All Articles Leadership Careers What women aren't doing -- but should be -- to get ahead, part 1

What women aren’t doing — but should be — to get ahead, part 1

Under a veneer of progress, what we call the "New Soft War on Women" is gaining strength, based on stubborn stereotypes about what women can’t do.

6 min read


Women earn the majority of advanced degrees, but these dramatic gains have not translated into money and influence. The pipeline is getting filled with educated and talented women, but their way forward is too often blocked. Under a veneer of progress, what we call the “New Soft War on Women” is gaining strength, based on stubborn stereotypes about what women can’t do.

At every level of education and in virtually every occupation, men out-earn women. Over a lifetime of work, women with a bachelor’s degree will earn a third less (some $700,000) than a man with the same degree. Female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school.

A growing body of research finds a network of obstacles impeding women’s progress as they try to move ahead. But knowledge is power, and there are things women can due to avoid the traps:

Refuse to let the female stereotype define you

You are sure others will see you as the competent woman you know yourself to be. Don’t count on it. Research finds that when people don’t know you, they fall back on the female stereotype. You are put in a little pink box: unassertive, risk-averse, uncomfortable with leadership, not fully committed to the organization, not technically competent and over-emotional. To be taken seriously, women have to provide information about their accomplishments.

Men, on the other hand, automatically get the benefit of the male stereotype. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, they are assumed to be hardworking, success-oriented and dedicated to the welfare of the organization.

What you can do: Promote yourself. Be sure to define yourself in the way you want to be seen. Let others know about your talents and successes. This information will be helpful to them — it’s in their interest to know these things about you. Just because you know about your accomplishments, don’t assume that others know it too.

But this is not always so easy. Women run the risk of being seen as boastful and aggressive. This risk, however, is worth taking. Women who self-promote are seen as more competent than those who are self- effacing. It’s far better to define yourself rather than just letting the stereotype tell the story of who you are. Once you are pigeonholed, it is a very hard box to crawl out of.

Make sure you get your due

At Harvard Medical School, several outstanding non-tenured female researchers were recruited to work with leaders in their fields. Having been courted, the women did not think to question their situation. But over time, they discovered that they weren’t being treated fairly. They were more likely than their male peers to have a shared rather than a private office, a smaller startup package, fewer opportunities to apply for research grants and so forth. Most egregiously, senior male faculty appropriated the women’s important research findings while prohibiting them from publishing under their own names.

These practices severely limited women’s opportunities to advance up the tenure ladder at Harvard. And it isn’t only in the Ivies that women are getting the short straw. Many universities (including MIT, Harvard, Caltech, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale) looked at the situation of women on their own faculties and said, “barriers still exist” to progress for female academics.

Corporations are coming to the same conclusion, as the many outstanding women in the pipeline simply do not get to the top. Women are fewer than 5%of CEOs at major U.S. companies. More and more, women are missing in corporate boardrooms, executive suites, or among companies’ top earners, reports the think tank Catalyst.

What you can do: Get over your hesitation about sharing information about your situation with peers. Until the Harvard women got together and shared their experiences,they had no idea they were being short-changed. Be alert to what’s happening to women in your workplace. Self-interest is not selfish. Companies do better when women advance, and this is good for the bottom line.

Challenge the idea that all the gender battles have been won

Recent research shows a gap in how men and women view female success. When men focus on the gains women have made over the past 50 years, they report high levels of anxiety as well as a strong identification with their own gender. There’s a tendency to circle the wagons — to exaggerate how far women have come and how far men have fallen.

In contrast, when women focus on these gains, they report low levels of threat as well as low gender-group identification — the “rose-colored glasses” syndrome. Too many women think that discrimination is a thing of the past and that the future will bring ever-greater progress.

So, men are afraid that they will lose their status and power, and women are so delighted with their “progress” that they don’t see the storm clouds overhead. The result? A national narrative proclaiming that women have left men in the dust. Therefore, women should step back and while we focus on men.

True? Not at all. The Sloan Foundation finds that women’s earnings have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. Two years after graduating with the same degree as a woman, a man who works the same number of hours in the same type of job will earn a whopping $9,500 more, reports the National Wage Project.

What you can do: Take off your rose-colored glasses and see clearly what’s really happening around you. Find out how much people make in your geographic area with the same kind kind of job and your credentials and experience.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men-and Our Economy” (Tarcher/ Penguin).

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