Swagger Like Us

Ever since women began making serious workplace gains in the 1970s, there has been a debate about the best way for them to climb the professional ladder. More often than not, the answer has been to "act like a man" -- if you can't beat the boys' club, join it. Oversell yourself in job interviews. Ask for more raises. Demand a better title. Be assertive in expressing your opinion. You're gonna make it after all.

Women have made only marginal professional and political progress over the last decade, yet this simple refrain -- be aggressive! B-E aggressive! -- still makes for a convenient, can-do solution. In January, new-media guru Clay Shirky published "A Rant About Women" on his blog, summing up this view: "I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense. ... Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time."

Even after decades of women suiting up in shoulder pads and trying to cross that line, we continue to simultaneously embrace the idea that powerful women promise to be different, somehow, from powerful men. Supposedly, women are natural mediators. Women know how to multitask. Women are more levelheaded. If women ruled the world, it would be more stable, less violent, and color-coordinated.

The idea that what's between your legs determines your management style is also nothing new. LouAnn Brizendine generated a flurry of style-section articles in 2006 when she released her book, The Female Brain, about how every woman is "a lean, mean communicating machine." Anti-feminist crusader Christina Hoff Sommers has written that "a practical, responsible femininity could be a force for good in the world beyond the family, through charitable works and more enlightened politics and government." And in December, The Economist reported on a new breed of "feminist management theorists" who are extolling the virtues of women's kinder, gentler leadership style.

So which is it? Should women be amplifying their aggression to mimic successful men? Or should they try to get ahead by playing up what supposedly makes them different from the testosterone-fueled CEOs who fed one financial bubble after another? The more time you spend thinking about women's stalled progress in the working world -- they were only 6.3 percent of corporate top earners last year -- the clearer it becomes that neither of these two options is working.

Shirky does not acknowledge that his answer (which says women just need to man up) sets women up for backlash. Women who are loud and proud about their abilities and experience will be declared uppity bitches -- or at least privately thought of that way. Studies have shown that employees, both male and female, are wary of working for high-achieving women. And what about women who follow Hoff Sommers' advice (which says women just need to, well, woman up)? They won't even get their applications read, let alone taken seriously. When was the last time you saw "responsible femininity" among desired qualities in a job listing?

This is a broad, cultural problem. If, like me, you believe that your biology is not the primary factor in determining your strengths and weaknesses in the workplace, you believe that we are shaped by the society in which we live. Which is to say, there are cultural, structural reasons why men are typically more assertive, more self-promotional, and more successful everywhere from the boardroom to the op-ed pages to the halls of Congress. This is much bigger than women's individual behavior.

To use Shirky's own example: Just as self-defense classes are not a solution to the problem of campus rape, self-advancement classes will not, on their own, improve things for women in the professional world. It will take a long time -- and a lot of conscious effort -- to dispel deeply ingrained stereotypes about work and gender. Women can't do that alone. The burden also falls on people in positions of power -- those who are doing the hiring, promoting, recommending, and mentoring -- to understand the gender dynamics at play and to push back against them. In my line of work, that means I not only write publicly about the "byline gap" between men and women in political journalism -- I actively seek out women writers and encourage them to pitch their ideas. And I'm fairly certain I see more results than an editor who simply professes to care about this issue in the abstract.

For decades, we've told women how to get ahead in an unjust system. It's high time we all work to change the system itself.

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