Guest Blog by Terri Apter. Author of Women at Work: Breaking Free of The Unentitled Mindset

On International Women’s Day (IWD) The Female Lead launched the Women at Work report.  The starting point for this research project, which I led, was data showing that at midstage career – roughly between the ages of 27 and 44 – career trajectories diverged: men’s continues to rise and women’s flattened.  Current research on women’s careers tends to focus on entry level where some women remain on a “sticky floor” of jobs with very limited opportunities, or on high profile senior positions such as CEO, but there has been less focus on midstage that involve special challenges for women as questions about balance, priorities and fertility necessitate what Mary Catherine Bateson called “composing a life” – drawing together meaningful themes to shape a life pattern, within a context of shifting constraints.

The first thing that struck me was the confidence of the participating women. Their words refuted many myths about women, in particular that women are uncomfortable with ambition, that they feel ambivalent about independence, that they do not identify as strongly with their professional life as men. These myths can now be set aside. The Women at Work report argues that subsequent progress requires us to distinguish between biases that persist and those that are now sporadic, often toothless.  Without such distinctions, inefficiencies will slow the advance and generate defensiveness in organisations, when what is required is energetic collaboration. 

The invitation from Inspired Usability to write a guest blog is a good opportunity to highlight three persistent biases that continue to impede women’s progress. 

The first I call expectation bias. 

Expectation bias involves lower expectations of a woman’s contributions to the firm, doubt as to her commitment and ability to take on new responsibilities and challenges. Many women told us that, on informing their employer they were taking maternity leave, they found that their access to clients, accounts, and responsibilities was restricted, and were no longer in line for promotions or pay increases. Sometimes this bias came in the guise of protectiveness as an employer said, “We don’t want to burden you with more responsibilities.”  But sometimes it was a brutal dismissal of a woman’s value. As a new mother she was seen to be less committed and less capable. 

Expectation bias did not only affect women who had children, because other women noticed it too, and thought long and hard about the effect having a child would have on their position in a company.

The second persistent bias is the flexibility penalty.

Women who took advantage of job flexibility, or who had taken a career break when their children were very young, were hit by a long term penalty, whereby it could take up to 6 years to return to the level they had been at before the career break.  It was only in firms where flexibility was the norm, and where very senior men also worked flexibly, or in firms run predominately by women, that there was no flexibility penalty.

The third persistent bias I call “unentitled mindset.”

Many women described a reluctance to negotiate pay increases and promotion, stemming from an unentitled mindset, whereby they felt unsure of their entitlement to promotion, to more family friendly conditions and to increased pay.  While confident in their ability to negotiate generally, and while they felt at ease negotiating pay increases on others’ behalf (usually other members of their team), the participating women expended a great deal of energy considering whether their own case was watertight. It could take six months or longer before they actually opened the discussion.  Employers’ responses, when they did try to negotiate, were confusing and sometimes punitive.

Unentitled mindset is in some ways the most disturbing bias, because it is internal.  That is, the women themselves felt unsure of their case, even though they knew it was sound.  So does this mean that, yet again, a report is telling women to change themselves and re-design their responses? 

My answer to this is, “No, it’s not the women who need to change.”  To explain this, I need to look at how expectation bias and the flexibility penalty are closely linked.  When an organisation sees a woman as less committed, driven and ultimately capable because she is going on maternity leave, they demonstrate a rigid template of the valuable worker as someone who can give everything to an employer (presumably because someone else, such as a wife, is carrying the mental load of domestic organisation).  When a woman who asks for flexibility suffers the flexibility penalty, she again learns that she does not fit the template of the organisation’s “valued partner.”  Knowing this, any case she makes for increased pay or promotion, however strong in itself, has a very weak foundation.

The report has been described as showing that “women are conditioned to believe they are entitled to less.”  This is true, but we need clarity when we talk about “conditioning” because it is easy for this concept to lose focus on which specific experiences activate which specific internal impediments.  If we don’t do this, and instead refer very generally to “the culture” or “society”, we waste a lot of time trying to fix everything when, in fact, only some things need to be changed.

Unentitled mindset arises in a very specific context, where old (usually defunct) stereotypes are activated.  This is the context of pay negotiations where women were uncharacteristically anxious about being seen as “grabby” or “ungrateful” or “asking for too much” or “putting themselves forward.” Some excellent and very recent research shows that the mystique so often surrounding shrouded pay and promotions negotiations activated normally defunct stereotypes.  In these conditions, those who know they do not fit the template of “standard valued worker” are more likely to see themselves through the eyes of bias – whether it is because they are women, or for any other reason (such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity). 

The Women at Work report makes robust but doable recommendations for organisations to remove biases that still hold women back by designing more imaginative, human-friendly jobs, by re-assessing standard measurements for value in terms of presenteeism, by clarifying and normalizing pay discussions for all workers, and by leaving behind the template of the valuable worker as someone whose family life is managed by a “wife.”

Read Terri Apter’s report for The Female Lead here

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Terri Apter

You can view more publications by Terri Apter here

Published On: March 18th, 2021 / Categories: Uncategorized / Tags: , , , /