The frustrating challenge women are facing in the workforce
I was recently invited to speak on a panel discussing the pandemic’s impact on the future of work. As part of an all-women panel, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the host opened the conversation with the following sentiments, “In a time that demands empathy from leaders, this is the opportunity for women to truly shine.”
As someone who has studied Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in the workplace for well over a decade, the first question was thrown to me, which was, “why is empathy so important right now?”
I was prepared for the question. The challenge was that I couldn’t get past the framing of the conversation. Admittedly, I am not always great at choosing my battles. Although there was a voice in my head that said, “Let it go, Sara, just answer the question…”
The louder voice said, “Take that on, Sara.”
Here is why; the framing of the panel discussion highlights the expectation that women are empathetic. This may not seem like a big deal, but here is the challenge. Data shows time and time again that when men display empathy, it is seen as distinct and favorable leadership ability, yet it’s simply the expectation when women display it. This doesn’t mean that a higher level of empathy doesn’t translate into more effective leadership for women. It does. The problem is that demonstrating empathy is perceived as a baseline expectation for women and NOT a distinct leadership skill as it is for their male counterparts.
Let’s get clear on a few things. First, empathy in leadership is a skill – period. Are some people more naturally empathetic? Yes. However, to a be exceptionally good at it requires putting thoughtful effort into strengthening it.
Second many women in the workforce are experiencing an additional layer of pressure. As reported here, “women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate as men. The burden of parenting and running a household while also working a job during the pandemic has created a pressure cooker environment in many households, and women are bearing the brunt of it.” Emotional exhaustion has skyrocketed by almost 73% in women who are balancing work and home obligations.
Third, cognitive empathy is a labor-intensive competency to practice. It is incredibly challenging to demonstrate empathy when you are drained of energy. The brain science of empathy backs that up.
The problem occurs when women are perceived as not being empathetic. When this happens (because it will happen for all the reasons I just shared), it is held against women far more than when men display the same empathy-lacking behaviors in identical situations.
But before getting upset, it is important to acknowledge that those who evaluate women most harshly when there is a perceived lack of empathy, especially when it comes to recognizing the additional layer of pressure most working women are experiencing in the pandemic – are actually other women. Research shows that women hold onto anger and hurt longer when another woman breaks their trust versus a man doing so in the workplace.
This double standard is an extra THIRD layer of pressure for women in the workplace. As I was speaking at a women’s event, recognizing where we as women are inadvertently perpetuating it is an important place to start.
My suggestion is that women need to continue to support women and watch the double standard we have with one another. If we are frustrated by people expecting women leader’s primary strengths to be collaboration, empathy, and supportiveness, then we need to be careful not to punish women more harshly when those expectations aren’t met. When empathy is shown, we need to acknowledge it as a desirable leadership quality, regardless of gender. I believe this is a powerful way women can lift other women up.
“Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world that it’s crooked.” Author Unknown
The reality is, we all benefit from the empathy of our organizations, leaders, and colleagues, which means we all need to work on demonstrating empathy when people aren’t at their best.
Luckily, this response triggered a powerful and empathetic conversation across our panel.
Working on a book has meant I have needed to regularly remind myself of this. And I’m not going to lie, putting it in the context of pizza always makes me smile while also making it an easier reality to accept.
If you often find yourself overcommitted, here are three rules I hold myself accountable to when I need to say no to something:
Be quick to respond when your answer is no and allow the other person time to explore alternative options. It also challenges you to be more thoughtful and decisive. When we worry that we’ll disappoint people, we often procrastinate on making the decision AND delivering the response.
Be clear in your response. Another way we avoid disappointing people is by convoluting the response with a non-committal answer. Be clear in what you can and can’t do and then ensure you follow through. “Maybe later” and “let me see what I can do” response types are unclear and unfair to the person making the request. People are often most disappointed and angry when surprised, so take a no surprise policy.
Be kind in delivering your answer. It may not be your priority, but it is someone’s, so respond with graciousness and never underestimate the power of “thank you.”
The reality is that even after doing all three of these people may be disappointed, but chances are much higher that they’ll respect you and feel respected by you.
Demonstrating respect is the highest form of kindness.
Besides, treating others with respect (including yourself), has a much longer and lasting impact than simply trying to make everyone happy.
I am superwoman!
Oh yes, that is what my perpetually optimistic superwoman brain has historically had me believing when things were going well and I’m firing on all cylinders. The times when I am working on a project that I love, or when I am being challenged to learn something new, and especially when I am juggling multiple opportunities. During those periods if you suggested that I consider taking a break, slowing things down, setting more realistic expectations, my responses previously were:
- Time? I manage it!
- Energy? Got lots of it!
- To-Dos? Crossing them off!
- Sleep? Who needs it!
That is until the mere mortal Superwoman
loses her powers and just isn’t that super anymore.
During one of my power-drained days when I
was running on fumes, I decided to look up the story of superwoman.
Superwoman was first introduced in 1947. Lois Lane had a dream that she became
superwoman after she got a blood transfusion from Superman. However, her powers were drainable and could
only last for 24 hours.
Granted, the blood transfusion concept; not
so good. Yet I couldn’t ignore the
symbolism in the story.
- The idea of having superhuman strengths and powers were just a dream.
- The powers were not eternally infinite – they were more quickly drained by over-use and within a certain period were gone until adequate recharging.
That day as I sat on the couch, tired,
ineffective and in low spirits, I was reminded that I am not superwoman and no
amount of wishing will make it so. No
one has superhuman strengths because we are HUMAN and that includes me. I am not ‘less’ of a person if I can’t find
an extra 5 hours in a day, or if I need to get more than 5 hours of sleep or if
I can’t cross off every “to-do,” every day.
And for the days that I do seem to pull off
the impossible superwoman feats, I need to remember it is an expectation, not
the rule and all energy is finite. If I
keep in the mode of relentless pursuit of trying to do it all, I drain my
powers and there are consequences.
It is funny how I often I’ve thought of
Superwoman as a symbol of strength, but maybe I can use her as a reminder of my
humanness. To remind me to accept my
limitations and acknowledge them – not to be constrained by them or defined by
them, but to have compassion for the fact that I have them.
To know my energy limits is a strength and
to restore my energy is a responsibility – that knowledge is my superpower.
How to check if the protector bias is holding women back in your company
After six years of working for a mining company, Joanne was considering
leaving. It wasn’t due to a lack of
support or the hostility of working in a male-dominated industry. Instead, she
wanted to quit because her performance reviews were too good.
Knowing there were things she needed to learn, she was open with Paul, her leader, asking for performance feedback. During their one-on-ones, Paul praised Joanne’s passion and drive. Instead of actionable, specific feedback, he offered to reduce her workload to alleviate the pressure. The problem was, Joanne didn’t need less work, she needed the feedback not only to learn and grow but to gain exposure and credibility with the senior team and evolve in the company. Without feedback, she felt stunted in her development. Unfortunately, research suggests she’s correct.
When she told Paul that she felt underused, Paul was
surprised. He didn’t believe Joanne was
less competent than her male counterparts. In fact, he viewed her as a high
potential. However, he knew that Joanne
was taking care of a sick parent.
Although she had a support network at home that allowed her to be
present and focused at work, he buffered her from critical feedback because he
didn’t want to hurt or overwhelm her. His justification was simple: he was only
trying to help.
the surface, it appears Paul is a supportive, empathetic leader. Unfortunately,
Paul’s underlying assumption that Joanne needed to be protected was turning out
to be more detrimental than helpful.
Women in the Workplace Report,
a comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America, shows women receive as much as 20% less specific and
developmentally focused feedback to help them improve performance and
address potential career derailers vs. their male counterparts. These findings
are reinforced by Shelley
Correll and Caroline Simard’s research.
After reviewing 200+ performance
reviews, they found women consistently receive vague feedback both in terms of praise and constructive direction.
Paul was falling into a common bias towards
women: the “Protector Bias,” or better known in psychological circles as
the benevolent bias. He was demonstrating excessive concern for Joanne’s
welfare, casting her as weak, less able to handle pressure and in need of his
protection (Glick et
Unlike overt sexism, the protector bias appears
in the form of excessive praise and kindness, especially in male-dominated
industries. What’s less obvious (but
more dangerous) is that when it comes to developmental feedback, promotions,
challenging projects and high-pressure roles, women are often overlooked by
these same managers. While these male leaders often have good intentions,
the protector bias can damage women’s careers.
How does this fly under the radar?
First, the protector
bias is hard to identify because it doesn’t
seem discriminatory. To determine if the protector bias
is holding women back in your organization, look for indicators in direct
conversations with women, discussions
about women and written performance
reviews. Are women being highly and
generally praised for their performance but getting less performance-specific
feedback? Look for generalities like “we
love her work ethic” or “people love working with her.” Though nice sentiments, they don’t provide
actionable performance feedback to drive growth. Specific feedback could include: “find
opportunities to attend regional meetings and share your division’s goals and
priorities to aid in buy-in alignment.”
hard-to-detect bias can be far more detrimental than overt discrimination. In a 2007 study, researchers investigated the impact of
benevolent sexism versus overt sexism on women’s performance. They found
benevolent sexism more negatively impacted women’s performance, increased their
self-doubt, and eroded confidence. These cues of women needing more direction,
assistance and protection were picked up by others, further undermining women’s
competence, confidence and increased the chance of achievements and ability being
overlooked when promotions and challenging opportunities arose.
Finally, it’s hard to
address because the “offender” feels like they’re helping women, not holding
them back. Most
men would say they believe women are just as capable as men. Andrea Kramer, the author of “Breaking through Bias” found that only 12% of men think
gender bias is a problem in their organization, yet looking at the disparity in
pay, promotions, and female executive leaders, the problem is vastly
research shows that women have a second layer
of pressure that men don’t. Women must fight harder for status, are
under-represented, have smaller networks with less support, and must “prove”
themselves in a still-patriarchal business environment.
If feedback is expressed differently for men than women, a check-in is
Paul needs to consider if providing “kind” feedback is a
pattern with just Joanne (the only woman in his group) or with all his direct
Ask these three questions to determine whether the Protector Bias is
holding women back in your company when it comes to giving feedback:
- Is it for
you? Are you being too
“kind” with feedback because you don’t want to look bad, hurt the relationship,
or have employees dislike you? If so, you’re
missing opportunities with your female employees and all your potential higher
performers. Constructive, development-focused
feedback is key to professional growth and competence.
- Is it for her? You don’t want to hurt her feelings, or worry
that she won’t be able to handle the feedback?
Do you want to “protect” her? If
so, you’ll limit your female employees’ growth and/or retention of high
- If a male colleague were standing in front of you, would you feel
the same apprehension in giving feedback? If there’s any hesitation in your answer, pay
A Strategy for Paul. Paul should consciously shift his
mindset and think about the specifics.
Before his next conversation with Joanne, he needs to consider how
specific feedback could help her grow. He should also realize that a lack of
information will hold Joanne back and imply that she’s less competent than her
A strategy for Joanne. Joanne needs to continue pushing for
specific feedback. After the next
conversation with Paul, she needs to continue to focus on her performance and
keep the intrusive self-doubts at bay.
Joanne needs to trust herself, continue to build her awareness, and
elicit feedback from others as well, taking her development and career
evolution in her own hands as much as possible.
As Dr. Kristen Jones shared in her article Stop protecting Women from Challenging Work, “All people like to be treated with courtesy and respect. But it does mean that some behaviors — those that are patronizing, overly protective, and unsolicited — can be harmful”. Don’t let kindness impair a career.
Originally posted here: https://trainingmag.com/%E2%80%9Cstop-killing-women-kindness%E2%80%9D