Do You Cope with Office Politics or Leverage them?

In academia, appraisals (call them what you will) get different degrees of serious attention. Equally, people pay more or less heed to them, depending on personal circumstances and whether anything useful is said. However, a recent study shows that, as with so much of the working world, subtle gender biases are at play. However well-meaning the appraiser may be in the feedback they give, however positive the messages they give appear at first sight, in fact the ‘steers’ given may be (of course, this is a statistical statement) different for men and women.

A recent US textual study of written feedback given to a group of mid-career business leaders by over 1000 peers and more senior leaders during the course of a leadership development programme, has highlighted the differences. (I came across a useful summary on the Harvard Business Review blog.) It is fascinating because the differences are so stark, as neatly summarised in this table.

Men are encouraged to Women are encouraged to
Set the vision Focus on delivery
Leverage politics Cope with politics
Claim their space Get along
Display more confidence Be more confident

All the recommendations are positive. They’re not even subtle put-downs of the sort I’ve written about before in letters of reference, where women are described, for instance, as helpful or good team players, but the messages conveyed are not that different. What does ‘get along’ mean other than be a good team player as opposed to assuming the role of the team leader? Likewise, focus on delivery seems to suggest the woman is supposed to take someone else’s vision and get on with it, rather than be the vision setter. That belongs to the man’s domain. I find it depressing, if illuminating, that the differences are clear-cut and damaging to the idea of developing women as leaders.  This feedback, note, was provided in a leadership development programme. It sounds like it’s a course to be missed, but is (I presume) typical.

And so, to departmental politics, as captured by the title of this post. However toxic, or however driven by networks and cliques, the woman is only supposed to cope with it. Not fight back, let alone grab it by its tail and leverage it to access influence. Women, poor passive things, are condemned to not letting whatever nightmare conditions there are get them down, let alone complain about them. I’m sure that isn’t what the feedback-givers intentionally meant, but that will be the message received. This is such a clear-cut example of implicit/unconscious bias, where in-built stereotypes play out unhelpfully without conscious thought being given. And I’m sure women giving feedback would be as likely to fall into this trap as men, as all the evidence on multiple fronts suggest women are no better at avoiding many forms of implicit bias.

But I am almost amused by the last pair of recommendations. Women frequently talk about their lack of confidence and the typical sensation of impostor syndrome. It wouldn’t be surprising if this came up in a conversation with an appraiser and it is not unreasonable to be told to ‘be more confident’ as a response. But for men, they are told to ‘display more confidence’.  Is this an implicit admission that men are just as likely to lack confidence as the women, but they are told (no doubt wisely) to put on an act? There’s a lot to be said for ‘fake it till you make it’, or ‘feel the fear and do it anyhow’ or whichever other glib phrase you care to use. But, too often women are fooled into thinking that those (not necessarily only men) who manage to display confidence do actually believe in themselves, that that external confidence is more than skin-deep. They need to recognize that that may just be a superior acting job, and work on learning how to put on such an act themselves, rather than internalise the problem as feeling unconfident when they may not believe they can ever rid themselves of that.

The reality is all of us, at least some of the time, have to do something we are unfamiliar with and may have no confidence we can accomplish the task. As Master of a Cambridge college I know this only too well. Back in the day when social interactions were possible, I remember being daunted by being expected to make polite conversation with Trump’s ambassador in London, with whom there was unlikely to be a great meeting of minds. Or having lunch with a blockbuster author of romantic fiction, not a single one of whose books I had cared to read. Not roles I was trained for, but I knew my job was to be appropriately conversational, interested and interesting. Those may be trivial examples in one sense, but they illustrate we all keep having to raise our game in unexpected directions. Getting under the metaphorical table and saying I don’t do small talk would not have got me far in either case. Less superficially, there was the time I had to do a TEDx talk that did not go according to plan, as I wrote about previously: a high profile, high adrenalin situation that many a reader would find unnerving and which probably resonates in many different public-speaking situations. I could go on and on, but discretion on my part is probably desirable. You get the idea.

All of us who give feedback should take note of the implications of this study. I think the idea that writing letters of reference can too easily be gendered is seeping into the general consciousness. I hope that the nature of feedback given to early-mid career academics will likewise be more commonly identified as a source of damaging bias. Or it seems likely that the population of leaders will remain highly skewed towards the male gender.

And yes I know, not all men, not all women….



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