Can A Woman’s Voice Shatter Glass?

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, provoked controversy across a wide media swath. She’s been criticized for suggesting that women individually are to blame for their lack of progress in business. But will the lone woman speaking up be enough… or will it take a chorus of women and men to finally shatter the glass ceiling?

If it were the 1960’s and Roger Sterling were winking and saying this to me over drinks, that would be understandable. But it’s 2013 and the person winking and saying this is a highly-successful businesswoman.

“Well, you know how women are…”

Sheryl Sandberg got a lot of attention by calling upon women to “lean in” to their careers, to stand up for their due. She addresses situations where women could take more control over their lives, over their progress. But Sandberg doesn’t address a constant, low-flowing current underlying everyday business. It’s not blatant sexism or the denial of opportunity, but the more subtle things that both men and women do to undermine women in the workplace.

I call it tacit misogyny, the unspoken or indirect things we do that keep women below the glass ceiling. We’ve all seen it. Women, said by Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz as they roll their eyes, is no different than the eye rolls I’ve seen men give in business meetings. I’ve watched women shake their heads apologetically when a female co-worker says something that takes the men aback. It happens less often today – true – but the fact that it happens at all is still unsettling.

When tacit misogyny gets a voice, it’s usually an attempt at humor, such as the winky “You know how women are” uttered by my friend. But what starts out meaning to be funny can quickly change into something more serious. Jokes shared between men in an office about their wives and girlfriends morph into sexual observations about their female co-workers. Women teasingly chatting about other women (“She’s such a bitch!”) can be taken seriously by others who overhear the conversation. (“You know? She really IS a bitch…”)

The most insidious form of tacit misogyny is based on nuance. It’s not what is said, but how it is said: jokingly, snidely, dismissively. Many times, I’ve heard a subtle change in emphasis when saying something like “Women think…” or “She said…” The delivery may read fine on paper, but – in real life – sounds as offensive as a racial epithet.

Men and women alike can take the blame for this. Men’s roles are fairly obvious, but how are women complicit? Throughout my career, in Silicon Valley and throughout the US, I’ve seen women adapt their behavior to succeed in a man’s world. But this desire to demonstrate “I’m not like other women” not only denies their women-ness, but their dignity as well.

I once worked for a woman who ran a very successful agency. In a client meeting, the chairman of the company told her this “joke:”

Q: What do 50,000 battered women have in common?
A: They just didn’t know when to shut up.

I’m not kidding. Her reaction? She laughed while giving me a look that said “Don’t you dare say a word.”

She should have torn off his effin’ head. Actually, we both should have.

The biggest mistake is to make this a woman’s challenge, to tell women they need to be the ones to speak up. This is where I feel Sandberg is only partially right. Why is it always a woman’s fight? Why can’t men and women join their voices together to demand better? The real problem, I think, is that many men – especially the die-hard traditionalists who believe it is their role to fight for and protect women – won’t show up for the battle.

What does this have to do with brand marketing? Everything, because the attitudes springing from tacit misogyny seep into the decisions we make about how we communicate:

• In branding, it’s continuing to relegate women to traditional roles. In Gillian Flynn’s hit bestseller Gone Girl, a character reflects on the fact that – on daytime TV commercials– all women seem to do is “clean and bleed.” When was the last time you saw a man cleaning up a kitchen mess?
• In PR, it’s clients being OK with paying a fee for a review on a well-known gadget blog, but complaining when a popular “mommy blogger” asks for a similar fee.
• It’s even worse in social media. With the anonymity afforded by social platforms, sexism can be direct and crude. New York Times social media editor Liz Heron has said “I frequently go in and delete comments on my own Facebook profile photo that… are about my appearance rather than my journalism.”

The real answer doesn’t lie just in legislation, policy or education. And it isn’t only what Sandberg suggests, that women just need to be more confident of themselves. The solution lies with each one of us – women and men alike – to be sensitive to all shades of misogyny so, when it occurs, we can say: “This is bulls**t.” If we can all join together – perhaps, one day soon – our voices will shatter the glass ceiling.

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