Why Are We So Bad at Supporting Women in Power?

By every standard we use to measure equality, women are still being held back

Five women walk toward the left side of the screen. One woman is very far in front, and she has crossed onto an off-white surface. The women behind her are staggered across a green surface.
The Walrus/Unsplash/iStock

We stake a lot on workplace and economic equality, often making it the yardstick with which we measure women’s progress more generally. For women to be equal, they have to earn as much as men, own as much as men, be in the same decision-making rooms as men; the women’s rights movement has fought hard—is fighting hard—for these things. And so, when we take the measure of how far women have come, we know there is still a long way to go.

We know this because, while women represented an average of almost 38 percent of MBA students in North America and Europe in 2018, they held just under 10 percent of executive positions at Canada’s largest 100 publicly traded companies that same year. While nearly half of practising lawyers in Canada are women, they make up less than 30 percent of equity partners at law firms and only 39.6 percent of judges. While 60 percent of university graduates are women (discounting STEM), only about 28 percent of tenured professors are as of 2017. And, while women make up half the voting population, at the start of 2018 they accounted for only 26 percent of Canada’s MPs, 29 percent of MPPs, and 18 percent of mayors. Canada has had only eleven female premiers in its entire 150-plus-year history; the first was elected in 1991.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, there’s also the problem of us getting the solution all wrong. There’s an assumption that, in making it to the top of any particular field, women are, well, at the top. They can effect change, enact a vision, control their own lives and the lives of people around them. They have resources and organizational influence and positions that effectively halt the need to grin and bear it. They do not have to suffer men grabbing their asses, making crude sexual jokes, masturbating into office plants—or whatever it is men do on a given day to show dominance and control. At the top, those days are thought to be gone.

If the world generally expects women to be perfect, it expects women in leadership to be superhuman.

Except they’re not—that is, at least by every standard that we use to measure equality: equal pay, equal opportunity, a work life free from sexual violence and discrimination. As awful as things are for women at the bottom, they’re just as awful for women at the top. Actually, they’re worse.

For an example of how the fantasy stacks up against reality, let’s look at “glass ceiling pioneer” Ann Hopkins. By 1982, Hopkins was a rising star at Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). She had billed more hours than any of her colleagues, all of whom were men. And she had recently secured a $25 million contract with the Department of State, historically one of the firm’s biggest deals. Some of the partners sang her praises. And how could they not? She’d been at the firm for only five years, and look at what she’d already done. In their joint statement, evaluators called Hopkins “an outstanding professional” who had a “deft touch” and “strong character, independence and integrity.” One major client called her “extremely competent, intelligent,” as well as “strong and forthright, very productive, energetic and creative.”

Her bosses put her up for partnership. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that there were then 622 other partners at the firm, only seven of whom were women.) Other partners were less impressed. Not only was Hopkins too good, she wasn’t ladylike. One man called her “macho,” another remarked that she “overcompensated for being a woman,” and a third quipped that she needed “a course at charm school.” They denied her the partnership. Twice. So she sued, and won, and went on to work as a partner at the firm for two decades.

Generally, though, the story of the double standard for women at the top does not have such a happy ending. Consider what happened to former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, one of the few executive women who have spoken openly about their firings. Bartz was hired, in 2009, to help the ailing company right itself against the onslaught of Google as well as the lingering tidal waves of the 2008 recession. At the time of Bartz’s hiring, the company’s chairperson, Roy Bostock, called her “the exact combination of seasoned technology executive and savvy leader that the board was looking for” and added that he was “thrilled to have attracted such a world-class talent to Yahoo.” Two years later, Bostock called Bartz on her cellphone, the day before she was set to appear at a huge conference in New York City, to fire her. He was only blocks away, but he did not give her the courtesy of a face-to-face. Speaking to reporters the next day, she put it bluntly: “These people fucked me over.”

These people, it seems, are always fucking someone over. Consider also that the first high-profile person—not company—blamed for the financial crisis of 2008 was a woman. Or that, in the wake of JPMorgan Chase & Co’s 2013 “London Whale” trading scandal, which cost the company at least $6 billion and launched a US Senate investigation, it was not the company’s CEO, a man, who stepped down, but its chief investment officer, a woman (she was replaced by two men). Or maybe just consider the December 2018 headline of an Inc. magazine column looking at the latest scandal for Tesla’s CEO: “If Elon Musk Were a Woman, He’d Have Been Fired Already.”

In fact, when things go wrong and there is no woman to blame, sometimes men will even invent one. Or several, as happened with a particularly sticky rumour that circulated online after a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University in 2018, killing six people. A murky corner of the internet published a so-called article claiming an all-women engineering team built the bridge and cribbing photos from the company’s International Women’s Day posts on social media. That’s all it took. I heard the rumour again almost a year later, when a friend met me after work one day and told me a “weird” story about a colleague—one who had totally bought it. Maybe that wasn’t so surprising: we’re primed to believe stories that scapegoat women.

It’s a depressing, enraging reality that women can be reminded of our unequal rights and poor representation anywhere: on the street, on our screens, in our homes, and at work. But it’s at work where we find some of the most measurable, glaring, and unexpected examples of the power gap. It’s also where we see most clearly how male conceptions of power often work against us—pushing to keep us in last place even when it looks like we’re winning. If the game doesn’t work for women and people of colour at the top, then what is it we are all striving for? And who really benefits from keeping us stuck in the game?

If the world generally expects women to be perfect, it expects women in leadership to be superhuman. More than once, I’ve heard a variation on the same half-truth, half-joke: We’ll know we’ve achieved something special once there are as many mediocre and flawed women in politics as there are mediocre and flawed men in politics. Most days, that future seems very far off indeed.

Part of the challenge, long-time feminist Amy Richards told me, is that so many people are still stuck in that “pointing out what’s wrong” stage. Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner are co-authors of the book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and co-founders of Soapbox, the world’s largest feminist speakers’ bureau. Richards knows people who are sad that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election; when she was running, though, they hated her. “We have a hard time really supporting women in power,” said Richards, referring to all genders. Institutional and systemic factors have held women back from leadership. But there is something else too. “There’s this deep-seated misogyny that we’ve all been soaking in for a long time,” said Baumgardner. “And, on the surface, maybe we don’t feel it, but deep in there, there’s this sense of, ‘Well, when somebody is harmed, or when Hillary didn’t make it, or when that girl got raped, it’s her problem.’ There’s something about her.”

I don’t believe it’s inherently antifeminist to question a woman’s behaviour or track record. Still, Baumgardner and Richards are not wrong. We tend to blame women for their own hardships just as we fail to credit them for their accomplishments. As Deborah L. Rhode noted in her book Women and Leadership, women’s work is held to a higher standard than men’s—sometimes with no apparent value assigned to the work itself. Meaning it doesn’t matter what the work is or how well a woman performs it; so long as said work or experience is attributed to a woman, people will be less impressed. (If she even gets credit at all.) Rhode referenced one study in which participants evaluated the resumés of fictional job-seekers. One half of the group looked at the resumés of a female applicant with more education and a male applicant with more work experience. The other half of the group evaluated the reverse: a male applicant with more education and a female applicant with more work experience.

Participants in both groups gave less weight to whatever advantage the female applicant had. “The last half century has witnessed a transformation in gender roles,” Rhode notes elsewhere in her book, “but expectations of equality outrun experience.” Many of those obstacles, she adds, involve gender bias. That bias plays out in myriad ways. Women’s workplace mistakes are less tolerated and more often recalled than those of white men. See: Trump’s Teflon-like performance during the 2016 election race.

Beyond that, all of us, regardless of gender, are too often predisposed to simply not see women as leaders. Take one study in which researchers showed college students photographs of five people seated at a table and told them the people were working together on a project. The groups around the table were varied: some all men, some all women, and some a mixture of both. In groups where either all men or all women sat around the table, students identified whomever was sitting at the head of the table as the leader. In mixed groups, if a man sat at the head of a table, he was still identified as the leader. Okay, fine. But if a woman sat at the head, she was no more likely to be identified as the leader than a man seated elsewhere at the table.

On the rare occasion when a woman’s success is acknowledged, it’s also likely to be undercut by some implication that chance played a role. Researchers call this the “he’s skilled, she’s lucky” phenomenon. Women of colour are especially likely to have both their credentials and their competence questioned. One much-referenced study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” answered what was perhaps a rhetorical question with a resounding “Yes.” The researchers responded to 1,500 job ads in Boston and Chicago by sending out nearly 5,000 resumés, attributing identical qualifications to names like, for example, Emily or Lakisha. Anyone named something like Emily, Carrie, or Kristen received 50 percent more callbacks than someone named Lakisha, Aisha, or Tamika. A so-called white name, they determined, yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. What’s more, the researchers sent out resumés showing varying levels of experience. If Emily and Lakisha both had high-quality resumés, their callback gap did not shrink, as one might reasonably expect, but instead notably widened.

But racism and sexism are only partly to blame for the gap in “positions of greatest status and power,” argued Rhode. The other challenge is that women are self-selecting out—or, as Sheryl Sandberg has stated, they aren’t leaning in. There’s certainly some truth to this.

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review asked fifty-seven female CEOs for advice on how more women can make it to the top. Of them all, only five said they had always wanted to be a CEO. Two-thirds said they hadn’t realized it was an option until another person had suggested it to them. They described themselves as having been focused on improving their results rather than advancement and success. “It wasn’t until that conversation,” one woman told researchers, “that I even imagined anything past manager, forget CEO. I really just wanted a good job with a good company. That conversation was a bit of a wake-up call.”

It can be difficult to interrupt that story, too, and be your own wake-up call. One friend told me that she often faces anxiety when she feels she hasn’t answered a coworker’s question in enough detail. Another friend told me about a vow she’d made with a colleague to stop saying “I’m bad at math” as a joke to male colleagues in workplace settings because really, when she thought about it, she wasn’t. I’ve had my own bad-at-math moments. Often feeling like a fraud at public events, blooming red with embarrassment as presenters read my bio, I started supplying a short, ten-word version instead. It took hearing several paragraphs-long introductions for male fellow panellists before I finally stopped underselling myself. Even so, I still shift uncomfortably in my seat.

It seems clear to me that women’s self-diminishment often creates a feedback loop, with society’s dismissal of our accomplishments feeding into our own derision, feeding back out into the perception that women aren’t ready for x, eating itself over and over again like an ouroboros of negativity. And I also understand why it is alluring to tell women they need to change their own perceptions, rather than rewrite the system, in order to achieve power.

But there is a danger in proposing confidence and its sister solution, empowerment, as the best path to women’s equality and advancement. In 2018, the Harvard Business Review conducted another study, this time using text from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, as well as audio from her TED Talks, to look at whether the DIY approach of “women can solve this” risked leading people to an unintended conclusion: “that women have caused their own under-representation.” The researchers chose Lean In because the language of the book has come to dominate discussions on women and leadership since it was published in 2013. For the experiment, one group of participants read or listened to messaging that emphasized everything women could do to help themselves: be more ambitious, speak with confidence, demand a seat at the table, take more risks. The other group read or listened to messaging that highlighted structural and societal factors, including discrimination. Those who consumed the DIY narratives were more likely to believe women have the power to solve the problem—which, researchers acknowledged, is probably good news. The bad news: those same participants were also more likely to believe that women were accountable for all aspects of workplace inequality.

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“These findings should worry anyone who believes we need structural and societal change to achieve gender equality in the workplace,” the researchers wrote. “They suggest that the more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it.”

This is how we get things like #Girlboss. Sophia Amoruso’s autobiographical book about launching the fashion retailer Nasty Gal was published the year after Lean In and was subsequently adapted by Netflix as a TV series that premiered in 2017. The #Girlboss brand is a glossier, more Instagram-ready version of Lean In that heavily relies on the same type of messaging: the only thing standing between your #goals and success is you. “I have three pieces of advice that I want you to remember,” Amoruso writes in the introduction to her book. “Don’t ever grow up. Don’t become a bore. Don’t ever let the Man get to you. Okay? Cool.”

It’s easy to see why this kind of messaging connected with millennial women, and it’s easy to see why it has persisted into Gen Z. Following it, women are largely excused from worrying over the larger structural and societal inequities that can hold them back. More than that: they are told that they are stronger than those inequities. The empowerment creed relies heavily on endorsing the belief that, if women never give up, they will triumph. The secondary, less-spoken message in all this is that, while women deserve both power and equality, they will get it as soon as they stop putting up their own roadblocks. Underneath it all, the dual mantras of “hustling” and “killing it” are not much more than a dressed-up version of something we all know already: that women have to work harder, better, and longer to reap even close to the same rewards as men.

Last January, I found myself at one particularly energetic “no excuses” empowerment session in New York City. The facilitator, Natasha Nurse, had left a career in law to pursue her dream—fashion and writing—and founded Dressing Room 8, a web-based resource that offers consultation and coaching services. While Nurse acknowledged that “we live in a very exclusionary world,” her answer to that was a message of ultimate self-empowerment. She also had little patience for anybody in her workshop who bemoaned their circumstances. “The answer to everything,” she said, “is confidence.” I began to fill up my notebook with Nurse-isms. A short list: “Why won’t you move the Earth for you?” “Is it enough to stop you from doing what you want?” “Stop blocking your blessings.” “What are you doing to achieve that? That’s the question of the day.” And, of course: “Be ferocious about your goals. You have to be hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.”

None of this is meant to single Nurse out; it’s refreshing to completely disregard the crushing influence of power structures and systemic inequalities. But the problem is that we’re also completely disregarding the crushing influence of power structures and systemic inequalities. I have no doubt that people like Nurse do care about righting wider systemic issues. Frankly speaking, though, neither confidence, nor individual empowerment, nor being a #girlboss will solve them—at least not on a wide scale and not for more than a very successful few. Insisting that they can not only mirrors the blame back on women, it too often muddles the conversation with easy answers or ends it altogether.

Instead of looking at why women might lack confidence, those in power can claim no responsibility for the poor representation of women in corporations, academia, science, law, and politics. They can say that women and other equity-seeking groups simply haven’t pushed hard enough to be there. That they don’t want to be there. That women are not CEOs or judges because they don’t ask to be. That women would rather be doing something else (presumably being a mother or working some other typically feminine job). Buying shares in the confidence industry forces all of us to keep playing by the rules of someone else’s game.

So yes, sure, there’s nothing wrong with wanting women to be more confident, but as a popular message and often-proposed panacea, it obscures some deeply urgent questions. For one, women do not start out less confident; something happens to steadily chip away at their self-assurance. Research shows this undermining of confidence begins in adolescence and continues into adulthood. In one 2014 study of 1,000 men and women in the United States, researchers found that early-stage career women were actually more ambitious than men, with 43 percent of them aspiring to top management compared with 34 percent of men at the same stage. Both men and women were equally confident that they would reach their goal.

Those numbers drop dramatically, however, as women advance (or don’t) in their careers. As men and women each gained more experience in the workplace, researchers found, the number of women who aspired to top management plunged to a dismal 16 percent, while the men’s percentage remained the same. Likewise, men’s confidence in reaching their goals sticks, whereas women’s drops by half. Evidently, not only does the journey suck, the destination looks much less attractive the closer it gets.

So, the paradox of female power in a nutshell: women are held to a higher standard than men, but it ultimately doesn’t matter how good they are, because neither their purported power nor their stellar performance shields them from the effects of sexism. Yet it’s even more complicated than that. As much as we force power-seeking women to be exceptional, that very extraordinariness is usually what men perceive to be most threatening.

Consider what one retail manager of a major chain told me about how both staff and customers respond to her leadership style: “People do not like hearing no, but they really don’t like hearing it from a tiny woman, with conviction.” Unless she feels she should be apologizing, she added, she refuses to inflect her voice with “sorry.” People don’t like it when she factually, calmly explains rules, and they really don’t like it when she enforces those rules. Men especially don’t like it, she told me. Her staff also don’t like that she can say no to them with confidence. They call her authoritarian “because I consistently ask them to adhere to company rules, without empathetic inflections in my voice.” But, when she tried being empathetic, they didn’t respond at all. “When I have to constantly remind them to do their job, I’m a ‘nag,’” she said. “But, worst of all, they call me ‘moody.’ If a man emotionlessly told them to do something—not a problem.”

In fact, women reap few of the rewards we’ve come to expect from power, achievement, and success. Take pay, for instance. Last January, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report that examined the compensation of all the top executives on the S&P/TSX Composite index, which accounts for roughly 250 companies. Among full-time workers, women make eighty-three cents for every dollar men make, a gap that widens for women of colour, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities. Yet, while the gap narrows slightly among senior managers, it stretches to what the report called “an abysmal” sixty-eight cents per dollar among top executives. For women supposedly at the top of the hierarchy, that amounts to nearly $1 million less a year.

Of course, misogyny has helped define that corporate culture, filtering it through a history of treating women as office lackeys, workplace subordinates, and colleagues who need to be “put in their place.” Just as women might expect workplace power and authority to result in better pay, they might also reasonably expect that no subordinate would ever make inappropriate comments about how pretty they are, grab their asses, or make “jokes” that involve eggplant emojis.

Not so. In fact, a woman’s power and authority at work seem to attract bad behaviour, like honey to flies. While those who are most vulnerable in the workplace—including women in junior positions, people of colour, and LGBTQ workers—certainly face sexual harassment and often feel powerless to stop it, there is a growing body of research showing that women in positions of authority are just as frequently targeted, if not more. Researchers call this the “power-threat” model, referring to men’s discomfort with women’s authority over them as the driving motivation for harassment.

It makes a sick kind of sense. Sexual violence is, at its core, about asserting control and domination. And what is more threatening to a man’s control and domination than a woman who has achieved more power than him? This is why sexual harassment has been shown to increase at the promotion stage for women, and it’s also why studies have found that men (and particularly men who identify as strongly masculine) are more likely to harass women who identify as feminists than they are women who adhere to traditional values.

“When women’s power is viewed as illegitimate or easily undermined, coworkers, clients, and supervisors appear to employ harassment as an ‘equalizer’ against women supervisors,” concluded a team of researchers who completed the first longitudinal study that clearly revealed the power-threat pattern. That study, published in 2012 in the American Sociological Review, found that women experience a power paradox in which their authority counterintuitively seems to invite more bad behaviour instead of protecting them from it. This can be exacerbated when a woman or person of colour is the only person like them in a room full of high-powered people, as they so often are.

The researchers shared the experience of a woman they called Holly, the first woman in upper management at her manufacturing firm. Her subordinates would joke, “If we had somebody with balls in this position, we’d be getting things done.” Then, one evening, a client—the vice-president of an influential firm—sexually harassed her at a company dinner, trying to put his arm around her, groping her leg, and repeatedly remarking, “Oh, I love her. She’s beautiful.” She was the only woman there. After coworkers finally saw what was happening, one suggested she leave. She did. The rest then stayed behind for drinks at the bar with the client.

I called the lead researcher on the paper, Heather McLaughlin, a professor in Oklahoma State University’s sociology department, to see how the power-threat model might clash against the increased push to see women advance in the workplace. One of the biggest mistakes people make, she told me, is conflating a woman’s supervisory authority at work with an automatic increase in workplace power and not accounting for the social hierarchies that exist outside the workplace. She referenced Holly’s case. Too often, a woman who occupies any top executive or supervisory role is the only woman at that level—a token nod to diversity or progress that doesn’t necessarily mesh with the wider company culture (or world culture). “To what level are they able to effect change?” McLaughlin asked, imagining the solitary woman at the top. “And what is their role there? Are you hiring this person because you value their voice and you want to make changes? Or are you hiring this person simply to assuage concerns that you’re sexist?” And, if those questions are answered honestly, how much voice and agency does a person really have?

No wonder women at the top aren’t helping other women rise, or at least not in the numbers we expected. They’re too busy fending off everything, and everyone, around them.

Excerpted from No More Nice Girls by Lauren McKeon. Copyright © 2020 Lauren McKeon. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. houseofanansi.com

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.