Men often treat the women who work for them with (apparent) kindness and consideration. They express concern for the women’s welfare, are solicitous about their difficulties in managing work and family responsibilities, and take steps to be sure they do not have to stay late in the office, travel out of town, or take work home. Too often, however, these apparently kindly attitudes mask an underlying sexism, a paternalistic view of women as weak and in need of the support and protection of a man.
Sexism of this sort arises out of traditional gender stereotypes. When a man views women as mild mannered, gentle, and not particularly competitive, he is likely to think they need to be shielded from the rough and tumble demands characteristic of front line business or professional responsibility. But, of course, to make significant progress in your career, you need to be continually exposed to new, difficult, and challenging work experiences. This is the only way you will acquire the critical knowledge, job-specific skills, solid work habits, and organizational savvy you will need if you are to compete successfully for career advancement. You will also need competence, confidence, and focus, which are qualities you will never develop if you are “protected” from high-risk experiences.
No matter how senior men dress up their behavior, they are not being kind or considerate if they direct you away from projects that require extensive travel and long hours, give you “help” when you are struggling, provide critiques of your work that are less frank, specific, and critical than those they give to men for work of the same quality, and encourage you not to stay late, take on extra work, or get involved in particularly complex initiatives. If you are being treated in this way, these men are seriously undermining your chances of advancing in your career.
Challenging, difficult, demanding assignments not only provide you with the opportunity to learn and grow, they also put you in the spotlight before the senior people in your organization. If your supervisors put you on a pedestal out of this spotlight, so to speak, they are subjecting you to gender bias every bit as hurtful as the negative biases we discussed in our prior blog.
Benevolent gender bias is also present when a woman receives effusive praise that is not being matched by tangible career rewards. A striking example of this sort of praise/reward disconnect is provided by a 2012 study of a New York law firm’s evaluations of its associates. The researchers found that the women associates received far more positive comments in their evaluations (Excellent! Stellar! Terrific!) than did the men. Yet, only six percent of the women as opposed to 15 percent of the men were mentioned as potential partnership candidates.
If you are experiencing this type of incongruity between the praise you are receiving and the pace at which your career is advancing, in all likelihood you are caught in one of three types of “benevolently” discriminatory patterns. First, the praise is genuine but the tasks you are performing are not particularly difficult or important. If you are being kept away from challenging, high-risk projects, you are probably working on projects that won’t count for much when it comes time for your performance evaluation. As a consequence, the praise you receive for performing these sorts of projects is probably irrelevant.
Second, the praise is genuine but has nothing to do with your actual job performance. For example, you may be praised for your attitude (“You are so nice.” “Thanks for being so helpful.”); your appearance (“You always look so nice.” “I wish more of our other women dressed like you do.”), or your gender (“It’s so refreshing to see a woman in this job.” “It must have been hard getting to where you are as a woman.”). These sorts of compliments can make you feel good, but they won’t help you at promotion time.
Third, the praise is a mask for a supervisor’s true opinion of your ability — the sugar administered to make the vinegar go down. We have a good friend who delayed the rollout of a major software upgrade because there were still bugs in the code. When she reported her decision to her supervisor, he told her she was doing “a terrific job” and should not start the rollout “until she felt ready.” He didn’t really think she was doing a terrific job; he thought she lacked the confidence to push forward. So he (symbolically) patted her on the head and then, behind her back, made a series of personnel changes that weakened her status and authority.
Benevolent sexism may be packaged in attractive wrapping, but it still can result in severe negative career consequences. Be wary of supervisors who appear caring, concerned, and protective. Sexism hidden by kindness is still sexism, and it is still extremely dangerous to the health of your career.
Our next blog will be about the biases women encounter when they try to avoid negative or benevolent gender biases by behaving agentically.