American economist Milton Friedman revealed that the secret to success in a capitalistic world lies in learning to play within the rules of the game. Business leaders have often clamored around this truth when playing the centuries-old game of economic strategy: a “game,” wherein the only “rules” involve engaging in “open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
This may be the case for those at the top of America’s societal hierarchy — the wealthy, white men who reign over boardrooms and political podiums alike, dominating the most powerful positions for most of America’s history.
Yet for women, this is not, and has never been, completely true.
Rules of the Game
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to squeeze women from the US workforce, so too increased the news media’s scrutiny on the unequal playing field faced by women in the workforce. However, long before the pandemic hit, women in the American workforce faced a much more difficult path to the top.
Women engage in a second kind of game; a game quietly played beneath the surface, like a secret handshake to an underground society wherein an invisible set of rules apply.
The idea is to be effective yet not too assertive. Be pleasant and agreeable without seeming too soft. Remember to be charming so people don’t feel threatened by your ideas or your intelligence. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t talk too much. Dress in a way that is neither too feminine nor too masculine. Be empathetic but never emotional.
And for a woman of color, these rules are even more mysterious and harder to discern. A woman of color constantly battles the widely preconceived notion that — either by dint of genetics or environment — her knowledge and abilities are lesser than others.
Yet her success also hinges on being pleasant, articulate, gregarious, and putting everyone at ease in her presence, lest she be deemed angry or dispensable. But above all else — regardless of race or ethnicity — a woman must always come to the boardroom or the podium wielding her best, most disarming smile.
We are so deeply entrenched in these beliefs that we unwittingly became our own gatekeepers.
Recently, one of us returned from a photo shoot for an award honoring trailblazing female leaders. The resulting photos showed a commanding businesswoman sitting at a boardroom table, flanked by two male colleagues. She was clearly and confidently assuming a leadership role. However, the photos engendered an overwhelming fear. The photos seemed to say, “I don’t look warm or likable enough.”
The charming mask so often worn by women to appear less threatening had slipped, and the resulting photos revealed a powerful businesswoman. The fear of being rejected for looking overtly powerful is something a man would never consider.
Even the strongest, most accomplished women leaders can’t escape these cultural expectations. While admired by many for her stoic strength, razor-sharp intellectualism, and unrelenting toughness, Kamala Harris recently came under fire just hours before winning the spot as Joe Biden’s running mate. News coverage was riddled with sexist attacks on Harris’ lack of “personal charm” and “warmth.”
Spanning Every Industry
Unfortunately, Harris is just one of the many female political casualties. Bashed with sexist barbs due to perceived lack of likability and warmth, these women — Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Warren, to name a few — disappeared in the public court of opinion.
For these women, the need for striking the perfect balance between being assertive without being “bossy” surpasses the need for intelligence, professional achievements, and even their policy.
Women at the top of their industry have found that to be successful in today’s America means being smart and extremely effective — but never so overtly as to bruise an ego.
Just ask the likes of fierce former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, fashion mogul Victoria Beckham, and sports icon Serena Williams how often they have been found lacking by the media for their inability to smile like women.
Dissolving The Game
As we look to a near future — in which the pandemic will most assuredly continue to hit women in the workforce the hardest — there should be no doubt that now is the time to dissolve this game and strip ourselves of these subtle yet deeply ingrained rules that govern it.
To fully tap into the potential of women’s strength, women must first endeavor to change the way we speak, worrying less about deliverance and more about the content of our words. This means being unfiltered, speaking unapologetically, refusing to let others speak for us. Perhaps even changing speech patterns — rather than softening our voices, we must speak with a tone of authority.
This new approach boils down to a simple rule women need to remember: being likable is not our sole mission.
While it must be every woman’s goal to unapologetically toss aside the archaic rulebook that shapes our idea of the successful female leader, it is not just women who need to change. We must look into our culture, starting with how we raise our children.
For example, rather than solely emphasizing obedience, cooperation, and supportiveness, society must encourage girls to share their opinions, take risks, assume leadership roles, solve problems and praise them when they do so.
If we want more female leaders, we need to vote for them, support their business, and shine the light on female role models who are unapologetically using their voices to drive change.
The most important culture shift is also the simplest. We must all shift to hear what women have to say. We need to listen instead of scrutinizing. Allow women to express their ideas regardless of their looks or the way they speak. When we are able to support women based on their ability to lead, vision, and strategy rather than their people-pleasing demeanor we can all smile.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not of New York Medical College.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.