What Works for Women at Work

by Lisa Bohl ’14

Like many of my classmates, I was thrilled that Joan Williams was coming to YLS and that I would finally have the opportunity to meet this advocate and feminist scholar in the flesh.  She and her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, a fellow classmate at YLS, spoke at a dinner discussion entitled What Works for Women at Work, which is also the title of their recently published book.  Joan and Rachel had interviewed successful professional women to learn what strategies they employed to combat four phenomena women face at work: prove-it-again (having to prove their competence repeatedly), the tightrope (striking the balance between being too feminine and too masculine), the maternal wall (getting pushed out when they have children), and the tug of war (being forced to judge other women due to the pressures of the workplace).  While many students in the audience found themselves nodding in agreement at the description of these obstacles, this turned to shock upon hearing some of the strategies women used to combat them: flirting to be more likeable, increasing your femininity, or wearing certain types of feminine clothing at the office.  Joan and Rachel explained to the bewildered faces in the room that the goal of the book was to recognize that there are deep-rooted structural problems that cause pressures in the workplace and to share the strategies that successful women used to navigate these flawed settings.  The book’s goal isn’t to encourage women to act in ways that make them uncomfortable or are antithetical to their principles, but to empirically present approaches that have worked for highly successful women.

Joan also maintained that we shouldn’t judge the choices that women make.  She gave the example of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who incited controversy after taking only two weeks of maternity leave.  While Mayer’s action prompted vitriolic responses from women who contended that she was setting a terrible example for family-friendly workplace policies, Joan argued instead that it isn’t our role to judge women’s decisions.  There are so few women executives, and Mayer should do whatever works for her to succeed—otherwise, we would simply have no women in these positions.  Similarly, while many criticized Anne-Marie Slaughter for neglecting the experience of middle and lower-income women in her Atlantic piece, Joan’s response was that this wasn’t Slaughter’s project and that she shouldn’t be expected to address every single aspect of these issues.  That is, we should respect women’s efforts and not admonish them when they can’t act for the benefit of all womankind all the time, as this would yield a huge burden for all women.

When the audience asked Joan about the root of discrimination and unequal treatment in the workplace, she responded that it was our current conception of masculinity, and that these structural problems won’t change until we de-prioritize traditional masculinity.  I’m looking forward to Joan’s next project of engaging men in the conversation so that they’re a central force for changing the cultural dynamics of the workplace.

Learn more about What Works for Women at Work here.