It’s time to shine a light on the invisible default button says Bonnie Low-Kramen

This article is about how women behave with one another. After all, the assistants of the world are 95-98% female. For the men reading this piece, I hope you find the following insights useful; knowing them can help us all collaborate better.

Imagine a workplace where women enthusiastically and happily support each other. A workplace without manipulation and victimization, without passive-aggressive behaviors, where bullying is practically nonexistent. Sound good? If yes, then why is it so hard to make it happen?

I can imagine this new normal. What it will require is an awareness of the invisible default button that is deep inside all women. And it will depend on our commitment to shut it off.

I will explain.

What is the default and what does it look like? The messages women get loud and clear when we are young girls are steady, and strong, and they stay. As in forever. The default can also be referred to as our autopilot behaviors and unconscious bias.

These are some of the messages young girls receive from families and society alike:

  • Know your place & don’t veer too far from it.

  • Don’t step on toes, don’t make waves, or trouble.

  • Be seen, not heard. And, sometimes, be invisible.

  • Be pretty, be quiet, and be perfect – at least in how you look. We are trained to compete with one another for the approval of men. These messages have exploded with conflict in light of the issues with sexual harassment and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

  • Don’t come across as too smart or a know-it-all. Don’t brag or toot your own horn – you might be viewed as conceited or full of yourself.

  • View other women as competition, especially for the approval of men

  • Smooth everything over – even if it means apologizing for things that are not your fault.

  • When receiving feedback from another woman, the default behavior is to be defensive and suspicious of motivation.

  • Be grateful for any job and don’t question the money you are being paid.


Other examples of the default

When we judge ourselves harshly for pretty much everything and feel we don’t deserve the raise or the attention or the promotion. Or when we feel badly about taking credit for something great that we totally did. We judge our female colleagues harshly when we see their success and we feel envious and say things like, “I did a better job last year and nobody noticed me.” Or when we allow our male executive’s bullying behavior slide and excuse it with statements like, “Well, that’s just the way George is.” If we’re honest, we would say that we would never allow “Georgette” to get away with a fraction of what we allow “George” to get away with.

Every assistant knows that she has a responsibility, an obligation, to speak up. Yet many stay silent. Fear wins. I am shocked by the volume of stories of “mean girl” junior high behaviors in billion-dollar workplaces. My first thought when I hear them is: the default is stronger and louder and winning. Women need awareness and we need leadership to show another way.

Our default button tells us to take things personally and to take offense.

If that’s true for you, I urge you to resist and reject that first impulse, that automatic behavior to be suspicious of the motivations of other women.

Given the complexity of our global workplace, women need to become wide awake to exactly what is going on and to speak up about what we know. We can now understand how we get trapped in the default. Old habits are hard to break. What I see all over the world is that these behaviors are slowing us down and stopping some of us dead in our tracks from fulfilling our goals and dreams. And many are quitting their jobs over it or even landing in the hospital from stress.

Our children are watching and seeing everything.

Unless we turn off the default, the cycle begins again.

The data shows that women apologize 10 times more than men and for things that are not anything to apologize for. However, women don’t forgive as easily, and we never forget a misstep, especially with other women. We forgive men much more easily. The hard truth is that when women don’t get what we want from men, we take it out on other women. It’s time to become aware and to stop. Time’s up for the default and time’s in for new choices!

Why do I care so much about the default?

I care because I see too many women who are at the end of their ropes and living every day with stress levels of 6 (on a 1-10 scale). I know that workplace bullying is a global epidemic and too many are filled with fear to address it. Who gets trained to do that? We don’t. Women are the primary targets of bullying and sexual harassment and we are paying a very high price for the trauma. We tolerate bullying and sometimes don’t even know that’s what it is because it has become so normalized and part of our daily experience. That’s the default in full play.

I say that we need to shut off the default and create a new normal. At the same time, women will find their voices to confidently support leaders to design new policies that work and can be sustained.

So, what’s the long-term fix?

First, we need to shine a light on this invisible default button buried deep inside. Second, women and men can have conversations about what the default looks like for each one of us because it’s not necessarily the same. Third, we can make new choices every day about cutting ourselves a break, being more understanding when women make mistakes and frankly, taking a fresh look at our relationships with men – whoever they are – to see how the default is in play.

The impact on the community is profound when women reject the default and choose to see other women as collaborators, allies, and partners. The movement to this awareness cannot be underestimated because of the pull of the socialization. We know, for example, that women make excellent leaders, but they are too few. When women feel sincerely supported by other women, they lose the fear to be ambitious and seek leadership positions. However, as Sheryl Sandberg points out in her groundbreaking book “Lean In”, many female leaders leave before they have to because of the loneliness at the top – or even part way to the top. And it is because of the default.

The critical idea that women globally can embrace is the absolute need to generously support other women to not only achieve leadership but to stay in their leadership positions. Even when they make mistakes and even when they fail. There is a serious double standard in the world about how women view one another and how women view men. Women hold one another to a higher standard and once we are onto it, the world will change for the better. When we stop tearing one another down and choose to build one another up, families will benefit, and companies will benefit.

Creating a New Normal

What I know is that women can create a new normal for ourselves that is based on respect and the freedom to give feedback without fear of retaliation. We as women need to do a better job at setting expectations with one another. To set a standard that makes it safe to speak more directly and honestly with each other and to elevate one another. Men can help by being onto the default too.

I fight hard every day to shut off my default button and to make sure it stays off. We can’t underestimate the pull of the socialization but if we really can get onto it, we can break the vicious cycle. What I see is when we work together, the world will be one where workplace bullying ends as will sexual harassment and we will close the wage gap so that women finally make the money they deserve, not to mention our daughters and our granddaughters. That’s what will happen when we shut off our default buttons once and for all.

We didn’t get here in a minute so it’s going to take a while to get us out of the status quo. I know we are up to the challenge and when we turn off the default, the world will be a better place for all of us.

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)

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