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Commentary and Analysis

Smashing the "Sisterhood Ceiling," Continued...


Women Hacking the Workplace - Part Three

I recently found myself in a crowded cafe, sharing a table with a man who turned out to be an executive at a regional financial institution. He asked me about my work, and when I gave him the Coles Notes, he put down his coffee, sighed, and said,

“With all due respect. I don’t understand all this noise around gender equality. We have a woman on our executive team. My daughter can go to work and pursue a career. Women, nowadays, can have it all.”

Before I could respond, his phone vibrated, he took the call, and waved goodbye.


Since the ‘70s and ‘80s, women (and girls) have bought into and promoted the belief that we can, in fact, have it all.

However, what “it” turns out to be is:

  • Overburdened with domestic labour and childrearing responsibilities, with the psychological and logistical conflicts of pairing our traditional female roles with our careers.
  • Starkly underrepresented. Chief executives named “John” outnumber female CEOs of any name by 4:1.
  • Discriminated against in the workplace because of trying to have it all.

Research (here and here) shows that female job applicants with children are 44% less likely to be hired than childless women with similar qualifications.

If that female applicant cites “parent-teacher coordinator” on her resume, she’s:

  • 79% less likely to be hired
  • 50% less likely to be promoted
  • offered an average of $11,000 less in salary
  • held to higher standards of punctuality

(Women pay the “Motherhood Penalty” despite the fact that women with children are more productive than those without, they get even more productive the more children they have, and they are more ambitious than their childless peers.)

Clearly, the “you can have it all” mantra is more myth than anything. Books like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business, Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club and Sheryl Sandberg’s (not uncontroversial) Lean In are just the tip of the iceberg in a niche market of titles addressing the still complicated role of women in the workplace.

So, knowing the facts, what is a girl to do?


It’s one thing to familiarise yourself with the facts, the research and the statistics. It’s another thing to decide that the situation needs changing and then do something about it.

Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, writes that,

Only when you believe your actions matter and care deeply will you consider speaking up.

If gender equity gets you fired up, do something. Because, research shows, we regret things we fail to do, not the things we choose to do.


In “Smashing the ‘Sisterhood Ceiling’,” I write about the ways women can sabotage each other’s careers because of the context in which we are striving to succeed.

95% of women have felt undercut by a female colleague at some point in their careers. The ambivalence that characterises the relationships so many women have with their female coworkers is, in fact, more damaging than relationships that are outright negative.

However, the dynamics that make up the “Sisterhood Ceiling” persist, in part, because women don’t know why it exists.

When women, together, look behind the curtain that paints them as catty and undercutting, there is the potential for alliances and the possibility of change.

Our best allies aren’t the people who have supported us all along. They’re the ones who started out against us and then came around to our side
— Adam Grant, Originals


There are particular pain points in a woman’s work life--contexts in which women are markedly disadvantaged.

Mounting a strategic counter-attack against these pain points is one way to strip them of their power.



Women are less likely to nominate themselves for promotion.

Over time, even a small bias in performance evaluations can contribute to significant disparities in gender representation (and compensation) at the top.

What can you do?

If you have the power to influence the negotiation process:

Have people negotiate on behalf of others

Women aren’t very good at negotiating for themselves, compared with men. But when they’re asked to negotiate on someone’s behalf, the gender gap in effectiveness disappears.

Shape performance evaluations to reflect formulaic, objective criteria

The criteria for performance evaluations are often subjective, requiring candidates to essentially advocate for their value according to opaque expectations. Self-confidence has a significant effect on the results of performance evaluations. Compared with men, who perceive themselves as more effective than they are, women tend to be less confident.

If you don’t have the power to influence the negotiation process:

Hack your biochemistry

Prior to entering into a negotiation scenario:

Try a Power Poseto boost your confidence and tame your inner imposter.

Expose yourself to images of strong women in leadership roles.

Both of these strategies are proven to improve outcomes.

Reframe your negotiation request

Instead of framing your request or self-assessment in personal terms, highlight the contributions you have already made to your organization, and articulate the benefits to the company if you were to have wider influence or greater decision-making capacity.


Some organizations provide high-potential female talent with negotiation coaching. However, this often means women are taught to negotiate like men and does not take into account the fact that women are penalized for exhibiting masculine characteristics.



Unfortunately, even when women make significant contributions to the success of their teams and organizations, they are not given credit to the same extent as men.

Research shows, while women are given equal credit for work they do alone or with other women, when they work with men, the men receive the credit for the team’s work, by default.

What can you do?

accept the kudos

If you deserve the credit being given to you, don’t be too quick to share it. If you’ve completed a project or played the primary role, take the credit.

Instead of saying, “Thanks, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of… accept the kudos and say something like, “Thanks. It was a big challenge, and I’m proud of the outcome.”

Find (or be) a Wing (Wo)man

Given the opportunity, be sure to point out the leadership, contributions, and successes of the women on your team.

If you notice a male colleague accepting more credit than he is due, fill the gap with a “Yes, and” statement:

Yes, Christopher’s marketing strategy was spot-on, and Tanya’s execution and client engagement really helped close the deal.”

Jake Stika trains equity leaders in the workplace. He encourages men to be on the lookout for these scenarios and to speak out: “If you’re in a position of power and see credit not being given, be sure to speak up on behalf of the party not receiving.”



I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no silver bullet for the challenges women face in the workforce. Instead, every change you make - every tactic you employ - nudges us all one step closer to the gender equity we deserve, and need.



The articles posted at Blue Switch reflect research-based design solutions related to gender equity and diversity outcomes in the workplace. The “Women Hacking the Workplace” series adheres to our commitment to research-based analysis and commentary.

For further reading on a tactical approach to “hacking the workplace" for greater gender equity, see Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (for a Sexist Workplace).


© Dr Kristen Liesch 2017. All rights reserved.