Gender bias, age, and the workplace

career coaching | WomenAdvance.comMother-and-daughter  Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey teamed up to write What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. It’s a terrific book, based on the best and latest research and providing smart — and actionable — strategies. (This coach loves actionable strategies!)

Williams is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Dempsey is a student at Yale Law School. Here’s some of their straight talk about what women face in the workplace:

Joan C. Williams: You devote a chapter to the question of whether to leave or stay at a job. You yourself left a job of 25 years and moved your family 3000 miles across the country. How does a woman make this decision?

Sometimes, none of the strategies for countering gender bias works. Because of the nature of organizations and hierarchies, sometimes the fit is wrong and you simply have to leave. But it’s not a decision to be made lightly. There are certain points when women may be particularly vulnerable — right before or after having a baby or in response to a particularly time-consuming project — and it’s important to maintain some perspective on whether the situation will improve with time.

Joan C. Williams: What if a woman is simply burnt out, or wants to take care of her children, and therefore wants to take a break from the workforce?

Sometimes taking a break is the right decision, but it’s important to remember how hard it can be to reenter your career. The sad fact is that, according to one study, women who take a single year off work lose 20 percent of their annual earnings, and those who take two to three years off lose 30 percent of their annual earnings, as compared to women who have taken no time off. Some women will still find that taking a career break is right for them, but they should know what may await them when they are ready to return.

 Rachel Dempsey: Do younger women experience different kinds of gender bias than older women?

Studies have found that younger women get more Prove-It-Again bias, while older women often meet the Tightrope. With younger women, there’s a constant struggle to prove that an early success isn’t just a fluke. Older women may have the title, reputation, and/or institutional pull not to have to prove their competence over and over again — but face Tightrope backlash when exercising their power and authority meets resistance from people who expect women to be nurturing and unassertive.

With all this said, I think the differences between younger and older women are easy to exaggerate. Women of all ages face all types of bias, depending on their situation. When I tell people — particularly men — that I go to Yale Law School, I sometimes get defensive reactions like “Aren’t you smart,” or “You probably think you’re too good for me,” or just a quiet, suspicious “Huh.” (Seriously!)

That kind of Tightrope bias may be more common with older women, but younger women face it, too. Within law school itself, I see women my age expected to shoulder a lot of service work, like helping younger students figure out how to make the right connections and stay sane in a stressful environment. And then I look around and I see older women professors struggling with the burden of providing emotional support, recommendations, individualized attention — all of the “optional” tasks associated with law teaching — at startling higher rates than their male peers. These kinds of gendered expectations, unfortunately, don’t really change.

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