Editor's Choice

That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

February 02, 2018


Joanne Lipman discusses the hidden lives of women at work, how they must recalibrate their behavior in the workplace, and the great benefits of changing that paradigm.

That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together by Joanne Lipman, William Morrow, 320 pages, Hardcover, January 2018, ISBN 9780062437211

When Joanne Lipman left college, she and her female friends were determined to rise to the top of their chosen fields. Their generation of women made up a slightly larger percentage of the overall population, and had outperformed their male counterparts in the classroom. And, with the work that previous generations of women had done, the world and the professional workplace was wide open to them.

Or so they thought. The professional world and everyday workplaces they encountered were, and remain, decidedly male—in sheer numbers, yes, but more importantly in culture—regardless of field. That cultural reality leads to a distressing reality for professional women, which is the issue at the heart of Lipman's new book, That's What She Said:


All of us, and countless other women, are attempting to fit into a professional world that was created in the image of men. The way we speak, dress, write emails, present ourselves—we’re conscious of how we come across in a culture that’s not quite our own. We’re always a bit like a tourist, trying to match the habits of the locals so we can blend in.


Perhaps that is why, even as corporate America increasingly stresses the importance of culture, “researchers have also found that those who don’t culturally ‘fit’ are disproportionately female.” As Lipman and her college friends navigated professional life in their first decade of their careers, and confronted the unequal expectations and reality of, well, everything—balancing work and family in a way that men aren’t expected to, having to be twice as productive to be viewed as equally competent, the inordinate importance of their appearance and the additional time, effort, and money needed to keep it up in order to be taken seriously and earn respect (which they’re often not afforded, regardless), even the simple fact that female-specific products cost more while women are paid less—many of her friends either dialed back their ambitions or quit altogether. “Those who stayed,” Lipman writes, “found that guys whom we’d easily bested in school were suddenly bosses.” Their experience is reflective of the larger reality of American professional life:


Even though women earn almost 60 percent of college degrees and more than half of graduate-school degrees, they represent just 5.6 percent of S&P 500 chief executives and 18 percent of board members of Fortune 1000 firms. They are only 19 percent of law partners.


That reality extends well beyond our borders. The World Economic Forum, the conference of the world’s most wealthy, influential, and powerful people, recently took place in Davos, Switzerland. Lipman has been among those in attendance in past years, covering the event as a journalist:


Each time, I am newly astonished by how few women I see. This is a conference of three thousand people, yet there’s never a line for the ladies’ room. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the “global elite.” […] In 2017, the conference organizers announced, proudly and with great fanfare, that 20 percent of attendees were female. The audience applauded, to my consternation. Since when is 20 percent, when women comprise slightly more than half the population, something to celebrate?


This year, that number rose to record high. “Over 21% of participants at this year’s meeting will be women,” the organizers announced, “a higher proportion than at any previous meeting.”

We know that this inequality is not only unjust, but that it is detrimental to economic performance of both companies and countries. So why does it persist? A lot of it may come down to our old nemesis, unconscious bias. For instance, multiple studies have found that:


Some 75 percent of men—and 80 percent of women!—unconsciously equate men with work, and women with family.


This bias colors our everyday interactions and opinions of others. Studies have found that assertive and self-promoting men are likely to advance in their career, while women are penalized for the same behavior. When men get angry, they gain respect and influence. When women get angry, they are seen as emotional, not worthy of respect, and their influence wanes. And, unfortunately, rather than rid ourselves of these unconscious biases that equate men with work and women with family, the algorithms that increasingly shape our experience online seem to have them baked in—even exacerbate them. The examples and evidence Lipman provides are startling enough, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher has written an entire book about this and other social ills new technology is enhancing, entitled Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech.

It is an unconscious bias ingrained in us from an early age. For example, I can’t think of anything that should be as unbiased as grading a math test. And yet:


In one study, when a group of teachers graded math tests with no names on them, the girls outscored the boys. But when another group of teachers graded the same tests with names, the results were reversed: they gave higher grades to the boys than the girls. All of the teachers, by the way, were female.


And should you think yourself unbiased, consider this: Lipman herself scored “moderately biased” against working women on the test at ProjectImplicit.org, while literally writing the book about how to overcome that very bias.

The chapter that details this reality in the most detail, on how “We’re All a Little Bit Sexist,” is dispiriting, to be sure, but to know the facts and statistics is the first step in gaining the agency necessary to change them. It’s important to know, for instance, why traditional diversity training doesn’t work, and has actually lead to a decrease in the very diversity it purports to champion, even as companies continue to invest approximately $8 billion annually in such exercises. It’s helpful to note that even the more forward thinking and improved training on unconscious-bias that are replacing it—especially in the tech industry, where there is so much work to do on the issue—can entrench the bias it trains against in about a third of the workforce.

So what does work? It’s pretty simple, really: family friendly HR policies and financial incentives to hire and promote women. This is why we’re witnessing “an arms race of sorts” with regards to paternal leave in the tech industry. Unfortunately, most of the perks they offer—“free food, dry cleaning, game rooms”—are designed more to keep people at work than to offer a more sensible work/life balance. And while workplaces may look and feel different in this “new economy,” the cultures of the companies have remained decidedly male—perhaps even reverting to the boyish. Speaking of the lego areas, video game rooms, and ping-pong tables that festoon Google’s New York City flagship, Lipman writes of how the vibe reminded of her son’s bedroom when he was ten-years-old:


I tried to imagine how the guys playing ping-pong or constructing Lego creations would feel if Google’s office were decorated in equally stereotypical little-girl’s-room fashion—let’s say, with pink walls and mirrors and Barbie playhouses and glitter guns. How would they react? Would they shrug it off and go about their business as usual as the women here did?


And that’s obviously far from all they have to shrug off. The harassment and abuse heaped upon women online is appalling, and I personally can’t imagine how women endure it. What I never fully considered is that this isn’t really a new experience for women, that


[t]he virtual bullying of women is the digital analog to real life.


“Some 71 percent of women who have been sexually harassed,” Lipman explains, “don’t report it.” Think of how many people were harassed and assaulted simply because they wanted to work with Harvey Weinstein, or at Fox News—both examples referenced in the book. Or take the case of Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted as many as 256 girls and young women who were steered to his office in their pursuit of an education or athletic career. One in five women will be raped in her lifetime, and a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education reveals that 87 percent of women ages 18 to 25 have been sexually harassed.

Women in the media, such as Lipman herself, have learned somehow to steel themselves against or shrug off the rampant invective and abuse they receive online, which can get incredibly dark and disturbing. But, seen through the eyes of the next generation, it’s not as easy to shrug off. Lipman writes of this from her own experience:


My daughter once wrote a college term paper on the disrespect and derogatory language directed at women online. She later allowed me to read it—and I found to my dismay that every one of the examples she cited were in reference to me. My heart sank.


All of this for showing up at work and doing her job, which she has excelled at.

Cultures can change, and I would like to believe that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are yet another important step in the long, too-slow history of the culture changing in this regard. But what’s most important is that men change. Women have been recalibrating their behavior to fit into a professional world that was created of men, by men, and for the benefit of men, since they earned the right to enter that world. It is high time that men change their behavior, not just for reasons of equality or social justice or human rights, though that should be enough even if it came at a financial cost. But here’s this thing: it doesn’t even come at a cost. Indeed, all the evidence points to greater gender equality being a business imperative. The research done on the topic, and there is a veritable mountain of it, shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. The book is replete with great stories—from the work of pioneering Tupperware saleswoman Brownie Wise, to how simply having a woman industrial engineer in the room led Home Depot to come up with an improved design for, of all things, the bucket, something that hasn’t changed in centuries—of how companies with more women, especially more women in leadership roles, simply get better results. So, if you want what’s best for your business, it’s simple: bring in and promote more women, and make sure you’re not forcing them to mimic men to exist in the organization. Have open, honest, deliberate conversations about the issues, and never stop offering women opportunities for women to advance.  


For real change to happen, if we are to transform a culture that has long been molded by and for men, it will take individuals, one at a time, taking a stand, reaching across the gender divide. The wins will come from the accumulation of small, everyday interactions of both women and men.


“Science and research are helping clarify the gender gap,” Lipman insists, “which ultimately will help close it.” But it is only by raising awareness and changing behavior that we can change the culture. There are some very simple and easy ways to do so every day. Rather than pretend we are gender blind, which “in practice [has] meant treating women as if they were men,” leaders must use their position to deliberately understand and advance the position of women. Attempting to be “gender blind,” Lipman insists, is just to be blind.

Hopefully, the day will come when “That’s what she said” is known less as sexual innuendo tossed around the workplace, and becomes more common as the proper and immediate response of everyone when a man attempts to rephrase and take credit for a women’s idea in a meeting. Lipman sets the scene:


Olivia makes a smart comment, and no one seems to hear it. Then Bill paraphrases it, and suddenly he’s a genius: “That Bill! What a sharp thinker he is.” The women in the room, meanwhile, are all thinking the same thing: “WTF?? That’s what she said.”


The sooner we change, the better it will be for women and men. Rather than fear and anxiety that our differences will lead to a misunderstanding and conflict, we must learn to understand our differences and then use that diversity of perspective to make progress for everyone. The first step is awareness, which Joanne Lipman raises on a whole range of issues that I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of here. It’s a truly important book that I hope all of you will read.


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