Doing it wrong

Via Jezebel, this list of “tips” for female employees was reportedly distributed to the entire HR department at Citibank.

I honestly expected the comments on the Jezebel post to be full of fury over this, but as well as he anger there were many were defending it, saying things like

Seriously Jezebel, don’t knock good advice. Equality is not about bitching about inequality, its about acting equal and in return being treated equally.

I won’t comment on the behavioral criticisms in this list, as I am not an expert. But I would agree that even I, a woman, would not take a woman who spoke softly while petting her hair, clamming up, simpering or giggling and gave weak ass handshakes seriously either


Let me see if I’ve got this straight . . .

This list gives genuinely helpful advice on avoiding certain workplace behaviors that are perceived as undesirable in the current, male-dominated corporate climate. Nowhere on the list does it say “all women do X” or “male-associated behaviors are clearly better than these others because of their inherent moral or intellectual superiority.” The list was written by a woman who has a Ph.D. in psychology and a decades-long career in employment counseling.

And yet simply because it makes some generalizing statements about *some* women, this list clearly must be a sexist atrocity worthy of our scorn and condemnation. This site falls into undergraduate-level gender studies analysis mode WAY too frequently lately, if you ask me .

There were comments such as this, saying that this list is helpful, and that hey, they don’t take women who do those things seriously either, so the tips are on point. But luckily the voice of sanity was also present, pointing out the fact that these “feminine” behaviours are learned behaviours, and that if these behaviours aren’t deemed acceptable, or are seen as a hindrance to getting ahead in the workplace, then it’s because society views “feminine” things as less desirable and acceptable. So the whole reason that the behaviours in the list are considered bad is because the same people who give advice like this list have decided that it isn’t conducive to success in business.

One of the commenters pointed out that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with behaviour such as “playing fair” or “sitting demurely”, but because these things are associated with femininity, and business is so often seen as a man’s world, then these things are seen in a negative light. Of course, this generalizes to the wider world as well: behaviour associated with being feminine is seen as less acceptable/desirable in general.

One of the very good points brought up in response to people saying ‘hey, listen to the list’ was that women here are being castigated for being “feminine”, but in reality they are not only recriminated for being too feminine, but also if they try to avoid these “feminine” behaviours and end up being too masculine. You know, the ball-busting, hard-ass, butch, tough, manly female coworker or boss. Women can’t win either way; the behaviour in the list is too womanly, but go too far in the other direction and that would be too manly, too unladylike. And not even too far in the other direction, because “too far” is an arbitrary amount determined only by whether a man is threatened by or dislikes her. Too far could mean barely any difference in behaviour, or quite a lot, or none at all. It’s not relevant, just like when a man calls a woman a slut it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how many men she has slept with.

So basically women are walking the finest of tightropes, and in all probability the ‘right’ balance of masculinity and femininity – or, as is presented in this list, assertiveness vs. femininity – does’t exist. The line is arbitrary, and the goalposts movable. So that’s why I think this list is terrible: because it implies that by following these rules, women can ‘pass’, and fit into a workplace environment, when .


  1. Katherine says:

    This is more of a response to the comments you quoted than directly to your post: If people feel the need to put out tips like this it DOES mean they think that the majority, if not all, women act like this. Additionally if people feel that people can be ignored at work because they exhibit these behaviours then they are, frankly, discriminatory. I know if someone was telling me [important concept, idea or risk] at work while smiling, fixing her hair and weakly shaking my hand I’d take it seriously, even if I did think she was a bit fidgity.

    And what is with that #9? If someone is invisible it isn’t their fault, it’s all the people not giving proper credit. How much more work would get done if we didn’t all have to self-promote every time we do something?

    • steph says:

      I really liked the “just because it said some generalizing things about some women, it has to be bad, huh??” comment. Why yes, yes in fact it does.

      Number 9 bothered me too, because it somehow reinforces the idea that in business everyone needs to be all up in your face, bragging about their work and forcing you to praise them, and that the measure of workplace success isn’t how much you get done but how many pats on the back you get. And that just reinforces the idea that the business world is some sort of arrogant, ego-based competition, and that you can’t be a star and a valued team member if you are “behind the scenes”, because only the front man gets the glory. Which sucks big time, because the people who work behind the scenes deserve recognition too; I mean, someone’s got to do those jobs. It sets up the distinction between what is valuable work, and what isn’t, and basically implies that a behind the scenes job is for passive people who don’t/won’t take credit, and of course wont get ahead. Argh.

      • Katherine says:

        And then when someone in one of the visible positions gives credit to their team, it’s just seen as them being modest, and really those people behind the scenes can’t have done much at all.

        • steph says:

          Exactly. Because clearly people behind the scenes just file the paperwork and do the little things so that the star can be freed up to do the really important stuff.