It’s been a while since I’ve written about this topic, but little has changed. On Huffington Post today, I revisit it in terms of Hillary Clinton’s run for president. In They Don’t Get It, Do They? (re-released recently on Kindle – $2.99), I wrote about the “cute-and-little effect” where young women are perceived as nonthreatening and so their work experiences are not, as a rule, fraught with gender bias. During this period of time, it’s easy to think that gender no longer makes a difference. Later, women learn that isn’t the case. But the early years can leave us unprepared for the change.
TDGI was published a while ago. Of course, so was Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetic. And while I’m not Aristotle, some things are true for a long time. One of those is that when it comes to preparing oneself for politics in the workplace, in nonprofits or in government, women often have a slow start.
Women, as a rule, start their careers enjoying male mentoring and encouragement. They begin to think that things have changed. They don’t need to be feminists, God forbid. They can sit back and reap the benefits of those old gals who worked so hard to level the field. The truth is that often young women are eventually blindsided by politics. If you have a daughter, you might tell her this. There is no point too early to learn that negative forms of politics are inevitable in most organizations and your turn to deal with them is going to come. Most men know this as well they should.
Hillary Clinton knows this in spades. She has had to deal with politics in a very public way. She knows that she has to be twice as good to even get a chance at grabbing the gold ring. She makes mistakes. After all, who is there for her to learn from? Not many women. Much of what she does is trial and error. Given that, she’s doing well.
Some women try to stay in what is referred to in They Don’t Get It, Do They? as the “cute-and-little” stage for as long as possible. I’m not referring here to young women actually being cute and little, but rather being perceived as such, especially in terms of power.
Recently, a woman told me that she used that stage effectively, allowing that perception to persist for a while. She was aware of the stage, which is far better than not knowing it can’t last for ever. Some benefits accrued. She was seeking tips for moving out into her organization’s arena of tougher politics. There comes a point where it’s up or out and up means becoming a threat to some people. It’s best to be prepared. That’s why I wrote The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics and why they’ve been bestsellers for male and female readers.
Women need to learn about politics before they enter the workplace and particularly about the forms that are used more frequently to derail women’s careers. There’s no need to become demoralized or defensive about the inevitability of politics that get in the way of women’s progress. Once you know the terrain, navigation becomes easier. Positive politics can be learned and the ability to “read the tea leaves,” see political moves coming, can be developed.
Clinton has known the terrain for some time. Her navigation efforts may seem unnecessary to some young women. But it won’t be long before the perception of them as “cute-and-little” runs its course. If they are ready, they won’t be blindsided. They may be criticized for being assertive or even aggressive, but nobody becomes a leader by being demure and criticizing other women for not being sufficiently feminine.
Updated blog 2/7/2016