It’s depressingly familiar territory, dear reader: the ugly double-binds that have women screwed no matter what they do (or don’t do). And a new book, Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn’t: Rethinking the Rules of the Game That Keep Women from Succeeding in Business, written by the gender balanced husband-and-wife team of management consultants Lynn Cronin and Howard Fine, makes the case that, if you’re playing by big rules of big business, you’re probably hurting your career. On the surface, of course, these rules sound great, but here’s how they keep us down:
- Be a team player: Of this one, in an interview with Marie Claire, Cronin explains this paradox thus: “When working in teams, women just don’t receive recognition commensurate with their contributions. But when a driven, competent woman says, ‘They don’t know how good I am; I’ll show them!’ she’s perceived as not being a team player.” Fine’s a little more succinct: “Women pay a higher price than men for not being team players. They have to fall in line or they’re screwed.” So, “fall in line”–i.e., shut up and deal with the fact that the kudos (which is to say money and promotions) you should have coming are likely lost in the mail for all eternity, or be passed over on the grounds that you can’t play nice with others.
- Attract mentors and advocates, and bond with coworkers: Easier said than done. The corporate world was built by networks of good old boys, and it’s simply tougher for women to gain entree–and if you’re looking for a female power mentor, wellllll, good luck with that: out of the Fortune 500, a mere 15 of those companies’ CEOs are women. Additionally, women who try to bond with their male counterparts rarely succeed–and can alienate coworkers of either sex–while they’re at it. Not to mention the fact that it’s a little harder for a woman to score an invite to a beer-drinking, golf-playing boondoggle of the “networking” variety than it is for a man.
- Show commitment to the job: Women who are committed to their jobs tend to be perceived as losers with no social lives, while women with full personal lives are seen as not committed enough to their work. This one makes me want to pull my hair out: here’s a fun exercise–substitute the word “men” for “women” in the above sentence and attempt to re-read said sentence with a straight face, and then tell me there’s no such thing as sexism in the workplace. Can’t do it? Congratulations, you have a brain.
- Recognize your role in the system: Ah yes, the Big Kahuna. Accept your role, and watch as nothing changes. Or challenge it, breaking the golden rule and becoming the problem employee.
So what’s a woman to do? In the MC interview, Cronin and Fine advise what amounts to a careful walking of the line:
[Fine says] Say you think you haven’t gotten a fair raise. Don’t accuse your boss. Instead, ask him questions like ‘What could I do differently so I can get a better raise next time?’ This is helpful to you and forces your boss to justify himself.
[Ed note: Fine, must we always assume that our boss is a him? Sorry, couldn’t help but go there.]
[Cronin says] There’s also a little bit of sucking up and tolerating that you have to do until you’ve risen to a position of power and can really do something about it.
Prudent. Practical. And yet. A tad… underwhelming? Don’t get me wrong: it’s solid, realistic advice, just a little unsatisfying. Like when you’re out to breakfast and opt for the virtuous oatmeal, which you eat while wishing you’d ordered bacon and eggs. (Speaking of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, pick one: healthy but boring, or a delicious triglyceride bomb?) The cynic in me smells hints of an underlying message, practical though it may be, that women must always be the virtuous ones, bending to fit into a system that not only doesn’t work for them, it actually works against them. And works against them in–as Cronin and Fine themselves point out–the cruelest of ways: leaving us navigating a no-win situation that has us damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Bending may be realistic, but it seems to me, for every woman who’s preoccupied with turning herself into a carefully-arranged pretzel so as to avoid outright do-ing or don’t-ing, there’s an employer that’s losing out on a lot of potential. How much better could we be, how much more productive, more engaged, if we could free up the energy we siphon off to maintaining the perfect pretzel form, and redirect it towards something useful? I confess, I haven’t read the book yet, only the blurbs, and they promise substance–“concrete solutions,” “roadmaps” that will lead to “a post-gender workplace.” And I hope they deliver something satisfying. Because I’ve had it with the bending. Some rules were made to be broken. And if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t anyway, gimme the bacon.