A survey finds that underlying gender biases negatively affect how we view women who partake in office politics; here’s how to combat it
Office politics can be treacherous terrain for women.
That’s according to a survey of 134 senior executives from large organizations, the results of which were recently published in the Harvard Business Review. The report found that men and women engage in office politics differently. And more importantly, both genders say that women are judged more harshly than their male colleagues when they partake in this activity.
The root of the difference comes from how the two genders approach career politicking. According to Kathryn Heath, founding partner at consultancy Flynn Heath Holt Leadership and the article’s author— men tend to use phrases like “competition” and “tools people use to win at work,” when they describe trying to get into the good graces of their colleagues. They also tend to see this as a way of achieving results. By contrast, female respondents often say they’re more interested in influencing others and shaping the agenda than directly effecting change.
Hamm’s hypothesis is that women say they’re keener on having influence than winning because they don’t want to be perceived as overly aggressive. This is due to existing gender biases, which penalizes women for being overly assertive. “81% of women and 66% of men said that women are judged more harshly than men when they are seen as ‘engaging in corporate politics,’” she wrote. “So women don’t want to be viewed as political—it undermines them.”
The findings confirm what experts have long suspected. Traditionally, the “role of women in society is to make people feel good,” says Margaret Neale, a management professor at Stanford Business School. But when “we are in a situation where we are nakedly vying for power, we are not making people feel good,” she adds, noting that this isn’t typically a problem for men.
As corporate America becomes more aware of unconscious biases, this might gradually change. Hiring more women is a fast way to speed this up. “Better representation is always the answer,” says Florida Atlantic University business professor Deborah Searcy, adding that a larger presence of women in the workplace ensures that that the female approach to politicking becomes accepted as the norm.
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