How do our Workplaces Shame Women?

By Claire Lamont

When was the last time you bit your tongue in a meeting? When that difficult colleague sent back that passive-aggressive email, did you take a deep breath, and rise above it? Yes, maybe your instinct was to storm right over there and chuck that coffee in his face. And that’s probably what he deserved. But you’re more professional than that.

Work is, well, hard work sometimes. And I don’t mean the assignments, the spreadsheets, the content-writing. I mean the interpersonal effort involved in these often small, numerous interactions throughout the day, with colleagues, clients, managers. We all accept that part of being professional involves keeping our thoughts to ourselves sometimes, but the amount we have to do this day-to-day varies depending on our individual personalities and the particular environment we are in. Sociologists call this unseen emotional effort ‘Emotional Labour,’ and since its coining by Arli Hochschild in 1983, it’s been a focus of workplace research, and yes, this is gendered: Research suggests that women are doing far more of this emotional labour than men. This is partly a function of power dynamics in the workplace: Employees in less powerful positions naturally end up taking on more emotional labour than those higher up. And that is still, in most industries, women. But even where women are reaching higher positions, there is evidence that this division is still taking place. What happens is that women take on a supportive, caring role by default. They provide unacknowledged, exhausting emotional labour. Sound familiar?

Our Untapped Accelerators report coming across these patterns again and again with their female users. One UA told me about a user she was working with for some time who had a male boss. This man would take out his unprofessional mood swings on her, demand things at short notice and sometimes be dominating during meetings. She sensitively brought this issue up with a senior manager. The organisation responded by bringing in a (male) mediator, and she found that she was suddenly left off the invite list to a conference the following month. She followed up on this with the support of her UA, and was put back on the list for a team seminar weekend. Fighting her corner paid off, but it took courage and determination to see through.

And women are often caught in a double-bind. Because if and when they step out of a caring role, they are often met with mistrust or hostility. We’re all familiar with the idea of the ‘office bitch’, or the female leader who meets the men head-on. How do we collectively treat such women who step outside of their assigned gender role? A recent survey of Silicon Valley tech companies reported that a shocking 84% of women surveyed had been told that they were too aggressive, part of a wider culture which expects women to fulfil nurturing and compassionate roles (despite research suggesting that compassion is no more an innate characteristic in women than in men.) Researchers have found that the hiring process for women involves a focus on their social skills that is largely absent from this process for men.

There’s more than one side to this: A recent survey in UK life sciences found that female leaders are thought to bring more empathy to their roles, and this is seen as an overwhelmingly positive thing. Sure, it’s great that respondents could see the benefits of emotional intelligence and an awareness of other peoples’ perspectives in the workplaces. I couldn’t agree more. But why are these skills so overwhelmingly still associated with women? Where are all the empathetic men? And what about that flipside: that when women show characteristics less traditionally seen as female and valued as such, they are seemingly shut down or on the receiving end of micro-aggressions?

We’re entering the murky world of shame, what renowned researcher Brene Brown calls the ‘swampland of the soul.’ Women’s (and men’s) behaviour is defined within a narrow range of acceptable ways of being - emotionally-supportive, caring - and where they step outside of that, they can be shamed for it. Researchers have found that when women try to negotiate their salaries, they are far less likely to be positively-received than their male colleagues - perhaps the reason why 57% of men will do this in a new role, but only 7% of women. While Sheryl Sandberg’s famous call for women to Lean In is appealing, the facts on the ground suggest that women are holding back for good reasons: They can read the room.

Shame is an extraordinarily powerful feeling; it goes to the heart of who we are as people. It’s that feeling of ‘I am wrong, bad, not good enough’. It’s natural that we all do our best to avoid it at all costs. And when we engage in the dance of workplace norms, this is part of what we’re doing. When women behave in ways not sanctioned by culture, they are implicitly shamed by being ignored, shut down, or subtly mocked or ostracised. They aren’t given the pay rise, or the promotion, or the job at all.

This isn’t just about women. Brown’s shame research shows clearly that there is a gender split in how we shame each other. Whereas women are shamed for not being on top of everything all the time - the job, the house, the family - and performing that perfectly, men experience shame for one thing: Showing weakness. And since our corporate powerhouses are still male-led, this is the emotional undercurrent defining many boardrooms, trading floors and busy offices. No wonder people were so relieved to experience some empathy in meetings.

What I’m saying is that we are all, men and women, participating in a culture that punishes us all. Men are expected to succeed at everything, to never show vulnerability, to be strong at all times. And that is just unreasonable. In our workplaces, it can create an inflexible culture where mistakes are difficult to own and learn from for fear of shame, and personal difficulties or stress are ignored, to our personal detriment. On the other hand, women are seen as bringing a welcome, ‘acceptable’ caring face into teams, but their ability to participate in ambition or bossiness (and don’t the connotations of that word just reverberate with old sexisms and cheap digs?) are met with micro-aggressions and shame.

Brown has a powerful message for us all, but in our Western workplaces, it feels particularly important right now. We must find ways to participate equally in vulnerability; to allow men to feel it, and to create a culture where the role of receiving that vulnerability is not only borne by women, but also by men. And women must be allowed to lead, even where it means being tough rather than warm, authoritative rather than supportive.