Why We Need More Authentic Women At Work

  Last Sunday, comedian actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, largely known for her work on Seinfeld and Veep, won the Mark Twain Prize, considered the highest honor in comedy. Louis-Dreyfus is the sixth woman to win the award in a male-dominated field. She is also 57, an age at which?especially in entertainment?many actresses are disqualified.

All the way back in the late 1980s, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was a casting afterthought. The Seinfeld executives decided last-minute that they needed a woman added to the cast. In popped Louis-Dreyfus, and as Jerry Seinfeld said to the New York Times, “I could not get enough of her . . . That whole time, nine years, I was not acting.”

Louis-Dreyfus is gifted comedically. But it is perhaps her conduct that makes her a distinctly unique role model. In spite of the cattiness that can define the entertainment industry, Louis-Dreyfus has made it her business to be both authentic and kind. “Many of those who spoke talked about Louis-Dreyfus’s kindness, [and] how constant and straightforward it was,” as reported in the New York Times.

In one particularly telling incident, Friends’ actress Lisa Kudrow and Louis-Dreyfus were both nominated for an Emmy. “After Louis-Dreyfus won . . . she sent Ms. Kudrow, a fellow nominee, flowers with a note attached: ‘You were robbed. -Julia.’”

It’s refreshing to see someone in any industry be so authentic and kind when the workplace today can be riddled with anything but. Especially now, at this pivotal point in time, we need more women like Louis-Dreyfus.

Women In The Workplace

McKinsey & Company and Lean In just released their annual “Women in the Workplace” report. The numbers aren’t good. While change is underway, evidenced by this report, change is also slow.

One of the first metrics the report highlights is the corporate pipeline. The percentage of women in the talent pipeline declines significantly the higher the level.

  • Entry Level: 48%
  • Manager: 38%
  • Senior Manager/Director: 34%
  • VP: 29%
  • SVP: 23%
  • C-Suite: 22%

It might be easy to assume that this decline is due to attrition as women plan for families and opt out of the workplace. Historically that might have been true. But, today, the report points to hiring and promotions as the primary drivers of this decline.

“Performance bias helps explain early gaps in hiring and promotions. Research shows that we tend to overestimate men’s performance and underestimate women’s. As a result, men are often hired and promoted based on their potential, while women are often hired and promoted based on their track record. This may be particularly acute for women at the start of their careers when their track records are relatively short.”

While the pipeline for C-suite positions is uniformly lower for women than for men, it does vary by industry. The talent pipeline for the C-Suite ranges anywhere from 34% (Health-care systems and services) at its highest to 9% (Food and beverage distribution) at its lowest.

The next question is why? The report offers a bevy of reasons.

“Based on this year’s survey of more than 64,000 employees, it is clear that women still experience an uneven playing field. They get less day-to-day support and less access to senior leaders. They are more likely to deal with harassment and everyday discrimination. They often feel the added scrutiny that comes from being the only woman in the room. And understandably, they think it’s harder for them to advance.”

One particularly compelling reason was microaggressions. Based on the study, women cited microaggressions as a persistent problem, fielding them much more frequently than men. Microaggressions are cumulative. Any isolated microaggression, such as the examples below, may not appear to be disruptive, but accumulated over time, can be quite damaging.

  • Having your judgment questioned in your area of expertise: 
    • Men: 27%
    • Women: 36%
  • Needing to provide more evidence of your competence than others do:
    • Men: 16%
    • Women: 31%
  • Being addressed in a less-than-professional way
    • Men: 16%
    • Women: 26%
  • Being mistaken for someone at a much lower level:
    • Men: 10%
    • Women: 20%
  • Often having your work contributions ignored:
    • Men: 16%
    • Women: 17%
  • Hearing demeaning remarks about you or people like you:
    • Men: 10%
    • Women: 16%

The report offers suggestions for cultural improvement: “Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair” or “make senior leaders and managers champions of diversity.” Those, however, are paper solutions, corporate cliches, not ones that can be implemented quickly in practice.

Two Missing Pieces: Authenticity And Support

This leads us to wonder whether there’s anything that women can do today rather than wait for sluggish organizational change.

One strategy women have adopted in the past to try to offset inequality in the workplace is to conform to a masculine archetype. Dress like men, behave like men, or, better yet, be nondescript not to betray the fact that, shh, you are not a man. Anyone who has tried this strategy knows just how suffocating and inauthentic it can feel.

Another strategy, which has also carried over from an earlier time, is to treat other women like the competition. The big problem with women in the workplace is that they are not a unified entity. By choice. The chances of women succeeding in this fashion are about as likely as winning with a soccer team whose players think their teammates are the competition.

Neither strategy, evidently, is working.

When it comes to women in the workplace, the two changes I’d like to see is a culture that welcomes authenticity and one where women embrace reciprocal success. I know I respect a CEO like Ellevest’s, Sallie Krawcheck, who is indisputably and authentically herself, more than any robotic, buttoned-up, non-descript CEO.

Those two changes are within reach. I suspect when deployed conjunctly, only then will we see the results we’re looking for. Or as Sallie Krawcheck put it, “There’s a lot of money to be made in taking women seriously.”

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