Oh, Kristoff, no no no.

In Kristoff’s column today “She’s (rarely) the Boss” he gets a few things right. He quotes Sheryl Sandberg who suggests that “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” In fact, women are trained to demur, to assent, and to please.

But he gets something wrong by leaving out how women are punished when they do learn to be assertive.  As Judge, Livingston, and Hurst explain women get less of a boost and may even lose by being assertive. They state that “exhortations for women not to be nice (Pfeffer, 2010) might be overblown. Nice girls might not get rich, but “mean” girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status, and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men” (39). Kristoff and Sandberg are correct that women are socialized to be nicer, but their advice for women to assert more may not work as well as their predictions. Women must walk a very fine line between pleasing an assertive, lest they get labeled troublemakers or worse. Those labels make it nearly impossible to leverage assertiveness in the workplace.

Finally, Kristoff while advocating for changes in organization structure, which are clearly needed given the above, flounders about what might need changing. Perhaps training males already in power to recognize differing leadership styles or teaching them how not to punish women for moments when they are assertive and negotiate, might be a good starting place. But instead Kristoff slides into child-centric language here, somehow connecting lack of assertion in women to “the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.” What do families, by which Kristoff means children, have to do with the unwillingness to ask for raises? Nothing, except perhaps that women are not assertive enough at home to create equitable child care structures. What is more troubling though, remains Kristoff’s assumption that women will reproduce and that structural changes needs always respond to that reproductive choice, rather than the larger problems of gender expectations in the workplace. Of course, organizations should not judge workers for leaving at 5:30 for any reason, not just to spend time with children. If work-life balance was untethered from child raising, the concept could become gender neutral and benefit everyone.

In truth, the structural changes that would end the gender wage gap must begin long before women enter the workforce, in homes and schools, where parents do not expect girls to do housework and do not allow boys to be boys. Where educators train girls and boys to assert in appropriate ways, neither making excuses for overaggressive boys, nor punishing girls for unladylike demands for equality. All children and all adults should see adults of every gender modeling appropriate assertiveness ,and everyone should be trained and offered the chance to lead.


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