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The Raw Truth (That We Don’t Want To Face) About Women, Power and the Workplace

Part of Kathy Caprino's series “Women, Leadership and Vision”

As many of my readers know, I had an 18-year corporate marketing career that was very “successful” on the outside, but entirely unsuccessful on the inside. I faced a myriad of crises and challenges including gender discrimination, sexual harassment, zero work-life control or balance, chronic illness, narcissistic bosses and colleagues, and more. But worse than all that was the painfully nagging question “Is this really what I’m going to be doing for the rest of life–this marketing work that feels so meaningless and purposeless–and sacrificing other aspects of my life that matter so much to me?”

After a brutal layoff and a decision to completely transform my career, I became a marriage and family therapist and later a career coach and consultant, writer, speaker and trainer helping women overcome what my research has revealed are the 7 damaging power gaps that keep women from thriving at work. And in the executive and career coaching work I do, I see exactly what was wrong with my former corporate life and what other women are experiencing today that hurts them.

How did I fix this for myself? By deciding to become more powerful in the way I see myself, and in claiming the life and career I truly wanted. What I’ve seen in 35 years of professional life is that developing more internal power and gaining access to greater external power is how we can catapult ourselves out of damaging, unhappy situations, and transform our lives and careers. I run my own business now and have direct influence over my work environment. I call my own shots as to who I partner with and hire, what I focus on, and how I work. And I make the decisions on the outcomes I choose to pursue. This is what I personally needed to do to feel and be “successful” and do meaningful work with the ability to focus on critical initiatives outside of work that mattered to me.

While we all can’t leave our corporate careers (or want to), it’s clear from the existing research on professional women that millions of women around the world are not thriving in corporate organizations, and the right kind of change has not yet occurred, despite a great deal of lip service about diversity and inclusion. In 2013, I wrote a Forbes piece on The Top 6 Reasons Women Are Not Leading in Corporate America As We Need Them To, and from what I’m seeing in working with thousands of women, the necessary institutional and organizational (and societal) changes have still not been made.

To learn more about this issue, I was excited to catch up with Marissa Orr and learn about her new book Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the WorkplaceOrr joined me on my Finding Brave podcast recently and shares below her take on the dysfunction that riddles corporations today, how it hurts women and how we need to change it.

Marissa Orr began her Google career over 15 years ago as a founding member of Google’s Sales Operations and Strategy team, after which she worked as Vertical Marketing Manager at Facebook. She has conducted talks and workshops for thousands of people at diverse organizations across the globe. Her talks and work cover the systemic dysfunction at the heart of today’s corporations and how their pursuit to close the gender gap has come at the expense of female well-being.

“Fewer women at the top is a clear signal that the system is broken,” says Orr. “With female-dominant strengths such as empathy and consensus-building being the future of business, the headlines forecast that women will dominate the future generations of corporate leaders. But that won’t happen until we stop mistaking empathy for weakness and realize that female success shouldn’t hinge on us being more like men.”

Here’s Orr’s take on the dysfunction of corporate America today and what to do about it:

Kathy Caprino: Why did you decide to write Lean Out now?

Marissa Orr: For so long, the conversation about women at work has been dominated by an exclusive group of elite and very powerful women. Naturally they’re going to see the issues from their perspective and through the lens of their personal experiences. But because of this narrow and limited point of view, many working women don’t hear their voices, challenges, or concerns represented in the public discourse. So I wrote Lean Out to represent those voices and to tell a totally different side to the story of women at work.

Caprino: In your book you challenge modern feminism and books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. What you are challenging specifically? What do you believe they’ve gotten wrong?

Orr: Lean in and books of that nature pin the blame for the gender gap on stereotypes and culture, and their solutions are for women to defy these forces and act more like men. But I believe that it’s ok for men and women to want different things at work. Instead of dismissing women’s needs and wants as a product of cultural oppression, we should listen to them, take their needs seriously, and figure out how to change our corporate structures to better meet those needs. But we’ve been taking the opposite approach for the past ten years: trying to change women to better meet the needs of the system.

Furthermore, we blame stereotypes for the lack of women running big corporations, but we never talk about stereotypes when it comes to the lack of men running our homes. To achieve Sheryl Sandberg’s stated goal of women running “half our businesses, half our homes,” obviously men would have to pick up more of the slack on the homefront. But we never ask them to do anything different in any significant way. Instead, we remain relentlessly focused on the female part of the equation.

Caprino: In your book you say that we need to stop mistaking female-dominant traits like empathy as a sign of weakness. Can you explain that?

Orr: Today, most thought leadership in business and management stress female dominant qualities like empathy, listening, and consensus building as the future of work. But corporations are structured as zero-sum games. That means behaviors like aggression, self-promotion, and putting your needs ahead of others are what’s needed in order to win. These are exactly the opposite of things like cooperation and empathy. As long as corporations remain zero-sum games for power, the “softer” skills will always be a liability when it comes to getting ahead.

Caprino: You talk about the current system being broken. Tell us more.

Orr: There are many different flavors of dysfunction I go into in the book, but two of the biggest are how we pick winners and how we motivate people.

In most large corporations, it’s really hard to tell who’s doing a good job. In the absence of objective measures of performance, our brains simply default to what’s most visible. Those who talk about the work the most, the ones with the most highly visible projects, are often considered the highest performers.

Visible behaviors like aggression and self-aggrandizement, and certain traits along the dimension of extroversion, become the proxies for good work. Research shows these traits and behaviors correlate more highly with men, but they don’t correlate with competence. We end up grading on visibility instead of performance.

With respect to motivation, once you get past a certain salary, the only thing left motivating people to climb higher and higher, is power. But research is fairly conclusive on the point that only a subset of the population is motivated by positions of formal authority (such as a corporate executive). Naturally, the winners of the corporate game are going to be the type of people who are most driven toward that reward. And it means that a large percentage of the workforce has nothing left to keep them engaged or stay motivated.

A diverse set of winners depends on a diverse set of rewards. It’s a concept we learned in kindergarten and teach our children—everyone likes different things. But at work, the idea seems to go out the window.

Caprino: Clearly what we’re doing now isn’t working for so many professional women. What do you suggest we do to fix it and/or close the gender gap?

Orr: There are two types of solutions—systemic and individual—and I devote a chapter to each of it in the book. One key systemic change is introducing more objective ways of grading performance, and judging talent. In his book Moneyball, author Michael Lewis describes how the Oakland A’s made an unlikely comeback after baseball experts had all but written them off. In his follow up book, The Undoing Project, he explains that the A’s were so underestimated simply because scouts judged players based on what was most visible and obvious, even though those criteria were poor indicators of talent.

One of the most poignant lessons from Moneyball is that we’re really bad at judging talent in other people. But it isn’t just a baseball thing; it’s a human thing, which means we’re also bad at knowing who’s good at his or her job and who’s not. The Oakland A’s overcame this bias for visibility by employing mathematical tools that provided a more objective view of player talent. One example of a company leveraging tools and technology towards a similar end is Bridgewater Associates, which enables a more objective evaluation of employee performance.  

For individuals, I suggest we measure ourselves on the metric of well-being instead of winning and define success on our own terms. Regardless of one’s particular ambition, the journey toward a meaningful life and career must start by looking within. Real empowerment is about knowing who you are and how to fulfill your unique needs and desires.

Caprino: Your book offers a unique perspective on the wage gap; what do you believe is the cause and solution there?

Orr: There are miserable CEOs and unhappy rich people. Money is useful only to the extent that it helps us live out our desires and is spent in accordance with what we value as individuals. One woman may prefer more flexibility over a higher salary, while another may value material luxury over a part-time schedule. Comparing these two women, and by extension, comparing anyone, on the basis of income is meaningless; it tells you nothing about which one is more successful.

I’m not saying that women don’t like money. I’m not saying that it’s okay for men to earn more than women for the same exact job. My point is that comparing the total earnings of men and women, without consideration for the trade-offs it entails, isn’t just a meaningless indication of progress—it potentially threatens the interests of the very people it’s intended to serve by compromising what’s arguably far more important: their well-being.

Caprino: In the end, what do you hope to accomplish with this book?

For so long, I felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fit into the mold of corporate achievement. I didn’t know what game I was playing because nobody was ever really honest about it. In writing this book, I wanted to tell the truth as I see it, and my hope is that other women connect to my story and feel heard and understood.

For more information, visit Marissa Orr and Lean Out.

To recognize your potential power gaps in your career, take Kathy Caprino’s new Power Gaps Survey and join her Career Breakthrough Programs.

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