It’s commonplace to hear that women face a double standard at work, but I’ve been writing about workplace research long enough to be able to confirm that isn’t true. Women don’t face a double standard at work. They face a slew of them:
Age and experience cause people to rate men as more competent at their jobs, while middle-aged women are seen as less likable and rated worse.
Humor makes men come off as confident; women who tell jokes are seen as lightweights.
What comes across as engagement and excitement in conversation for men is judged as a rude interruption for women.
Employees accept negative feedback from male bosses much more readily than they do from female ones.
Hard negotiating helps men get what they want. It usually gets women labeled bitchy and makes reaching a good deal harder.
But women also can’t lean on charm during negotiations; pleasant chit-chat wins points for men but is ignored as table stakes for women.
This is already a pretty long and rage-inducing list, but I am sorry to have to inform you science just added another study to this catalog of annoying double standards faced by women. The new research out of the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon found strategically trying to make friends with powerful people pays off for men but backfires spectacularly for women.
Schmoozing with bigwigs works for men…
Cozying up to power is an age-old strategy, probably because both experience and previous science have always suggested it works.
“Individuals with a high-status connection in a research-and-development firm had a reputation of higher performance. In a study of men’s basketball coaches in the NCAA, those with publicized connections to elite coaches were more likely to be hired by a storied basketball program. This high-status effect works even when the relationships are negative. Examining the networks of 53 rappers, those who were dissed by higher-status rappers had increased future sales on their future albums,” point out Siyu Yu and Catherine Shea, authors of the forthcoming study, in the Wall Street Journal.
But all these old studies they mention have something in common. They look exclusively at men. Would the results be the same if someone investigated the efficacy of good, old-fashioned strategic networking for women, these researchers wanted to know?
…. but backfires for women
To figure this out, they mapped the networks and status of 2,000 adults (using ratings of how much they admired and were influenced by a person as a marker of status) and then looked to see if proximity to high-status people did indeed boost someone’s status. Men fit the expected pattern. The more high-powered people you know, the more people respect and admire you. But things looked very different for women.
“When women built networks rich with high-status contacts, instead of receiving a status boost, their status gradually declined over time,” the authors explain.
Why wasn’t a mystery. “People typically don’t like dominant and ambitious female leaders, research shows,” the authors explain. “We infer that people presume a woman whose network is centering on high-status individuals is gathering resources for herself at the expense of others in the group.” The woman’s own reputation takes a hit as a result.
As with the many studies I mentioned above, the first takeaway from this study is also the simplest: The world really needs to change. This attitude that sees women acting boldly in their own interest as somehow unseemly or unpleasant really needs to meet its overdue end. It’s hugely unfair to ask women to endlessly adjust their behavior to avoid a seemingly endless array of outdated biases.
That being said, my ranting about double standards will sadly not magic them away. If you’re in the market for more practical workarounds to use while the world gets its act together, I can only offer you the old standby suggested by both Sheryl Sandberg and these researchers: If you’re a woman, disguise toughness, strategic thinking, or self-promotion that is like to ruffle feathers by wrapping it in a soft blanket of concern for others.
Sandberg, for instance, says using this “communal” approach can help women wiggle out of the no-win constraints that box them in during negotiations. You need a bigger budget or higher valuation not for your own glory or enrichment, say, but because you want to better support your team or serve your customers.
Similarly, Yu and Shea outline “a strategy for women to overcome this attitude and gain high-status connections without backlash: signaling group orientation.” If you’re schmoozing with high-profile people, make sure it is known you’re doing it to help out others, not for — god forbid! — your own benefit alone.
Organizations can also help women avoid this one-sided penalty on social climbing by reframing strategic networking as sweet and harmless opportunities to build social ties. “Networking events could be relaunched as group lunch-and-connects to be more communal for women,” for instance.
Which is probably effective, but also highly annoying. Playing games with labels in this way just underlines that women have to pretend they’re not interested in getting ahead while they’re also doing all the things that are necessary to get ahead. How exhausting. I say again, the real long-term solution here is to shine a light on these endless double standards so that people will recognize them and do the work to change their thinking.