Joanne Lipman’s “That’s What She Said” is an important book that addresses the realities of life as a working woman. This book is intended to be part of a productive dialogue between women and men (Subtitle: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together) and is full of research, data, and personal stories.
Lipman opens the book by assuring men that they are not the enemy and by acknowledging that traditional diversity training has been largely ineffective. In some ways, it may have even made relationships at work worse by shaming men (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) about their collective treatment of women. We need a better way, and this book does a good job of introducing the issues and proposing some suggestions to help us get there.
A fair amount of the book describes the challenges that women face in the workplace – all supported with data and research. Women will likely nod along as they read these sections because we know this. We experience this. This is an important section, though, because many men legitimately want progress for women (both at work and in society), but don’t realize what the problems are or might even wonder if there even are problems anymore. In fact, the majority of men (56%) believe that obstacles to women’s success “are largely gone.” Meanwhile, 63% of women believe that “significant obstacles that make it harder for women to get ahead than men” persist. Part of this disconnect is that women are primarily only talking to each other about our challenges and frustrations. Many of the things that we are dealing with are invisible to men and we aren’t telling them about it. One major goal of this book is to tell them about it and it may be quite eye-opening.
Lipman outlines some of the many ways that women try to adapt ourselves to be able to function in a work environment built by and for men. We adjust the way we speak. We adjust the way we stand. We adjust our posture. Some of us wear high heels because research has shown that taller people are perceived as more powerful and are paid more. We adjust our appearance because research shows that women who are thin, blonde, wear makeup, and fancier clothes get better jobs, earn more, and are promoted faster. We invest in cosmetics and schedule appointments because grooming (hair, makeup, clothes) counts even more than our appearance for our earnings.
Even with all this effort to mold ourselves to try to fit, we are still underrepresented nearly everywhere that decisions are being made. When we do make it there, our reputation suffers when we speak up and try to influence decisions. We are seen as bossy and aggressive for the same behaviors that are deemed confident and assertive when done by a man. Research has shown that women are seen as more competent when they self-promote, but self-promoting also makes us not well liked. We are interrupted more than men. Credit for our ideas and work is often given to or taken by men. We are treated with less respect and have our competency questioned more. We are paid less, promoted less, and denied raises more.
The answer, Lipman suggests, isn’t for women to change or mold ourselves even more. The answer is for men to meet us halfway. While there should be a strong case for doing this because it’s the right thing to do, there are all sorts of business arguments for bringing women to the table that are also described in the book and supported with data and research. Adding women to all-male teams is correlated with better financial success. Women also diversify teams and lead to solutions that are more creative. Women can recognize gaps in product development that all-male teams might miss or marketing strategies that miss the mark. (Example: men marketing tampons by showing women frolicking in white pants.)
Raising awareness to the problems that women face and highlighting the benefits of addressing these is a great place to start. The book goes on to devote a fair amount of space to talking about unconscious bias because even when people want to do better, this can get in the way. Unconscious bias is a prejudice or judgement that is made without reason or support and without the person even realizing that they have made it. Studies have shown that 75% of men and 80% of women unconsciously connect men with work and women with family. (You can check your own unconscious biases here.) Even in companies where an intentional effort is being made to hire and promote based on merit, women are still suffering because of the biases that those hiring and evaluating don’t even realize they have. There are many studies showing that there is a significant difference for women (in math test scores, hiring decisions, code accepted) when gender is known and when it is not. None of this favors women.
Unconscious bias influences everyone and is something that any employee in any role at their company can work on. (Awareness is an important step!) There are more suggestions, though, for those that may be in a position of influence. If you are involved in setting workplace culture, determining protocols, and implementing procedures, there are more ways that you can work to improve things for women. Support or set hiring and interview practices that are as blind as possible. Review resumes without names. Write job postings that are neutrally worded to encourage more women to apply. Support or implement mentoring programs that are transparent and official. Make sure women sign up and are connected with someone who will be a champion for them. Perform and publish a gender audit. Report how many jobs (broken down by level) are filled by women. Report their wages. Once gaps are identified, work to close them. Give women honest feedback in their reviews, so they have the constructive direction to grow. (Research has shown that male managers are afraid of upsetting a woman or making her cry, so they are not as candid and forthcoming with their female subordinates as they are with their males. This robs women of their chance to improve.) Offer women promotions and opportunities, even if you think they won’t want them. Don’t decide for a woman that she wouldn’t want to take on a role with more travel. Ask her and let her decide. Acknowledge that babies grow and a woman that declined an opportunity now may accept it next time. Keep asking her.
If you are not in a position of influence, you may find that the book leaves you feeling a little directionless. You might wonder what you can do in your role right now. Admittedly, it is less than someone in a leadership role, but Lipman also notes that “...it will take individuals, one at a time, taking a stand, reaching across the gender divide. The wins will come from the accumulation of small, everyday interactions of both women and men.”
Every one of us – no matter our position – has the power to start changing our workplace culture and environment. Reading this book is a great place to start!
Has anyone read this? We’d love to hear what you think.