Bonnie Low-Kramen on the many things that hold women back

There are many things holding women back at work, but something can be done – it’s just up to us.

In March 2008, I wrote an article called How to Stand Up For Yourself Without Losing Your Job, which dealt with the topic of respect, and lack thereof, in today’s workplace. I received many letters about that piece which confirmed that the subject hit a collective nerve from coast to coast. The message was clear that these issues – respect, abuse in the workplace, and the need to speak up – are even more important in 2012 as they were then. In my mind, these are totally solvable issues – but it’s going to take awareness and hard work.

So ladies, can we talk?

I could never have written this article until now. Why? Writing my book, Be the Ultimate Assistant, in 2004, teaching and speaking has given me access to hundreds of admins and employers from all over the world. These people, and many of you, have shared stories and concerns over what is actually happening in offices across the globe. This access has broadened my scope well beyond New York City and the celebrity assistant world. This article is about what I’ve learned, the problems I see, and some reality-based strategies about what we can do about them if we decide to do so.

As a 54-year old woman who has been a working professional for more than 30 years, I see that women have come a long way, but we’ve still got a way to go. From experience, I know that if we decide a problem exists, we can come up with an action plan and affect change in our workplace – one admin, one woman at a time. We won’t agree on everything, but it will make for a mind-opening dialogue. We need to start.

The subject is messy and complicated. There are no simple solutions and some of the tough stuff about women dealing with other women can make us feel quietly very uncomfortable. Frankly, that’s why I’m excited and want to tackle it. I hope you feel the same way. What’s at stake is nothing short of women realizing their fullest potential at work and in life.

The Facts about Gender

In the U.S., there are 4.1 million administrative professionals in our country and 95% of us are women. That’s domination – literally. In addition, 25% of all managers are women as well and that number continues to grow. More and more offices are populated with women working with, and for, other women.

While an article such as this could explore the issues between women and men in the workplace, I won’t be doing that. In this article, I will address and focus on the 95%.

Stereotypes and Perception

One reason stereotypes exist and persist is because there is usually an element of truth in them. Remember that if something is perceived as truth, then it becomes real, even if it really isn’t. Perception morphing into reality can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but only if we allow it. For example, in the film The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays a nightmare boss and Anne Hathaway plays her abused assistant. The perception becomes the stereotype that all female managers are tyrants and all young assistants are verbally abused victims. Admins know this is not true, but how do we alter the perception? Is it even possible? Yes. It is extremely hard to do, but the one area about which we have total control is our own behavior. Nothing alters perception more than actions.

In this context, let’s look at the top two commonly held and troublesome beliefs, stereotypes, and perceptions about women in the workplace. These are:

1. Women don’t help other women.
2. Women suffer in silence. We don’t speak up even when we know we should.

Perception #1 – Women don’t help other women

Only you know if this perception is true in your office and in your life. Veteran admins (those in the profession for more than 20 years) nod their heads when I talk about the need for women to help other women in the workplace. They agree it makes complete sense, but that it is a real problem nonetheless. The reality of our ever-changing workplace is that there is too much at stake to behave in an isolationist, contentious or competitive manner. Who among us has not been witness to passive-aggressive behaviors between women? It is simply not possible to do excellent work when this dynamic is in play.

As fast as technology is changing, admins cannot possibly know everything, and therefore, we must look towards one another for open support, information and organized mentoring. No longer can we afford to rely on haphazard sharing of information. The good news is that there is no better group of people to be given the job of figuring out how to fix it. Given an assignment and the authority to implement, administrative professionals can do anything.

Women need each other in the workplace. Let me be clear. Women don’t need to be personal friends with everyone in the office. Women do need to nurture positive, professional relationships with everyone in the office. Two heads are most definitely better than one. The LinkedIn discussion groups are a beautiful development for admins. This is a win/win situation and everyone benefits.

Make it your business to get to know as many peers and colleagues as you can. (Men have been doing this well for a very long time, but that is another article.) Cast a very wide net, distribute your own business cards, and hold onto every contact because you just never know when they will be useful. Membership in professional organizations and networking groups has never been more important given the global nature of our work. Networking, building healthy professional relationships, happens most effectively when you generously and enthusiastically help someone out. Then when you are looking for a new job or a solution to a time-sensitive problem, you have many people to call upon who are inclined to help you. Women remember those who help. Don’t you?

When your female colleague gets promoted, every woman is elevated and the glass ceiling cracks a little more. This is not hyperbole. The next time it could be you.

A well-known national corporation has begun a system in their office to connect their large base of admin staff. They have created an Excel spreadsheet listing every admin by department, contact information and her areas of expertise. That way if Admin A needs help with a PowerPoint demonstration, she accesses the Excel file to find out she can utilize Admin F as a resource. This system is a wonderful way to inspire teamwork, cooperation and collaboration. It’s a simple solution that can work for companies large and small.

Nancy Fox is a successful business owner (The Business Fox) in her 50’s in Los Angeles. When I discussed with Nancy that some women behave destructively towards other women in the workplace, she looked at me and said, ‘I used to be one of those women.’ After I got over my surprise, I asked her how it changed.

She told me the story of a sales meeting where she was told, ‘You’re not going to get the new business because we heard you were trouble.’ Nancy knew they were right. What they meant by ’trouble’ was that she was a woman who believed that the ends justified any means, and that meant self-centered tactics and not caring whose feelings got hurt or who got stepped on. People notice these things and Nancy understood that her behavior was now negatively impacting her own professional life. She decided to change the way she operated from that day forward. Nancy now fervently believes that women need to help one another succeed in the workplace and her business is thriving. To that end, she helped me with this article.

Perception #2 – Women suffer in silence. They don’t speak up even when they know they should

Psychologist Dr. Maddy Gerrish comments: ‘The major barrier stopping women from succeeding in the workplace and in their lives is the lack of trust in their own intelligence, judgments, and abilities. When women permit jealousy, competitiveness, and fear to immobilize their voices, creativity is stifled and the ability to act is thwarted. Conversely, when a woman trusts herself, the result is confidence, empowerment, and self-esteem. Women must be aware of these issues in play in order to make the necessary changes.’

The phenomenon of women in the workplace not speaking up is not a mystery, but it does seem to be the elephant in the room. We all know it’s there, but no one wants to deal with it. My wise attorney friend Gail hears this and asks, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ She answers, ’One bite at a time.’

Women are socialized as young girls to not assert themselves or be confrontational. We are trained to be conciliatory, pleasers, ‘good girls,’ and peacemakers, almost at any price. Women have strong intuitions, but are not encouraged to act on those instincts. At my presentations, women openly say, ‘I will do almost anything to not have to confront someone.’ This deeply rooted societal training creates a system, an environment ripe for disrespect, people taking unfair advantage, and at its worst abusive behavior. If women permit themselves to be treated badly, however it manifests itself, the first thing that is sacrificed is self-esteem. Women justify by saying, ‘I can’t afford to lose my job.’ I say that you cannot afford to lose yourself.

It is not possible to erase socialization, but it is possible to manage it and not be victimized by it. Positive confrontation is a learned skill. It’s about choosing your battles and your words carefully. Thoughtful risk-taking can have surprisingly positive results. One of them is your own professional growth and respect from your employer and peers.

The Fear Factor

The fear factor cannot be underestimated when it comes to the problem of women speaking up to anyone, but especially to colleagues and employers. I have colleagues who have been assistants for over 25 years and are serious, dedicated, and experienced administrative professionals. It is important for us to notice that even they, with all their years of ‘been there, done that’ experience, are sincerely reluctant to speak up in many situations. The fear is about stepping on toes, overstepping boundaries and the resulting negative repercussions. They choose to stay silent and engage in time-consuming, energy-wasting underground complaining and worrying rather than take the risk to speak up. In light of all of this, speaking up still feels too dangerous and filled with potential for failure and backlash.

The fear is about reactions such as: What are you trying to pull? Are you trying to make me look bad? Are you angling for my job? Do you think you’re smarter than me? Do you think you’re better than me?

I understand this dynamic because early in my career, I was silent too. My former employer and mentor of 25 years, actress Olympia Dukakis, reminded me that when we first started working together (I was the PR director at the theatre she ran in New Jersey) I did not speak. It’s true. For the first few months, I was afraid to appear uninformed or unprepared. I thought it was safer to watch and learn. Olympia recalls that she would say to other staff members, ‘When is the tall one going to talk?’ I learned from Olympia that it is important to speak up and say the hard things in a way that people can hear. Time and again I’ve witnessed the relief in the room when Olympia says the thing that everyone is thinking but no one wants to say. I had to learn this lesson in my personal life as well. In most cases, speaking up makes things better.

This is another true story: Veteran admin Barbara (not her real name) saw a situation involving international travel playing out which was going to have an undesirable result for her fellow admin’s employer. The problem would be expensive and time-consuming to solve if it wasn’t caught. Barbara hesitated to say anything to her colleague because it wasn’t officially her job, and she was fearful that her colleague would be insulted and take offense. After worrying about it for two days, Barbara finally took the risk and spoke up. Her colleague sincerely thanked her for the ‘heads-up’ and the problem was averted. In retrospect, Barbara understood that her worrying was unnecessary but she was still unsure of how she would handle the situation next time.

Here’s the thing: Barbara isn’t alone. Many women have echoed her fears about speaking up. It’s real and difficult to overcome. Rejecting the way we were socialized is a tall order but it is necessary in order to change the status quo and create new opportunities for career growth.

Perception of Confrontation

Many women feel that ‘speaking up’ is the equivalent of being contentious, rebellious, loud, and a breaker of the rules – all bad things. This perception needs to change – confrontation does not have to be a form of combat. Again, this message stems from how we were socialized. As women with awareness, speaking up can be done calmly, clearly, and without rancor. Using a matter-of-fact, ‘no attitude’ approach to stating your case is a strategy that works.

There are positive ways to confront people which keep the lines of communication open and hostility-free. The trick is to not wait until little problems escalate into a big one. By directly asking, ‘What are you worried about?’ or ‘I see you are concerned’. Tell me what you think’, the result is an ongoing dialogue and an effective use of time since no one is staying silent out of fear. Lack of silence equals minimal surprises.

New Agenda

I challenge us all to not take things personally or defensively in the workplace. Let us give ourselves the permission to speak to our peers and employers and to do so without fear of reprisals and having to pay a high price on the chance that our suggestion might not be appreciated or valid. In this way, we are agreeing to watch out for one another and ultimately, are supporting management and the companies for which we work. To take insult or offense is unproductive and a waste of time. Let us decide to choose the path of support and speaking up even when the response is, ‘Thanks, but I already handled that. I appreciate you mentioning it though.’ And then move on. No bruised feelings or damaged egos.

Reality Check: Women can’t do it alone

Rebecca Shambaugh’s book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor explores the idea that women hold themselves back both intentionally and un-intentionally. Women sabotage themselves. She writes that our lives as working women are profoundly complicated with balancing our children and families with our careers. These problems are real and valid and almost impossible to navigate without support from our families and colleagues. The women’s movement told us that we ‘can have it all.’ Yes, that’s true, we just can’t do it alone.

The choice is ours

Women have choices to communicate or isolate, mentor or compete, support or undermine. The benefits of rejecting old models and tired stereotypes about women will result in higher performance, increased salaries, real joy in working and realized dreams in life.

It has been through meeting you and hearing you, my women colleagues around the world, who inspired me to write this article. I wish, as many of you do, to be a part of the solution to the problems we face. We are experiencing first-hand the changes in our world due to the economic crisis. This climate of change is impacting our profession and we have an opportunity to make a difference for ourselves and those who follow us. Women can be responsible for creating new perceptions. What it will require is a commitment to have clarity about these problems and to embrace change because change is necessary and makes sense…one 95 per-center at a time.

Ladies, our time has come.

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. She is a TEDx speaker, bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant and Staff Matters, and her work has been featured ... (Read More)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *