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6 impossible tightropes we ask working women to walk

Yes, you can be a lady boss, with your very own flip-phone. But it means navigating a minefield of contradictory advice.
Yes, you can be a lady boss, with your very own flip-phone. But it means navigating a minefield of contradictory advice.

On its surface, career advancement seems gloriously uncomplicated. After all, there are a few simple truths that make rising up the ranks sound straightforward: You don't get a raise unless you ask. Having friends in high places is a tremendous help. And simply being better — smarter, more qualified, more whatever — gets you ahead.

Except that's not exactly true — particularly for women.

Norms, stereotypes, and the simple biology of who can bear children have all combined to make the workplace a phenomenally complicated place for a woman. Which is why, when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella earlier this year suggested women who don't ask for raises can just get them via "karma," many people responded with outrage.

What he seemed to be saying was what many women, and workers in general, know isn't true: that the workplace is a meritocracy, where whatever brownie points women have (silently) amassed can eventually be redeemed for rewards — like pay and respect commensurate with what your otherwise-equal male peers receive.

Rather, the Nadella incident highlighted a contradiction that women often face at work, as the New York Times' Claire Cain Miller wrote — that negotiation can help, or it can backfire.

Scholarly research and common-sense advice in fact point to all sorts of contradictions that women can face at work.

Should you negotiate?

Point: Carnegie Mellon University's Linda Babcock found in a 2003 book that when graduate students negotiated for their first jobs out of school, they received much higher salaries — on average, $4,000 higher — regardless of gender. However, the men were far more likely to negotiate than the women.

Counterpoint: Babcock and co-authors also found in a 2005 study that negotiating can in fact hurt women. Subjects were asked to evaluate job candidates of both sexes who either negotiated or didn't negotiate for more pay. Subjects both deemed women who negotiated less hirable than the men who did so and also were less likely to say they'd want to work with those women. The authors write "perceptions of niceness and demandingness" were a key reason for this.

Should you have a sponsor?

Point: Women and minorities can get boosts in areas like career advice and promotions by getting sponsors — people to advocate for them at the office — according to a 2010 study published in the Harvard Business Review.

Counterpoint: A recent study from the University of Colorado, focusing on executives, found that women and minorities who advocate for fellow women and minorities were penalized for perceived "selfishness."

There are also cases where women need to find the safe middle ground between two extremes.

To be tough or kind?

Plenty of women already knew this, but a 2007 study from women's advocacy organization Catalyst found that survey respondents often perceived women leaders as either too soft or too tough. In addition, survey respondents tended to see women as competent or likable — but rarely both at the same time.

How should you look at work?

Wearing makeup to work can make a woman seem more competent, likable, and trustworthy than if she's bare-faced, according to a 2011 study. But the research — sponsored by Proctor & Gamble (manufacturer of Cover Girl cosmetics) but designed and executed by academics — also found that those positive effects decline as women wear heavier makeup.

And then there is the research that flies in the face of logic.

Should you be well-qualified?

Common sense: Yes, of course you should.

But wait: An experiment from the London Business School found that volunteers who had traditional ideas about gender roles evaluated women applicants with better credentials more harshly than less qualified men. That's a very specific scenario, but it does suggest that perhaps in some male-dominated or old-fashioned industries, women will have a tougher time of it.

Should a workplace just try to get rid of all bias?

Common sense: Again, this one seems obvious.

But wait: Trying to create an office that's a meritocracy can in fact make for more bias, MIT researchers found in a 2010 study. The researchers had business school students make compensation decisions for a fictional company, given the company's core values. In the institution that emphasized fairness toward employees based on their accomplishments among its core values, participants tended to reward men far more than women.

And even when a woman does get to the top, not everyone will exactly be pumped that she's there. Gallup data from October shows that Americans still prefer a male to a female boss, 35 to 23 percent.

Gender boss

Source: Gallup

But maybe it's not all that bad. All of the above evidence, Gallup aside, is based on individual studies, and there are mountains more scholarly research out there leading to totally different conclusions about what it takes to be a successful woman in the (more often than not white-collar) workplace.

The point isn't that women are simply victims of a cruel, rigged system when it comes to workplace advancement. Rather, these sorts of findings do emphasize that all too often, workplaces are still a man's world — in large part, created by and for men — into which women are trying to fit. And these sorts of contradictions are everywhere.

"They seemingly contradict each other but it's coming from the same source. The sense that women are bounded by the double bind," says Youngjoo Cha, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University who studies gender differences at work. In one of her recent studies, she found that the increasing trend toward "overwork" — long hours at the office — is helping exacerbate the pay gap.

Many of the problems that women face, she adds, are the result of descriptive stereotypes — perceptions of what women are typically like — and prescriptive stereotypes — what women should be like. The ideas that women tend to be emotional and should be warm and caring, for example, can work against them.

So how do you change those stereotypes?

"Gender norms, stereotypes — there are very limited things that individuals can do to eradicate and crack this system. It's pretty much well established," she says, but adds that people seem to change their minds when they see women in charge. "Things are changing by looking at more women in leadership positions."

And data suggests that this is true. In the Gallup data, people who work for women bosses tend to prefer working for a woman boss, while the opposite is true for people who work for men. It's true that people may be self-select into these groups, but it's easy to see why people might change their minds after having a female boss. Indeed, the Gallup data also clearly shows that perceptions of women bosses are improving, meaning maybe one day we'll all be more likely to rely more upon our accomplishments and a little less on "karma."

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