Kindness in Action: Gender, Power, and Expectations

People in positions of power can do enormous damage when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use those gender expectations to wield power.

You can jump down to some thoughts on putting kindness in action to dispel that damage, or first read a few stories that help illustrate the point as a preface.

In my last year of graduate school, just as my own academic job search began, my department hired a new chair from another university. As with any year in recent memory, few schools were hiring in the humanities. Even landing interviews with “top” schools did little to make me optimistic in the face of tight competition and a shifting discipline that favored identity studies and non-canonical texts. After on-campus interviews, departments told me that my work wasn’t “political” enough. One department told me flat out they decided it would be better to hire a woman for diversity. I didn’t want to give up yet, however. I sought out my new chair for his advice.

I sat in the chair’s office, facing his desk and silhouette in the glare of sunlight from the enormous window behind him. I brought him up to speed with my job search, where I had interviewed, where I had call-backs. I asked for his insight. Sure, I could delay finishing my dissertation and stay another year, but how could I connect better with potential hirers? Some of the advice made perfect sense, if not seeming a bit opportunistic. I could pump out an article or two to appease shifting attitudes. I listened politely, willing to consider what I needed to do for professional survival. “But, you know,” he said with an oddly dead-eyed look, “you can’t get away with being so demure. It’s not suitable.”

“Ok, sure, well thanks for the input.” I scrambled my CV and papers into my bag and went out to meet some friends on the quad. They wondered why I had so little to say. One friend finally got the story out of me. “What an asshole,” everyone agreed.

But that’s not the point of the story. And that wasn’t the end of it; as I found out much later, the powerful mentor I had reached out to was actively undermining me on the job market. The word choice says it all. “Demure.” Not “reserved,” or “shy,” or “introverted.” And presented as something I was trying to “get away with.” I had been gender-bashed for not meeting his expectations for suitable male behavior. Beyond the casual slight of a callously chosen word, it stuck with me, became gossip, and harmed my career (where, that same year, I ended up getting a job after all, and left the profession for other reasons–a story for another time).

Fast-forward to some ten years later, and I’m in a senior position at a consulting firm, on my fifth promotion in as many years. In my annual performance review, my new manager talked about my strong performance, tripling the size of one of the firms largest accounts. “The problem is we all think you’re only doing it for yourself, not for the good of the firm.” I had toughened up a bit since my days in grad school, so I asked what that meant. What was the evidence for my performance having hidden motivations and what can I do differently to change perceptions? “Now you’re just being difficult. People think it’s hard to make a point with you. You come across as being kind of bitchy.” The discussion petered out quickly from there. Again, a seemingly casual word that spoke volumes. I was being held to account for some sort of invisible characteristic and again, gender-bashed with a mis-gendering term.

In hindsight, I’m perfectly happy to own “bitchiness” as a word used by people uncomfortable with my own form of toughness, and “demure” as my own way of listening attentively. In hindsight, these subtle gender-bashings only fueled my motivation and helped move me along to the journey I have taken since, a thriving company of my own, and a path that I make mine with my own ways of being intact. Without experiences like these, I would never have come to a point of focusing on advocacy for kindness in the workplace.

But, despite the good fortune I’ve had in the meantime, these words and moments show just how much damage people in positions of power can do when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use gender expectations to wield power. The dynamics of the presidential election this year further strengthen my awareness of the way gendered terms are used to level unfair judgment. And finally, I was inspired by a recent piece my long-time friend and colleague Carol Barash posted on LinkedIn, which triggered my thinking about gender, power, and self-empowerment.

As promised, after my long run-up to the topic, here are several kind things I recommend people do about the gendered misuse of power and judgment.

  • Be mindful of the words you use. It doesn’t matter whether you keep these words to yourself or use them in interactions. “He is so…, she is very…, you seem…” Fastidious, bossy, difficult, take your pick. Are these words that embed a gender stereotype? In my examples above, gender terms other than the gender I present were used, but stereotypes about men or women are often used to police a gap between what a person is doing and what is expected of them. Instead, you can pause, think about how else that label is used in other contexts, and why you perceive it here, and whether you should separate it from your expectations of gendered behavior.
  • Step back. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you are using gender to wield power, especially at first, but you can start even by observing and reflecting on how gender dynamics work between other people. Try it at the next meeting you attend. What are people saying and how are they interacting with each other? When are they open or closed to others’ input and how?
  • Refocus on outcomes. Sometimes, gendered labels are shorthand. Underneath them, you may have a concrete need for someone to change what they are doing. When you give feedback, the onus is on you to stake specifically and actionably what you are asking the recipient to do or do differently. In fact, that’s the only appropriate request. Instead of holding people accountable for your perception of them, be clear you are asking them to speak up more directly in meetings, with specific examples, or you are asking them to soften the way they assert themselves, with specific techniques. Don’t hang hidden, mysterious allegations over their heads.
  • Recognize it for what it is. If you ever feel gender-bashed, take a clear-eyed look at what happened and why. In the same way that you can think about the gender dimensions of your outward labels and judgments, you can think about whether words used to you or about you come from a someone wielding gender stereotypes, consciously or not, in order to exercise power. While you may not be able to “fix” it, you can at least not torment yourself trying to address feedback that cannot, maybe even purposefully cannot, be addressed.