Authors Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris at their home in Chicago Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson)
Alton Harris and Andrea Kramer's new book seeks to counter the negative stereotypes of women in the workplace © PETER_WYNN_THOMPSON

“Bitches.” That was how one woman described her previous female bosses when she approached Andrea Kramer, a lawyer and author, after a talk Ms Kramer had given about women in the workplace. These bosses had been so awful, the woman said, that she would now only work for men.

When challenged as to why the women had been so much worse than male managers, there was silence. “I thought she was unconscious,” laughs Ms Kramer. In fact, the woman was experiencing an epiphany: she realised that the women had treated her just as the men did but she had judged them more harshly.

This was not the first time that Ms Kramer and her co-author and husband, Alton Harris, had heard such stories. Many women and men complained to them of “mean girls”. So much so that the pair decided to explore the alleged hell of other women in their new book, It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace : Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias that Built It.

Popular opinion — backed by books with titles such as Mean Girls Grown Up; Catfight; Mean Girls at Work ; Working with Bitches; The Stiletto in Your Back — holds that senior women are cold, unable to work with other women and conniving to hold them back.

This opinion is explained, the two authors write, by “evolution, socialisation and the internalisation of the dominant culture’s misogyny”. And the central argument of It’s Not You is that women have no more frequent conflicts in working with other women than men do working with other men. Nor is there any evidence, they write, “that women are more mean-spirited, antagonistic or untrustworthy in their dealings with other women than men are in their dealings with other men”.

In fact there is considerable evidence that “more women than men are paying it forward to ensure the future advancement of the women (and men) who work for them”.

What often happens, as with the woman who approached Ms Kramer, is that ambitious women are held to different standards than men: a businesslike woman is seen as cold, her equivalent male peer is deemed professional.

Women’s conflicts are seen as “disruptive” or motivated by “personal antagonism or petty jealousy”, while men disagreeing with men are simply part of the normal “rough and tumble of high-intensity workplaces”. The result is that women often get penalised, they write, with “poor evaluations, social exclusion and co-worker animosity in ways that men never experience”.

This is not to say female managers or senior women are maligned saints but perhaps that some of their behaviour — if it is indeed objectively bad — can be partly explained by organisational culture, not inherent bitchiness. They might want to distance themselves from other women in a company that seems to value men. Sisterliness might look rather sappy.

The pair found examples of women treating female bosses differently — for example, appealing for extended deadlines because of family demands in a way that they might not to a male boss. “They expect that women should be their sister not their boss,” Ms Kramer says over the phone from the couple’s home in Chicago.

As a husband and wife team who have worked together as lawyers and writers, they are well aware of the gender dynamics at home and work. “If I say to a guy, ‘You don’t get it,’” Ms Kramer says, “their eyes roll in their head. But if Al says it, they listen. Having the two voices helps.”

Senior women are unfairly scrutinised because there are fewer of them, says Mr Harris. “When there’s a few [senior female bosses] who behave harshly it’s attributed across the board. We have no question that [some] male leaders are jerks but because they don’t represent all men, they don’t have to be representative.”

It's Not You It's The Workplace book cover

The book is interesting on the reasons for women’s stalled careers, often attributed to lack of ambition, low confidence — or motherhood. It is workplace bias that limits ambition, insist the couple, whose previous book was Breaking Through Bias. “The greatest contributors to women’s waning ambition,” they write, “are the lack of opportunity for advancement, lack of support from managers, and a scarcity of female role models.”

Chief among the problems is “affinity bias” — in other words, the way that humans gravitate to people like them. In the workplace, the in-group is often white, male, able-bodied and straight. “As a result,” the authors write, “male managers often simply don’t invite women to join teams, work on high-visibility projects or participate in informal social activities”.

The workplaces that are the hardest to crack, the authors argue, not only don’t admit they have a problem with bias but even trumpet their meritocracy, pointing to the odd senior woman as evidence that hard work pays off. Mr Harris says: “Most men say their organisations are meritocracies and . . . that if women only worked as hard as men they too would get ahead. I try to get men to recognise the biases that we have are holding women back in subtle ways. We have to get off the meritocracies trip.”

The myth of the meritocratic workplace hurts women. Those who do not progress blame themselves, becoming disillusioned or futilely doubling down on their efforts. Meanwhile the few women who scale the corporate ladder see their success as proof of their unique talent — which prevents them joining forces with other women to improve conditions and culture. “Women are competing with each other for one seat at the table,” Ms Kramer tells me.

The book also explores sexuality and ethnicity. Women of colour may find themselves “whipsawed”, they write, “Ignored one moment and subjected to careful policing for conformity to workplace norms the next.”

The problem with blaming the culture of a workplace rather than pushing women on to self-improvement programmes, I suggest, is that it can leave one overwhelmed or even paralysed into inertia. Alternatively, the vagueness of “culture” makes it feel impossible to know where to start.

The authors recommend small wins, such as monitoring career-affecting decisions made by managers to ensure they are made in objective and equal ways, articulating clear accomplishments. These include making sure that flexible working policies are open to everyone — not only mothers. Seek out male allies, which they suggest might be easier to find among the ranks of men with partners who work. There is often pushback from older generations, they tell me, who insist that because they had to work long hours and miss their kids’ football matches, then so should others.

Singling women out for special help creates a “male backlash” says Ms Kramer and fosters the idea that “women need remedial help. If women get ahead then it looks tokenistic. Programmes need to be handled in ways that they don’t look like women need special treatment.”

The #MeToo movement has been significant in highlighting power imbalances and getting organisations to tackle issues such as bias and harassment. Mr Alton says that in its wake some men found excuses to step away from sponsoring women. A report in Bloomberg described this as the “Pence Effect” after US vice-president Mike Pence, who will not dine alone with any woman other than his wife.

Organisations cannot just wait for generational change — it may not happen. The pair caused waves with an article two years ago that argued that millennial men do not see women as equal. Mr Harris has a theory that younger men resent women for excelling in universities, and they find solace in a sexist workplace. “You just need to look at young industries, like the tech industry. Is there any world that is more sexist than Silicon Valley?”

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