One invisible barrier holding back women at work: the conformity bind

Mar 24, 2020 /

Most of us enter the professional world believing that the focus and hard work which got us through our education will help us rise there, too. But we don’t yet realize that there are significant obstacles lying in our path. Author Michelle P. King explains how the need to conform can stand between women and success.

Between the ages of 24 and about 35 marks the beginning of the career track for many women. Women enter this first phase expecting that their road to success will be a meritocratic one. They work hard and try to advance, believing they alone are in control of their success. Like men, women want to do it all and have it all; the only difference is women experience invisible barriers early on that men do not. Women encounter these barriers before they set foot into an office, but without awareness, it is difficult for them to understand why they are struggling.

Even having access to that first career opportunity is more challenging for women because the standard of what “good” looks like in most recruitment processes is a male one. The challenges continue to unfold over the years, as women are held to higher performance standards and have less access to promotion opportunities or powerful individuals.

But once you are aware of the broken culture that exists in your organization, you will be prepared to see the invisible barriers for what they are: inequality. With that knowledge, you gain power over the barriers and will begin to see how exceptional you really are. This knowledge will help you preserve your mental and emotional energy and go from wondering how to fix yourself to recognizing that the problem is not you, it’s your workplace.

Here’s one of those invisible barriers: the conformity bind.

When we start a job, it takes a few months to learn the acceptable behaviors, team norms and routine practices that the organization values. This process is called socialization and it continues throughout a person’s career, but it is especially important for newcomers. Given that workplace cultures tend to be masculine, it’s a lot easier for men to assimilate. Women, on the other hand, must negotiate around masculine workplace norms, which often exclude them. As a part of my PhD research, I conducted 72 interviews at two large multinational organizations (one in the energy and resource sector, the other in the professional services industry). In every interview, I’d ask participants to describe the ideal employee. Men and women consistently said it was someone who works long hours, makes the organization a top priority, has no dependent-care responsibilities, asks for what they want, competes to get ahead, and is generally extroverted. Most descriptions were the same because employees learn what looks good from the social interactions they engage in at work and by observing leadership behaviors.

When new hires join an organization, they actively seek out clues for how to fit in. What does it take to succeed? Who gets rewarded and for what? Who gets promoted? How do leaders behave? What do employees need to do to fit in? Employees get a lot of the answers by watching leaders. Leaders don’t just manage the organization; in many respects, they are the organization. Leaders represent the behaviors, norms and standards that employees are expected to mirror if they want to be included. Behaviors that comply with these standards get promoted, developed, and rewarded. Individuals who fit the prototype are more likely to be accepted, included and advanced into leadership positions, which further reinforces the one-size-fits-all standard of success.

What does conformity ultimately get you? Social capital. In other words, that means being included and accepted at work. Social capital gives employees access to social groups, networks, mentors, sponsors and powerful people — all of which are important to career success. To thrive at work, men and women need to fit in to access social capital.

However, informal networks are a lot harder for women to break into. Telling women to do more networking ignores the exclusionary practices that men engage in. When Steven, a male colleague, went for a job interview, he was asked a handful of questions by the hiring manager about his experience for the leadership role. The rest of the conversation was a discussion about his years playing college soccer; the male interviewer let slip that once Steven joined his team, he could join the work soccer team. Steven got the job, and even he was amazed at the lack of rigor in the process. Steven joined the soccer team and quickly became one of the guys, getting invitations to Friday drinks, lunches and golf days. As men make up the dominant group at work, they determine the makeup and membership to most informal groups.

Even if women break into informal groups at work, it is unlikely they will be accepted in the same way men are. A great example of this is mentoring. Mentoring programs are a go-to solution for advancing women in the workplace, because they help socialize employees into an organization. While men and women do not differ in their reported levels of mentoring or networking, white men tend to benefit a lot more from this behavior.

The 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Research: Women Ask for Raises as Often as Men but Are Less Likely to Get Them” randomly examined 4,600 employees across 800 organizations. It found that women are mentored as much as men — and in some cases more — but the type of mentoring men and women received differed. Men were more likely to be sponsored by senior executives who would use their influence to help advance their mentees’ careers. Men are more likely to be accepted into the inner circle, which means they receive greater organizational awareness and understanding from mentoring relationships.

While accessing social support presents a significant barrier for white women, it’s even more difficult for women of color. They don’t share gender or racial similarities with white men. Both sexism and racism limit opportunities for women of color to access informal networks and mentors, which can become a significant source of stress. According to researchers Janis Sanchez-Hucles and Donald Davis, while white male leaders often exclude white women, they are still more likely to accept white women than women of color. What makes this particularly difficult to address is that it’s often hard to spot. Men who engage in these behaviors are often unaware of what they are doing or they deny the impact it creates. This is how male leaders can believe they support diversity and inclusion while continuing to hire, promote and reward employees who look like them.

Women have a very narrow range of behaviors they can engage in at work if they want to be accepted and succeed. It is not enough for women to be good at their job. Women need to display their competence and leadership capability in a way that conforms to gender stereotypes. This means doing your job well, while ensuring you are coming across as warm, friendly, kind, modest, sympathetic, and pleasant. If women don’t do this, they will be perceived as competent but not likable.

Women navigate a very narrow path at work by being assertive but pleasant, outspoken but warm, and successful but not self-promoting. While this Goldilocks standard is an impossible task for anyone to live up to, it becomes still harder when you layer on other areas of difference, like race or ethnicity. These identities carry with them additional stereotypes, expectations and constraints for how people are expected to behave at work. This process of getting women to conform to an impossible standard is how organizations slowly filter out difference, because employees need to work around, manage or hide their differences to fit in.

Hiding your womanhood to live up to the masculine ideal is how women start to lose themselves. Women are encouraged to power dress, speak louder and act more assertively — that is, they act like men to fit in. Women also face tremendous pressure to tolerate sexist jokes, inappropriate behavior, harassment, discriminatory comments and office banter for fear of being perceived as difficult or, worse, excluded altogether.

Women who succeed in workplaces often are required to deny their gender because of all the ways it makes them different. As psychologist Paula Nicolson has found in her research, which she shares in her book Gender, Power and Organizations, the ideal successful professional woman is single-minded, tough, autonomous and willing to distance herself from traditional femininity and domestic duties. But when women deny aspects of their identity, they also deny experiences of inequality, which makes it impossible to tackle them.

I know how powerful the need to fit in can be. My friend Emma Campbell worked in the energy and resource sector as an engineer. She was one of a handful of women working alongside hundreds of men on a mine site. This environment was so male dominated that there were no restrooms designated for women — only men had restrooms. Women had to share a portable toilet instead.

When Emma started out, she was desperate to fit in and be treated like an equal. So she began to act like one of the guys by laughing at sexist jokes, making derogatory comments, and even mocking herself for being a woman working in a man’s world. Within a year Emma had transformed. She talked, acted and even dressed like the men she worked with. But none of this worked. Emma would always be treated differently — because she was different. Only her work environment had made her believe that this difference was a bad thing. By trying to fit in to survive at work Emma had lost her identity.

Trying to pretend to be someone else is an exhausting and demoralizing process. So eventually Emma gave up and decided to be herself — regardless of the consequences. This made it easier for Emma to notice all the ways the mine site was unwelcoming to all women, a culture she had participated in creating. This made her want to change things. So, when male colleagues tried to engage her in sexist banter, she told them to stop, not caring if this isolated her even more. Emma was liberated. She could finally be herself. Some of the men she worked with saw her new behaviors as the permission they needed to speak up and push back on some of the sexist banter that made them uncomfortable. Soon Emma realized that she wasn’t alone. The negative comments and derogatory behavior toward women were something that only a small handful of men initiated and supported.

When Emma denied her differences, it didn’t make them disappear. Just by being one of a handful of women on a mine site, Emma stuck out. In fact, when any employee group makes up between 1 and 35 percent of the relevant employee population, they have a minority status at work. This can create added stress for women because their status makes them more visible and so they are scrutinized in a way that men are not. The term for this is hypervisibility. It feels a lot like working under a magnifying glass, where every move and mistake is examined. This added scrutiny places women under tremendous pressure to perform and prove their worth because they are trying to bridge their difference.

These challenges are significantly more pronounced for women of color,. who — because of race and gender differences — face a more extreme version of hypervisibility. They must also be on guard to deal with discrimination, insults or bias at work. A 2019 study undertaken by the nonprofit firm Catalyst examined the experiences of 649 black employees and included roughly even numbers of men and women. What they found was that hypervisibility is a major issue for black men and women, who felt they constantly needed to be “on guard” at work. This included constantly being prepared to manage negative comments, insults and exclusionary behavior as well as having to continually demonstrate their credibility. Over time, this negatively impacted participants’ emotional, mental and physical health, and well-being, as 45 percent of black employees reported sleep problems and 54 percent felt on edge.

The fix to this barrier: Solve the problems you create

If men present a barrier to women being accepted at work, men can also remove the barrier. At one company, male leaders had installed a PlayStation in the lunchroom for employees to use during their breaks. This was meant to be a way for all employees to relax and socialize. However, American football seemed to be the only video game that was ever played. Consequently, it was overrun with men who’d use it to bond with other senior men in the organization. They also excluded women from playing.

Frustrated, women raised the issue with the most senior male leader, arguing the PlayStation had become an informal network that excluded women from an opportunity to engage and build relationships with leaders. Instead of dismissing these complaints, the senior male leader decided to take it upon himself to solve the issue.

He took three specific actions, ones that all men can do to disrupt such practices at work. First, he spent time with the women in his office to analyze the issue. He wanted to educate himself and understand how this informal social practice excluded them. Second, he raised the issue with the men in the office, despite significant push back. The senior leader took time to share women’s accounts of how this social practice excluded them and the impact this was having and invited women to share their experiences and supported them when they did. This built men’s awareness and ownership of the problem. Men were then engaged to identify solutions to the inequality they had created, which was the final step.

The aim was never to remove the PlayStation or the game, but to provide women with an opportunity to play and give them access to the same informal social opportunities the men had. As such, male leaders committed to spending one-on-one time with each of the women in their teams. In addition, leaders identified an activity the whole team could undertake to ensure everyone interacted more. These leaders doubled down on their investment to level the playing field by spending time and effort to engage the women on their teams. This is something all men can do.

Excerpted with permission from the new book The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back At Work by Michelle P. King. Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Michelle King. All rights reserved.

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