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Joan C. Williams's picture

Advice literature for women is a crowded field and a predictable one. Most advice falls into one of two camps.

Man up! The most common advice assumes that women’s problem is that they need to act more like men. Men tend to negotiate harder, act more confident, and go after plum assignments that will require them to stretch and swagger. All this is good advice—sometimes, for some women. It will work for you if you tend to act in traditionally feminine ways: modest, happy to play support roles, attuned to the comfort of others at the expense of their ambitions. For another group of women—tomboys disadvantaged by their failure to conform to femininity—this advice is worse than useless.

Don’t be such a bitch! When women negotiate hard, men are less willing to work with them, according to one study. Women who stretch their credentials or aspirations often find themselves slapped down by a world that requires more evidence of competence from women than men. Women who are confident and assertive? We know what they’re called. Telling women to man up without warning them of these dangers verges on the irresponsible. And woe to the tomboy who follows advice to man up: she will just make her problems more acute.

That’s one problem with advice literature that’s based solely on war stories. War stories reflect the experience of a single woman, or a few. That’s why I began, a decade ago, to study experimental social psychology.

Most people have heard of implicit bias, the most famous product of such research. Implicit bias studies are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of gender bias studies published since the 1970s. And though implicit bias is useful because it shows people they hold biases they thought they’d banished, it gets you all dressed up with no place to go: simply knowing you are biased does not tell you how bias arises in everyday workplace interactions.

That’s why I founded the New Girls’ Network. My first step was to crystalize 35 years of studies on the glass ceiling into the two patterns mentioned above, which I call Prove it again! and The Tightrope.

My second step was to point out that the glass ceiling is not the only problem women face.

Whoops, I forgot the strongest form of gender bias. The leading study (pdf) shows that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired, only half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards than an identical woman without children. Maternal wall bias, as it’s called, is an order of magnitude larger glass-ceiling bias. Typically, women’s leadership books shirt past motherhood in a mad dash to insist that women should reach for the stars. This approach makes their advice irrelevant for most women, whose ideals of motherhood conflict with the intense time demands of today’s top jobs.

Tug of War. In addition, there’s a crashing silence about the disturbing fact often gender bias against women can turn into fights among women. Take situations where women receive the message that there’s room for only one woman at the top. The next step is for women to fight among each other to be that one woman. This often is called the queen bee syndrome, as if the say that what’s involved is a personality problem in an individual woman. But the problem is in the environment, in the fact there’s only room for one woman, or a few. Women need to recognize tug of war when they see them, and they need tools to defuse them when they happen.

These Four Patterns of Gender Bias provide a scientific basis for providing advice to women. Women need to be savvier than men to survive and thrive. New Girls’ Network provides that savvy in a bottle.

I have interviewed nearly one hundred women. I began by giving them “35 years of studies in seven minutes,” to explain the patterns of gender bias. Then I asked two questions: 1) Any of that sound familiar?, and 2) what strategies you used, or seen others use, to help navigate these patterns?

This is the first of a series of blogs that will set forth my results.

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