.
“A 2016 study found when women and racial minorities support diversity efforts, their manager and co-workers perceive them as less competent, and they receive lower performance ratings. When white men engage in this same behavior, it leads to high performance ratings.”
Establish company-wide values that set fair expectations. Encourage people to feel safe sharing their unique identities.
Workplace gender equality benefits men as much as women.
Traits that are seen as typically masculine aren’t inherently toxic; being assertive and competitive are valuable traits in many instances. Realize that men tend to wrap their sense of self and value in succeeding at work. Join in conversations about the different ways other people experience your workplace. Become an ally to women and minority colleagues. Speak up against derogatory remarks to reaffirm the standard of equality at work.
“In dangerous situations, men typically try to be brave and emotionally detached, which can encourage men to take unsafe risks or avoid asking for help when they need it.”
When men learn to value women’s careers like their own, they give themselves permission to redefine their success to include their family roles. Men need to be more honest about their family duties and model reasonable work hours.
Commit to equality as part of your company’s culture.
Men often take risky jobs such as firefighting or working on oil rigs. To address stress, management encourages these men to ask for support and to be open about their feelings. This helps workers positively redefine their ideas of masculinity. Managers reward oil rig workers for spotting potentially unsafe practices. On a rig, safety procedures are part of the culture. Leaders are proud of their safety record, learn from their mistakes and link their value to maintaining a safe workplace.
Workplaces can achieve the same success with the value of equality. As a leader, model equal treatment and inclusiveness every day, until they become part of your culture. Mentor women. Raise awareness of how inequality manifests. Encourage team members to share examples of their “inequality journey” as a way to seek solutions together.
“Even if women manage to survive the glass cliff by staying employed or turning things around, their performance is usually not rewarded…Female CEOs are 45% more likely than male CEOs to be dismissed.”
Step in and speak up when you witness inequality. Demonstrate your intent to make the company work better for women, include everyone in the effort to eliminate invisible barriers and reduce resistance to change. Educate workers about different people’s experiences. Incorporate equality goals into your key performance indicators and business practices. Think about your brand message, community activities and supply partners.
Stereotypical images of men and women force everyone to conform.
As automation takes over more work tasks, new industries will emerge and jobs will come to include the use of machines and AI. The leadership skills of the future – soft skills like teaching and collaboration – seem more feminine than the Draper “command-and-control” approach. Studies show women generally adopt a more democratic approach to leadership, while men tend to be more “transactional” in their leadership style. To meet the demands of the future, organizations need to encourage a variety of skills. Equality in the workplace serves everyone’s interests.
About the Author
Netflix director of inclusion Michelle P. King is an internationally renowned expert on gender and organizations. She previously led the UN Women Global Innovation Coalition for Change.