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There’s No Such Thing As Benevolent Sexism

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Earlier this week, HuffPost broke the story that, during the height of #MeToo in Summer 2018, one of the big four accounting firms was still offering women​ a remarkably sexist flavor of corporate training​ designed by Marsha Clarke & Associates. While according to the company this training is no longer in use, it’s worth further discussion, not to single out the company in particular (which is why I don’t think it necessary to mention the company’s name) as much as to shine a harsh light on corporate culture and the way women are taught to interact with it. Because the picture isn’t pretty, which is ironic, since that’s what it’s instructing women to be.

The training, which was provided by a third party and not developed in-house by the accounting firm, had a lot of real gems in it: women, it maintained, have “pancake” brains that can’t focus; women ought to speak briefly, women phrase ideas as questions needing to be confirmed by others; women are “gullible,” “childlike,” and “yielding,” while men are “independent,” “assertive,” “self-reliant,” and “willing to take risks;” women ought not confront men in meetings, and in conversation, should always cross their legs and direct their bodies at an angle to avoid being threatening. I could go on, but my point here is that this supposedly benign training program highlights what I’ve been talking about all these years:

Women do not get respect, and even worse, are taught not to seek it.

This was a women’s ​leadership​ training program telling the women attending it – ostensibly leaders – that they have gullible pancake brains and need to try and not freak out the guys by showing too much skin or being direct. No leadership-oriented traits were ascribed to women; ambition, assertiveness, and decisiveness were all traits ascribed to male colleagues – and worse, women were not encouraged to develop​ those traits. That’s a critical point, and one worth diving into. One participant quoted in the HuffPost article described it as needing to be “the perfect Stepford wife” who is “super smiley” and “never confronts anyone.” In short, women were being explicitly and overtly ​trained​ to be docile and pliant.

I’ve written elsewhere about how corporate culture in modern America was developed for the postwar economy with the assumption of male breadwinners with housewives, and about how women are punished and demeaned for demonstrating “masculine” traits like ambition or assertiveness (read: “bitchy”), but in all my years in business, I have never seen it lain out in such stark, black-and-white terms, and the fact that this sort of training was never regarded as controversial tells me that it speaks to the ongoing general mood of corporate leadership in the United States. Remember, this wasn’t an insulated, internal program; it was a third party product that was (and may still be) employed elsewhere. It’s 2019, and women are still being told to sit down and shut up.

And it’s being presented as not only benign, but benevolent; the fact that it was framed as “empowerment” is likely sincere, as the guidelines it laid down are almost certainly those that other female executives have used to advance and thrive. I’m not disputing that, nor framing anyone’s intent as malicious; some women who attended the course found it quite helpful.But why is the survival strategy women must employ to succeed is to let the men steamroll the women in the hopes they’ll like you enough to garner a promotion? That indeed is the recurring theme: You Must Be Liked.

Being liked has never been my focus. I have perhaps insulated myself from that need to a degree by virtue of having started and run my own company for decades. But leaders can’t be pliant; leaders ​lead​. For all the sexism and dismissal I’ve faced in my career, I’ve never placed placating myself to a man’s favor over commanding respect by acting in ways that this training would consider “unfeminine.” And, like so many proud viragos from Boudicca to Joan of Arc, the respect it’s garnered me may have been grudging, but it was genuine. It has fueled my success; it’s also the exact opposite of what countless women are advised to do by people who should damn well know better.

This plea to be passive is the end result of the slow, plodding, and entirely unremarkable sexism women have faced – and continue to face – day in and day out. But if we don’t recognize it, we cannot eradicate it. It is time we face the fact that if women are going to be respected we’ve got to accept that we’re going to have to break the old rules, even at the risk of not being liked for doing so.

Source: Forbes – Leadership