We must encourage women to be more assertive in the workplace 

Assert Yourself

In her forthcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, notes that some of the problems with women's equality in the workplace is a result of women's behavior. Women are trained by a lifetime of gender roles to imagine themselves as secondary, as the people doing the housework, taking care of the children, being "nice girls," not asking for more.

Sandberg writes, "We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve."

Nicholas Kristof discusses Sandberg and her book in an op-ed in the Jan. 27 issue of The New York Times. He agrees with her premise, noting, "When I lecture at universities, the first questions are invariably asked by a man — even at a women's college. When I point at someone in the crowd to ask a question, the women in the area almost always look at each other hesitantly, and any man in the vicinity jumps up and asks his question."

I see this, too. I see it in meetings at my job, and in my classes. Indeed, this is one of the things we're working to address in the Women's and Gender Studies Program at CofC. We're training women to be confident, assertive, ambitious, and visionary.

It's a big deal to help women to see themselves differently, and to interact more confidently in the world. But let's be clear: the problem isn't entirely with the women who aren't asking for more. The problem is also a sexist culture that trains women to be this way, and often punishes them if they aren't.

For instance, just last week I was talking with a colleague at another university. She's a fairly high-ranking administrator at her school, and she's good at her job. Really good. I know other folks at that institution, and the word on the street is that she's the person who's willing to stand up for academic freedom, meaning the freedom of scholars to do work and say things that might make folks in power uncomfortable. For instance, when biology professors do research that shows that global warming is, in fact, happening, it's academic freedom that allows them to share that information rather than shut up for fear of upsetting donors or state legislators. She's willing to imagine new ways that the university can develop, and to challenge those in power when they're doing things she sees as wrong. These are qualities that, in a male official, would be seen as characteristics that point the way to greater leadership positions.

When she asked for feedback about her work, this colleague was told by her boss — her white, male boss — that one of her weaknesses was her "strong personality." She speaks up. She doesn't cower. She has things to say in meetings. She doesn't defer to the men. The qualities that would be heralded as leadership skills in a guy were seen in this female professional as weaknesses — these are things she should address and eliminate if she wants to advance in her administrative roles. In other words, her boss essentially told her that if she'd be a bit more submissive, less ambitious, less visionary, she'd have a better chance of being promoted. Her boss told her, in the words of Facebook's second in command, that "it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men."

That's sexism. That's sexism in 2013, in an academic institution, at the highest levels of power. Let's recognize that as we're training our students to be outspoken leaders in the world, to negotiate effectively for higher salaries, to be confident and assertive, that we also need to train those in power to recognize and challenge their own sexism.

Employers need to identify and uproot their sexist double standards.


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