The Secret Code To Success Most Women Don’t Even Know Exists

Illustration by Erin Lux

Janice Fraser, 53, has always been louder and more outspoken than her peers. “But I learned to curtail much of that over the years,” says the innovation management strategist, who has often been told to be “more socially acceptable” (read: less opinionated) by her employers. “These same behaviors in men were rewarded. Men are promoted for being confident and outspoken; women are often diminished.” Fraser, who regularly gives presentations on innovation in Silicon Valley, remembers coming of age during a time when strong women like Anita Hill, Marcia Clark, and Hillary Clinton landed under the harshest glare of a microscope. “These women were vilified for being high-quality professionals trying to do their job,” she adds. “As a woman, you’re either presenting as great or horrible. You can’t just be normal.”

For decades, women have had to learn the silent criteria by which they are judged at work; it’s not just about being the best candidate for a job or promotion. Women must be likeable, but not emotional. Accommodating, but still respectable. Approachable, and yet formidable. All these unspoken requirements are riddled with stereotypes and gender bias that has led to ongoing inequality at the office.

According to 2018 Pew Research, female workers in the United States still earn just 85 percent of what their male peers take home. And according to the latest report by McKinsey & Company and, only 79 women are promoted to manager positions for every 100 men who are promoted in North America, which means the number of women in management will increase by just one percent over the next decade if current promotion rates continue. And in Canada, men continue to reach management positions more often and much earlier. Research published in 2017 by the National Women’s Law Center also reveals that mothers, victims of the so-named “motherhood penalty,” suffer $16,000 in lost wages each year. On top of that, 41 percent of employed Americans perceive mothers to be less devoted to their jobs, according to a Bright Horizons study.

Doubting a woman’s commitment is just one of the many misperceptions that can harm her career trajectory. According to a 2018 study, researchers found that high-achieving men were called back after job interviews far more often than high-achieving women—specifically at a rate of roughly 2-to-1. Women are often subject to dichotomous “either/or” stereotypes at work; you get to be competent or likable, but not both. “When a woman is exceedingly competent, others may assume that she lacks social warmth or that she’s hard to get along with,” says Natasha M. Quadlin, PhD, study author and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University. “They may criticize her personality and object to her being placed in a leadership position.”

Men, on the other hand, get to be both competent and likeable at the same time, says Quadlin. “People do not find fault with high-achieving men’s personalities the same way they do with high-achieving women,” she says.

“Men get to be both competent and likeable at the same time.”

With men in so many positions of power, women not only have to claw their way up the ladder, but they have to do so strategically, dodging obstacle after obstacle. Aly DeNardo, 22, a partner M Ventures, remembers a rude awakening of gender bias early in her career, during an internship at a Fortune 500 company predominantly composed of men in leadership positions. DeNardo details a meeting with one of those men and another male peer. “After the meeting was over, my colleague gets up, shakes hands with the man, and then leaves,” she says. “Then I get up, extend my hand to him, and he just looks at it; he would not shake my hand.” When the man walked away from DeNardo, she followed him. “I stuck my hand out to him again, and said, ‘Thank you for your time,’” she recalls, her voice punctuating each word. “I forced him to confront what I did.” She left the room, and then ultimately the company, calling the incident her “last straw” in an environment where female voices were not valued.

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Gender stereotypes that influence how women are related to and perceived at work extend to humor, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study authors were conducting separate research when a female executive in the oil and gas industry made a poignant admission. “She mentioned that she tries to not be seen as funny,” says Jon Evans, study author and leadership researcher at the University of Arizona. “That didn’t initially make sense to me, so I asked her more about it. She told me that female mentors had told her that being funny can result in her not being taken seriously because she’s a woman.”

Evans and his team put the executive’s theory to the test in a formal study, and the results mimicked her anecdotal findings; while adding humor to presentations increased a man’s status, performance evaluations, and assessments of leadership capability, funny women were viewed as having lower-status, less deserving of a positive performance evaluation, and less capable as a leader.

“Female mentors had told her that being funny can result in her not being taken seriously because she’s a woman.”

Humor is just one area where women risk not be taken as seriously. DeNardo says she has had to assert herself even more because of her youth. “Because I’m both a young woman and a young partner, I’ve found people in venture capital sometimes don’t know how to perceive me,” she says. “There’s this assumption of a lesser position; I’ve been mistaken for a secretary. There’s a level of education I need to do with nearly everyone, and it can feel exhausting.”

Youth for women isn’t just problematic on the investor side of venture capital—it extends to the entrepreneurs seeking funding too. “One thing we’ve been talking a lot about lately is being a woman, a founder and a ‘young person,’” says Emma Eschweiler, 26, Vice President at Silicon Valley Bank. “It’s infantilizing when female founders go to pitch their companies, and an older, white male investor says, ‘You remind me of my daughter.’”

Eschweiler has heard this dialogue is commonplace from numerous founders. “When a man walks into the room to pitch his company, it’s often, ‘You remind me of my son,’ which is just like, ‘You remind me of me,” she says. “By thinking of a founder like a daughter, she’s suddenly someone delicate. She’s someone to protect.” Or more simply, someone who might not be able to cope with the rigors of startup life.

“It’s infantilizing when female founders go to pitch their companies, and an older, white male investor says, ‘You remind me of my daughter.’”

Vivan Chen, 30, co-founder and CEO of Rise, a technology platform that enables women to customize their career growth, recently had a jarring talk with one of her male friends, a partner at a VC firm, who she believes misguidedly wanted to shield her from entrepreneurship. “I was in the middle of a tough place for my business,” she says. “I trusted him enough to dial him up first when I didn’t know who else to turn to.” After explaining her situation, Chen recalls him saying: “Why do you want to start a business anyway? You are a pretty girl; just marry rich and don’t worry about it.”

Chen says she was shocked; beyond that, she didn’t know if she “could afford to lose her cool” and jeopardize one of her only connections in the industry. “He told me that one day I’d be in the middle of a shit storm, and I’d look across a restaurant and see a group of women having brunch without a worry in the world. ‘You are going to wonder, what I am doing here?’ After a few seconds, I just said, ‘I don’t think that’s me; I want to do something with my life.’”

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Chen says she felt “crushed” after that phone conversation. “Part of me wanted to justify his behavior and attribute it to him testing my conviction, but even then I asked myself: ‘Would he have said that to a man?’” she wonders. “I genuinely think he thought he was doing me a favor, and would have checked himself if he were speaking with another woman who’s not a friend.” But that just made Chen feel even worse. “I realized men will not utter this in polite society, but may harbor those feelings on the inside.”

“He said, ‘Why do you want to start a business anyway? You are a pretty girl; just marry rich and don’t worry.'”

Women don’t want to be protected from the highs and lows of startups, promotions, or leadership positions; they want the opportunity to be contenders. “Women have been raised in this culture where they’ve been told, ‘You can do anything,’” says Eschweiler. “They’re getting a ton of positive attention, but often the dollars aren’t following.” Indeed, the funding statistics for women are dismal; according to statistics from 2018, female-founded companies garnered just 2.2 percent of VC investment last year. (Meanwhile, around 75 percent of investment dollars went to all-male founding teams.) Chen, for one, thinks these silently-held beliefs in the male-dominated industry may be one of the reasons.

But outside of entrepreneurship, going to an office environment that embraces the boys club culture can feel stifling, as well. Cherie Marquez, 40, a marketing and communications director, has often felt “belittled” in her role. “I work for a design company, which is predominately male and run by men,” she says. “There’s a lack of respect there. Oftentimes, when I or other women speak out about concerns, we are labeled as dramatic or as if we’re gossiping. Our opinions go unheard—even if they’re the same opinions as our opinions as male colleagues.”

Although Marquez thinks women are able to be more open about disparities at work than past generations, she observes that some men seem to hang onto antiquated beliefs. “Not all, but some men just do not accept that a woman can be an equal to them in pay or knowledge,” Marquez says. “Some still live in the belief that a man makes the money, is in control and is always right.”

Of course, men may not even fully realize the way bias impacts their field, or their own perceptions of women. For example, there’s a body of evidence that highlights a gender bias against female researchers in STEM fields, but according to one study, men may view the papers proving such a gender bias to be less credible than the research that claims no such bias exists.

For this reason, Eschweiler stresses the importance of men who do understand the need to support women—and actually do it. She recalls meeting an older, successful male founder at a recent event in Silicon Valley. “His co-founder was a woman, and three out of five of his board members were women, as well,” she says. “He was asked, ‘Why do you think diversity, gender included, is so important?’ He said, ‘It’s not out of the goodness of my heart—women are better at a lot of things.’ It was clear he was not looking through the lens of bias, but across the entire ecosystem to find the best candidate for the job.”

While mentors typically guide and counsel, sponsors recommend and elevate. Men still hold more positions of power to elevate workers in today’s career landscape, so they often become “sponsors” to rising women, according to Fraser. To help reach parity, an increasing number of men can sponsor women who deserve promotions, boards seats and VC funding—which means putting a name on the line to improve the odds for women who deserve these opportunities.

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Women, too, should look for men willing to back up equality beliefs with action. DeNardo has sought out as many female mentors as she can find—not nearly enough, yet—but has also taken notes from male sponsors, including Twitch founder Justin Kan, for whom she worked in 2017 and 2018. DeNardo learned to be shamelessly unapologetic in her approach to fundraising and business-building, in part, from him. She recalls Kan being asked how he’d managed to raise so much capital in his career. “I remember he said he always approached every meeting like, ‘I’m going to do this with or without you,’” she says. “That changed everything for me.”

Emily Chiu, 36, Principal at Square, has always worked in male-dominated fields—investment banking, private equity and tech. “Now, there are starting to be some really great female role models and mentors,” she says. “But when I was coming up, the few senior women ahead of me in my industry had to play by such different rules. Thankfully, while I didn’t have a lot of opportunity for mentorship, I had male sponsors who recognized my worth and value and elevated me, including to my first public board role.”

“To navigate and thrive, you have to operate in two realities: you’re aware of the issues, but not psyched out by them.”

As of October 2018, California became the first state to require that one woman be on the board of directors of every publicly-traded company. Chiu is on the board of directors for Barnes & Noble, and is encouraged by the changes that are happening for women. She says the secret to her success is not playing the old game with its patriarchal rules and demands. “I’ve given a lot of thought to this,” she says. “In order to navigate and thrive, you almost have to operate in two realities, where you’re aware of the issues, but not psyched out by them.”

As more women rise to positions of power and leadership, more female mentors and sponsors will be there to open doors for the next generation of executives, entrepreneurs, managers, and investors. But for now, women dealing with sexism or gender bias have a few options, according to Majo Molfino, 32, a writer and women’s leadership expert in the Bay Area. You can either do nothing, speak up, or get out. “Doing nothing doesn’t really help anybody,” she says. “Speaking up is difficult, but important.” She suggests using Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication for effectively calling out a manager or colleague. “But if gender bias, sexism, and racism are so severe that even after speaking up nothing changes, I suggest women get out of there. Ultimately, it’s the company’s loss since research shows that diverse groups are more socially intelligent and effective.”

All in all, society is inching toward parity, but we’re not there yet. While the gender pay gap has shrunk since 1980, it’s also remained relatively constant for the past 15 years, according to Pew’s research. Fraser thinks we’re at least 15 more years from true gender equality at work. “But what’s great now is that we’re having these conversations,” she says, noting the leaps forward since her 20s. “No one could have predicted something like #MeToo. If there’s a tipping point, change could come a lot faster.”

Chiu says there will always be challenges until we’re at parity, but compares gendered career obstacles to hiking. “I have a fear of heights, but I hike anyway,” she says. “Sometimes, if you look over from side to side, you’ll psych yourself out by what you see. It’s often best to just focus on one point ahead of you, and go directly at it.”

From: Harper’s BAZAAR US