When I began using e-mail in college, I drew a line in the sand; my correspondence would be exclamation point-free. The offending punctuation reeked of a certain kind of girlishness, of the sort of undiscerning enthusiasm I attributed to chicks who had really liked sleep-away horseback riding camp and who made decoupage scrapbooks for their boyfriends. It was not for me. My jokes read as deadpan, my parting “thank you” or “see you soon” solemn.
Roughly a decade later, I am a promiscuous user of the exclamation point, and it is, along with frantic sunscreen application and plant-watering, among the most adult things I do. I plop them in at the end of work e-mails asking for something ASAP. They mitigate sarcasm that might be read as too abrasive; they are my ever-so-tight e-mail smile that says, in the face of annoyance or impending disaster, "I’m competent yet friendly and I’m totally not pissed at you!" (Just the situation that you happened to create!)
The exclamation point is, in short, the most visible sign of how I’ve had to adapt to the working world as a woman—so much so, that when I heard that New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson had been fired last Wednesday, my correspondence behavior was among the first things that came to mind. Alongside allegations that she had been ousted for protesting that her pay was less than her male predecessors were reports that Abramson had “serious tension” with publisher Arthur Sulzberger, that she was thought to be “polarizing and mercurial” by some employees, and had clashed with her managing editor Dean Baquet.
"I bet she sends scary, exclamation point-free e-mails," I thought to myself—and then set to wondering whether a woman 30 years younger than Abramson would have had the same kind of trouble with her colleagues, if she would have cultivated the same “scary” persona. Might younger generations of women actually understand the realities of workplace power dynamics better than their elders?
About a year or so after college, my group of close female friends started in earnest what has become an ongoing, years-long conversation about how we might present ourselves appealingly in office settings to get what we want. And I’m not talking about the tight skirt and the push-up bra variety of leaning in. Among the things we strategize, over Gchat or beers:
- how to network in a mostly-male corporate environment without being perceived as either on-the-prowl or too pushy;
- how to nicely say "no" to coworkers who try to foist projects on you;
- how to wean oneself off of saying “sorry” compulsively (accompanied by complaints about older men who condescendingly point out your verbal tic in an effort to be helpful);
- how to be neither sheepish nor grating when asking for a raise.
Essentially, we’ve been giving each other a gradual, seat-of-our-pants management-consulting course. But the tone of the conversation is rarely "Go in there and let ‘em have it!" Cautious diplomacy is an overarching theme.
In the period leading up to her firing, Jill Abramson reportedly hired a consultant to help round out her managerial rough edges, which suggests she realized—too late—that her way of doing business wasn’t working. I wondered if, before then, any of her friends had even thought to give her a gut-check about her management style. After all, what she had been doing had gotten her to the top of the New York Times.
Few women born in the 1980s have had any fanny-slapping, get-me-a-coffee-sweetie discriminatory shenanigans to deal with. Sexism still exists, of course; it’s just less overt, so younger women’s workplace feminism focuses on how to finesse their way to the top, while Abramson and her contemporaries had to barrel their way there. Younger women are already on the inside, looking for ways to work within the system. It’s a funny bit of generational asymmetry that the women who have reached the boss-power level are of the most radical, glass ceiling-shattering generation, while those women on the rise are coming of age at a time when study after study is published giving empirical evidence that being openly pushy at the workplace can be detrimental to one’s career.
Cathy Tinsley, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business teaches a class called “Developing Women Leaders: Cultivating Your Human and Social Capital.” The most effective way for a woman to wield her power in the workplace, Tinsley says, is to lean right into the stereotype of women being nurturing fixers.
“You want to separate the people from the problem,” Tinsley says. “Be problem-solving in your orientation, but be very soft on the people. Never raise your voice.” She suggests things as small as sitting on the same side of a table as a person to communicate solidarity, even if you are, in reality, eviscerating them. Two friends, each with a honey voice and a disarming openness about them came to mind—one has excelled young in a macho sector and the other makes a living getting people to answer probing personal questions. Their literal sweet-talking has served them well so far.
At the same time, in order to succeed, a woman also has to have some overt game on the confidence front. Women get demerit points for being too self-effacing, Tinsley says. Collective experience bears that out.
“In a peer review, a colleague wrote that I said ‘I'm sorry’ too much and it made them wonder if I always knew what I was doing and/or if I made a lot of mistakes,” a friend who works in non-profits told me. “It made me feel like crap, but it's also made me a lot more careful about reflexively saying ‘I'm sorry.’"
Of course “Separate the People From the Problem” and “Seriously, Stop Saying 'Sorry'” make for weaker empowerment slogans than “You go, girl!” or a #girls #pushy internet meme. We like to idealize women—usually older ones—who are larger than life, who don’t give a rat’s patoosh, who wouldn’t think to compulsively apologize. I remember reading a 2010 profile of Abramson and studying the picture of her that went along with the piece: Austere in a dark dress, precise bob and dead-on stare, she looked like power incarnate. I tore the picture out and kept it.
But how much do people actually like those women as bosses in real life? Don’t women bristle just as often as men at females who take the more assertive route at work? Gender essentialism knows no bounds. A 2013 found that more Americans would rather work for a male boss than a female one; 40 percent of women preferred those male bosses. Society’s ambiguous relationship with female power is alive and well. Last week’s blow-up at the New York Times is just a high-profile reminder.
Perhaps younger women who have sold out on the exclamation point front, built workplace strategies around softening their personas, and inhabited female behavioral stereotypes, are setting back women’s progress writ large. But they’re being rewarded for it—there’s a reason why Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive of fame, tells women to be deferential and polite when asking for a raise. Does that mean we’re acclimatizing another generation of men (and women) to believe—however subconsciously—that there’s a certain “female” way to act as one climbs the career ladder? Sure, women will still get ahead and, at least for a time, men will fashionably continue to “check their privilege”—but is that really a status quo we want?