Office politics for women

A new book looks at all the areas of unconscious bias women have to negotiate at work.

How do you negotiate office politics, particularly in a male-dominated work culture? Do you try to blend in or feel the need to assert your own identity?

According to a new book by law professor Joan C. Williams and her daughter Rachel Dempsey older women appear to be more willing to assimilate into masculine traditions, often because there were so few of them, but a new generation often feel differently.

The book, What Works for Women at Work, describes in detail the various deeply culturally embedded biases and assumptions that are still around about women in the workplace and springs from a project of The New Girls’ Network, a group of professional women that Williams put together.

The project found that there were four main obstacles to women’s career progression: the need to ‘prove it again’ in ways just not required of men; the ‘tightrope’ that women have to tread at work based on ideas of how women should behave; the maternal wall – assumptions about commitment issues and disapproval of women having careers after having children; and the tug of war – as women try to navigate their own path between assimilating male traditions and resisting them which can divide them against each other.

Williams says: “These patterns add up to the sobering truth that office politics are trickier for women than for men.,,women need to be politically savvier than men in order to survive and thrive in their careers.”

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The most common bias was the tightrope bias, followed by ‘prove it again’.  In their introduction, Williams and Dempsey speak about the accumulation of disadvantage, how seemingly small issues of bias on their own may constitute a molehill, but piled together they create a mountain which women have to climb up. They mention research showing motherhood as being the strongest trigger for bias. They also write about how meritocratic organisations are often more biased than others because ignoring bias serves to maintain the status quo. They write: “Being the change you want to see in the world first requires an understanding of what needs changing.”

They counsel that understanding the biases you face can help to lessen their impact and that women can even use them to their advantage. They say: “As long as we ignore unconscious biases, they’ll remain invisible. Only people who know their biases can rise above them.”

The book details the different forms of bias – in the chapter on ‘prove it again’ it talks about how men are judged on their potential while women are judged on their achievements, which constantly have to be proved, even at the highest level of organisations. The writers mention that women’s behaviour in the workplace may be in large part a rational response to gender bias, for instance, taking fewer risks. They say: “Men are more willing to take risks because doing so is less risky.” This links back to men being judged on potential so when things go wrong it may be considered that they are just taking a risk whereas when if it goes wrong for a woman it is seen as a big mistake.

They outline different strategies for facing down such bias, for instance, comebacks to putdowns about ‘gossiping’ in the office or highlighting bias in a calm way and they also counsel against burnout, a common problem for those having to prove themselves again and again.


The chapter on walking the tightrope covers areas such as how women dress at work, depending on what work they do, how they pitch their voice, how they stand and how they strike a balance between niceness and authority, all areas that women have been advised to rethink to get ahead. It advises getting a career coach to help find a way to ‘walk the tightrope’ without losing a sense of integrity and authenticity.

The authors say this chapter prompted the most disagreement between them. They write: “Telling women the ‘right way’ to be a woman is exactly what other advice books do – and what we’re trying to avoid. Gender is one of the most complex parts of identity, and it’s not for anyone else to decide what it means to you.”

The chapters on the maternal wall address how women often feel that after they have children they feel they have to prove themselves all over again, often at a time when they are most vulnerable and tired. They say: “The current system is perfectly engineered to damn women into feeling guilty no matter what they do. The bottom line is that women – and men – need better choices. Too often, today’s workplaces are perfectly designed for the breadwinner-housewife workforce of 1960. That has to change.”

They counsel approaches such as demanding greater equality at home around the housework and childcare, presenting employers with solutions rather than problems, keeping in touch with work on maternity leave to show commitment and not expecting too much in either the work or domestic sphere.

The tug of war chapters deal with divisions between women which just reinforce stereotypes about catfighting. The issues need to be understood and talked about sensitively, without judgement, say the authors.

The book also deals with “double jeopardy”, bias against ethnic minority women which the authors describe as complex due to the nature of stereotypes, for instance, Asian mothers may not face the same issues around commitment after their children are born, but may be stereotyped as ‘tiger moms’.

The final chapters deal with issues such as pressure to stay trapped in a job when moving on might be better, a list of 20 lessons in ‘savvy’ and a call to change the system.

The last of the 20 lessons simply states: “Don’t waste your energy trying to work through an unworkable situation, or your time in a job where your talents aren’t valued. If you’re facing a poisonous working environment or a dead-end job and there’s nothing new to learn, vote with your feet and find a job where you can shine.”

*What Works for Women at Work by Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey is published by New York University Press. 

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