psst! r u a leader-y grl?

One day in an informal meeting about possible external partnerships, I recommended a friend and former senior colleague who I thought made the cut. Over several follow- up meetings I suggested more names, being careful to clarify that I could vouch for them precisely because I’d worked with them. For some reason this irked a male colleague, who cornered me later asking why ‘you feel the need to drop names, like, constantly‘. He was a very nice guy, and he looked pissed. He wasn’t leading the partnership discussions in any way, nor was he central to them. This made his aggressive little sideshow unwarranted. It just wasn’t okay for a woman to do what men do all the time- in meetings, on smoke breaks, on drunken outbounds, in the middle of rambling, fantastical, delusional conversations about ‘growing the business’.  It’s called networking, or leveraging your connections. Men throw names and scenarios at each other a lot, but of course that didn’t matter. It never does.

A friend rising with warp speed at her workplace while in her early twenties has similar stories. When picked by the boss for a task that could catapult her to national fame (it did ), his number two, the natural choice for the job, felt the need to give her ‘advice’. Here, read this book, he said solicitously, you need it. You can’t do this if you’re not well read. He was insinuating that she didn’t deserve the position. He’d taken decades and an expensive degree to get there himself, and we all know there’s no coping mechanism like showing a newbie her place with good old- fashioned passive- aggression. If that newbie is a woman, the job is infinitely easier. A whole host of efficient tools lie at your disposal- gaslighting, obfuscating, out- shouting, appropriating credit.

This is not to say women don’t make problematic colleagues or bosses. But it seems to me that terrible men are tolerated far more than terrible women are. Even perfectly nice women behaving like men ordinarily do get called the most vicious, most reductive names- Bitch. Cunt. Whore. While men enjoy the twin advantages of institutionalised leeway and gender solidarity, women turn into self- doubting wrecks if they’re not careful.

So when heroes like Sheryl Sandberg tell these women, all women, to toughen up and lean in, it sounds less like good advice and more like victim blaming. Her book gets it mostly wrong. She attributes workplace fails to women’s feminine, deferential behaviour, to their politeness and to their silence, to their softness and to the way they balk at working weekends or ‘tough jobs’. To her, women are overlooked for leadership roles not only because they don’t know how to ask for a seat at the table, but also because they don’t want it bad enough. Guess who’s always been telling women they aren’t good enough, Ms. Sandberg, explaining their own feelings to them, infantilizing them? Men. And women like yourself, who forget their place and their privilege. Ornery women’s workplace problems can and never will be solved, as you suggest, by women being less women-y.  Blaming the women is like telling the tortoise she’s set up for inevitable failure against the hare because she’s slow and stupid, not because the race is rigged. To Ms. Sandberg’s credit, she’s acknowledged that the Here underachieving sister, let me show you how it’s done slant of her book was a bad choice. Her apologies are too little too late; for the half- decade since its publication the book’s been telling women how they must behave in the workplace in the most damaging way possible

This is why I LOVE Sarah Cooper’s funny, relatable, cleverly illustrated riff on the corporate self help genre, How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non Threatening Leadership Strategies For Women. She does not discuss women’s issues in the apologetic, exasperated, patronising tone employed by the likes of Sandberg. Instead this former Googler makes grim jokes about the toxic bro culture in Silicon Valley, turning the heat on the men who benefit from the too- nice, accommodating women around them. Whether you’re working at a tech startup or at one of the OGs, or are pitching your baby business to a VC, you’re very likely to find yourself in tragicomic situations that test every last drop of your self esteem. Nothing’s good enough- not your undeniable competence, not your proven successes, not even the full force of your very likeable personality. Cooper’s solution is to give us three moustache stickers- maybe go wearing one and you’ll fool them into thinking the opposite of what they thought of you. 

My favorite section of the book is on Gaslighting. The term comes from a 1930’s play called Gas Light, in which a malicious husband successfully drives his wife mad. Every night he takes off to plunder the empty flat upstairs, the treasures of a dead rich lady. Switching the lights on there causes all the gas- powered lights in the building to dim just a little bit, enough to be noticeable but also enough for plausible deniability. When his wife asks if the lights seem dimmer, he affects bafflement. Every night he climbs the stairs to steal, every night the lights dim, every night he feigns ignorance. Soon his wife begins to doubt her eyesight and goes insane. In excellent clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s book Should I Stay Or Should I Go? – Surviving A Relationship With A Narcissist , ‘Gaslighting qualifies as a form of emotional abuse that involves denying a person’s experience and making statements, such as “that never happened”, “you’re too sensitive”, or “this isn’t that big a deal”. It tends to happen gradually over time, and it leaves you feeling as though you are slowly going crazy. The gaslighter uses techniques such as withholding or stonewalling (“I don’t want to hear that again”), contradicting (telling you that you do not recall something correctly) and diversion… he also minimizes your feelings (“How could you be upset about such a little thing?”) and denies events that definitely occurred (“I never did that”). The damage of gaslighting is that it is confusing, isolating and often results in you questioning your own reality. The doubt seeps into all areas of your life…(it) fills you with… second-guessing… you may find yourself chronically apologising and no longer as relaxed and joyful as you once were.’ Cooper turns the heat on shitty gaslighters with a fun Gaslighting Defence Worksheet, a reminder to all women that our opinions, no matter how easily shot down or dismissed as silly, matter.

Sure, most women are hesitant negotiators. We’re uncomfortable voicing our reservations. We overthink the sort of things men vomit without a thought. We’re guarded, we’re brittle from constantly sidestepping exploding egos, we’re exhausted from our double shifts of managing domestic and professional expectations. A lot of us are hanging by a thread. We are this way not because of a personal lack, but because our gendered upbringing spills over into our professional lives- how can it not?- and because the ecosystem rewards and incentivizes peak brohavior. Unsurprisingly there are no books telling women to play to their strengths. No one’s teaching us how to value and cherish our most essential traits to success-  softness, intuition, the ability to drive consensus without unnecessary conflict. To be feminine in the workplace is to be wrong. It is to be primed for failure. Cooper will have us know that Sandberg and her ilk, with all their reams of data, are dead mistaken. If you’re a woman, chances are that you will face unpleasantness no matter what you do or how you present, so the best thing to do at work is to cultivate two things- an invincible sense of humor and solid female friendships. This way, when you’re boss, no woman on your team’s going to have to come in wearing a stick- on handlebar. 

Gift this book to a friend or colleague who’s been having a shitty time at work, and have fun snickering at the stickers and worksheets. I made the mistake of reading it while snacking on an orange; do you know what OJ can do if it gets inside your nose? It can hurt. Like a bitch a male colleague who casually takes the credit for your work and acts offended when you point it out. And that is why you need this book in your life. 

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