I work with young women, mentoring, and coaching them, inspiring them to bring out the best in each other and to find the best in themselves.
I grew up thinking that gender equality was a problem of the past, that men and women were already treated equally. It sounds like a good thing to tell a little girl, but I don’t think that holding that belief was helpful.
When you are not aware of a problem you are more likely to exhibit the behavior yourself and fail to address it when you see it in other people.
Women are just as hard on other women as men are. In the Heidi/Howard Study outlined by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In she details how researchers at Columbia Business School ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.
They gave half the students an employee profile about a woman named Heidi, who was an entrepreneur who became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality…and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.”
The other half of the students read the same profile, but with the named changed to Howard.
What did they find?
Everyone loved Howard! They thought he was competent and a very appealing colleague.
Heidi, on the other hand? Sure, she seemed competent, but not likable, not trustworthy, and “not the type of person would want to hire or work for.”
Exact same profile, only the gender was changed. Further studies have verified that both the men and women judge women as being competent or likable, not both.
When I first read this I thought my head would explode. When I tell the young women I work with about this they stare at me with wide, disbelieving eyes.
I ask them “So you can be considered competent or liked. Which will you pick?” They stare at me in silence. Then I say “Or do you think it is complete crap that we have to choose?”
Yes, yes, complete crap, they say.
Okay, I tell them, here is the first step. Then don’t ever be guilty of this. Don’t ever be guilty of judging a man and a woman differently for the same thing. If you see your friends doing it please tell them what you know and have them swear they won’t do it, either. We are 51% of the population. Believe in yourselves and support each other. We can change this.
And I still believe we can.
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