The Soft Chauvinism of Low Expectations

For a while, organizations have been boasting that they are “equal opportunity.” That equal opportunity means, in theory, that every qualified person has an equal chance to be hired by an organization, and even an equal opportunity to excel in that organization.

The opportunity to excel may be marred by something even the most progressive executives are unconscious of: low expectations for women. As a woman, I’ve noticed that I have to get past an arched-eyebrow skepticism with the older, male head of our department that my less competent, but male, boss, and other men, don’t experience. There is a presumption of ability, or an expectation, that these men are capable of great things—that the department head can expect greatness from them. When I do a good job with my work, there’s always an element of surprise—as if to say, “Wow, who knew you had in you?”

This phenomenon of low expectations piqued my curiosity, so I did research online, and found it isn’t my imagination. Others have studied, and written, about this problem. Here’s what E.W. had to say about it in The Economist: “What is holding women back from leadership positions in 21st-century America? According to Pew, the problem is that women still have to do more than men to prove themselves. This finding suggests a troubling assumption—that we still don’t expect women to be able to do what men can do. We allow that it’s possible, but our baseline expectations are that men are more capable. This puts women in the position of having to go above and beyond the standards to which men are held in order to demonstrate their competence.”

I’m now a managing editor, have almost 20 years of experience, and hold a Master’s Degree. But our department head still is pleasantly surprised that I can do the most basic tasks. Rather than acknowledging and praising me for my leadership of the publication, he focuses on achievements that he would never consider worth acknowledging in my boss. His exact words as best as I can remember them: “Margery, I want to congratulate you on doing well in that meeting yesterday,” or “Margery, I want to congratulate you for your use of graphics on our Website,” or “Good job in cross-referencing and embedding links.” It’s nice to receive compliments and acknowledgement, but with all of the more important things I do—planning and delivering 51 issues a year; recruiting, managing, editing, and writing for dozens of contributors; and being the primary generator of ideas for content—aren’t those things I should have been “congratulated” on and what I should most be recognized for?

The problem is the department head and my boss don’t see me as a leader. That wasn’t their plan for me, and because of my gender, or another factor I’m not aware of, they don’t want to see me as a leader. They would rather see me as a supporting player, regardless of the leadership that is necessary from me to keep our business running. As these two men noted in a meeting at the beginning of 2017: “The tail has been wagging the dog,” meaning I’m the tail, not the dog, and so I should stop acting like the dog (i.e., the leader or primary player). And yet the reality is I need to act like a dog, not a tail, to do everything they want done. They don’t really want to take on the leadership responsibilities for the publication themselves; they just want to maintain the illusion that they are the leaders, and I’m the supporting player.

The things I’ve been recognized for—being good in a meeting and picking out photos—also tie into traditional expectations of what women are good at—the secretary or “executive assistant” helping to support a meeting, or the woman who is good at making things look nice. Not surprisingly, the department head is eager for me to take on more “project management” work, which, in truth, is often executive assistant-like in nature.

There also is a disparity in benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it’s couched in half-joking terms, but it still shines through. For instance, the department head has decided that no money should be spent sending me to any event or conference. Yet money has been spent to send my boss to brewery “business events,” in which he helps oversee events that use the marketing of micro-breweries as a metaphor or parallel for what our readers—small medical practice owners—could do. Meanwhile, he wants me to add new contributors to our publication and talk to more people in the industry to come up with topics for articles. With that in mind, he momentarily forgot his policy of not budgeting anything for me to travel, and talked like I would be joining him and my boss for a meeting earlier this fall in Las Vegas. But he quickly caught himself: “Of course, I would need you to put together a proposal of how you would spend your time to make sure it’s worth it for us. I don’t want you to go, and find out you’ve been spending all your time at the craps table,” he said, laughing. “Ha-ha,” we all laughed, myself included. I wondered to myself why in the world, even in joking, he would think of me as a person who couldn’t be trusted to find productive ways to spend her time at a business meeting. My diligence and dependability over seven years should speak for itself. Ironically, my heavy-drinking, extreme-extrovert boss is far more likely to enjoy a late-afternoon-into-early-evening-and-beyond drinking and cavorting. I’d much rather retire early to my room and read a book. But I get it—the default perception of me is I’m a bimbo or party girl at heart, and he has to keep a careful eye on me to keep me on track.

Does anything I’ve described sound familiar to any of you? I bet many other women in organizations have experienced something similar. How little is expected of us, and, as a result, how little many executives (sometimes even other women) are willing to give us as a result—even when we’ve earned it.

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