Before I knew who Jordan Peterson was I took one of his self-authoring online courses. It was really good and it precipitated a fundamental insight into my working life.
I realised that to be successful at work I needed to exhibit stereotypical masculine behaviours (let’s call these SMBs) but I — and others — were judging me as a woman. That meant I was expected to exhibit stereotypical feminine behaviours (let’s call these SFBs).
What this led to was a very deeply-seated sense of stress within me, the source of which remained unidentified for many years. Any time I needed to exhibit an SMB to get my job done I would feel a reluctance that would require me to screw myself up and just do it. Afterwards I would feel proud for being brave but also I had to engage in some mental gymnastics to convince myself that I wasn’t a horrible unlikeable bitch and that had been completely objectively reasonable in my behaviour.
On some occasions I didn’t go ahead with the SMB and I would chastise myself for being weak and cowardly. I would wonder whether I really had what it took and think that maybe success at work wasn’t worth the worry.
I don’t think I was alone in this feeling. I think a lot of women have struggled with this cognitive dissonance for a long time. The feeling of discomfort that result when your ingrained beliefs run counter to your behaviours.
If a woman does act according to female stereotypes, she is likely to receive backlash for not being competent enough; if she does not act according to the stereotypes connected to her gender and behaves more androgynous, or even masculine, it is likely to cause backlash through third-party punishment or further job discrimination.Therefore, women are expected to behave in a way that aligns with female gender stereotypes while these stereotypes are simultaneously used to justify their lack of success in an economic context, putting women in the workforce in a precarious, “double bind” situation.
Women are socially conditioned to exhibit SFBs. Hofstede characterises these as “service”, “permissiveness”, and “benevolence”. These can manifest as expectations (internally and externally) that you should take on lower status tasks, be agreeable, defer to men, make sure that others feel at ease and not challenged by your presence — the costs of emotional labour must be borne.
Failure to display SFBs and, worse, expression of SMBs can cause you to doubt yourself and be subtly (or not-so-subtly) negatively judged by others.
So, work is a world made for SMBs. What can you do?
There are 3 options:
- Lean in! Accept that the system cannot be changed and that you will have to carry the double burden of being good at your job and fighting against your own cognitive dissonance and the judgement and discrimination of others.
- Try to change the system to value SFBs. This is fundamentally difficult because the system has entrenched value systems that reward and reinforce SMBs, e.g. positional power, posturing, aggression, dominance.
- Use a different system. One that that values and rewards SFB and SMB equally. There are a growing number of people who are exploring how to create a more human, more humane workplace. To change the game.
What would that look like in practice? A helpful model to frame this is Stephen Covey’s Maturity Continuum. These are three successive stages of increasing maturity: dependence, independence, and interdependence.
Dependence means you need others to get what you want. All of us began life as an infant, depending on others for nurturing and sustenance. I may be intellectually dependent on other people’s thinking; I may be emotionally dependent on other people’s affirmation and validation of me. Dependence is the attitude of “you”: you take care of me… or you don’t come through and I blame you for the result.
Independence means you are pretty much free from the external influence [and] support of others. … Independence is the attitude of “I”. … It is the avowed goal of many individuals, and also many social movements, to enthrone independence as the highest level of achievement, but it is not the ultimate goal in effective living. There is a far more mature and more advanced level.
The third and highest level in the Maturity Continuum is interdependence. … We live in an interdependent reality. Interdependence is essential for good leaders; good team players; a successful marriage or family life; in organisations. Interdependence is the attitude of “we”: we can co-operate; we can be a team; we can combine our talents.
— Stephen Covey, The 7 habits of highly effective people (1998)
Think about the worst places you have worked. You’ll recall many Dependence behaviours. Blame culture, anger, fear and selfishness.
You may spot that some people you know have avoided all that by seeking Independence. The entrepreneur, the consultant, the freelancer. Or perhaps by rising up through the ranks, a degree of independence can be found within a traditional organisational hierarchy.
But the most human and humane of the three states is Interdependence. I’d bet that if you think of the best places that you have worked you will recall mainly that it was the interdependent behaviours that made it enjoyable. Often, these are happening due to human nature — in spite of a SMB-valuing structure rather than because of it.
Recognising this, the decentralised work movement is focusing on consciously creating workplaces built on Interdependence. You will see collaboration, shared ownership of decision-making and a more balanced distribution of power. There is a rise now in organisations adopting this approach, using decentralised and self-organising teams. Many of these are purpose-driven organisations, as you may expect, but it is also seen in public services, banks, and manufacturing. Wherever there are people there is a route to a more human way of working.
Workplaces built around Interdependence allow for the full range of human behaviours to be valued and contribute to shared achievement. It defuses the narrow path to success we often see in business — one which fetishises extreme SMBs. This transition is easy to start, but, like any change that must reach our deep-seated conditioning, hard to master. However, I believe that anyone who has experienced working in such a way will resist going back, and in this way a tipping point will be reached.
So, perhaps it’s ironic that it was through Jordan Peterson that I learned why it’s so hard to be a woman in a man’s world. But by recognising that it’s real, and not (just) in my head it’s given me a way to see how the game is played, and to choose a different game.
Organisations are changing. It’s bumpy, it’s messy, it’s not always a total success, but it’s happening, and it’s very close to becoming mainstream.
The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.
― William Gibson, The Economist, December 4, 2003.