This question comes up regularly. And it’s an important one. I’ve dealt with it in nonfiction and now in fiction in Shadow Campus. The answer, I believe, is that it depends on the arena in which women work and how long and with what degree of astute observation they’ve been functioning.
The question implies that women are political purists compared to men. This means that, if true, women expect that people are rewarded for their competence more than their connections or other ways of getting ahead and that fairness is a strong motivator for people who promote others. In The Secret Handshake, four types of political arenas are described: minimally, moderately, highly and pathologically political. Is it true that women are less skilled at functioning in highly and pathologically political arenas? Are they, more than men, inclined to be political purists?
There’s little in the way of research to directly support an answer one way or the other. What I’ve learned from interviewing women and observing is that many of us are not comfortable asking for what we deserve. And that can be used against women. Any time a person is predictable, they can be managed. There is still among women a lot of worrying about what is too feminine and not sufficiently feminine. There is still fear of labels, especially the “B” label. And yet it is precisely this fear that impedes many women from advancing to high levels of organizations.
We all get labeled, so it’s best to have some input. Managing how you’re labeled is important, but being overwhelmed by the task is dysfunctional. Fear being pushy, and you’ll likely go nowhere. It’s likely that if you’re too pushy, someone will tell you. Why not wait for that rather than avoid assertiveness? Then you can assess whether this person’s motives are good or whether he or she is using the very typical fear of that label to manage you. If you hear that you’re pushy, you might reply with: ”I’m persistent when I believe something is right” or “Someone has to be. This is important to all of us.” Keep in mind that “pushy” is a term used more often with women than men. So, the choice of that word to describe you is informative in and of itself.
Of course there is much more to learn about politics. And if getting ahead where you work requires being observant and quick on your feet in this regard, there’s no time like the present to start preparing. Observe how others get ahead. Ask for what you deserve and provide persuasive support. Recognize labels being used to discourage you and separate those from the ones used to help you.
As a female senior executive at IBM once told me, “You can’t wait for someone to notice you, worry that you’re bothering the boss with your accomplishments, or neglect to let someone know that you really want to work with him/her.” Link what you do well to criteria used by your company to assess promotion potential. Skip the “It’s only fair” argument because that usually goes nowhere. If women are less savvy in any area of politics, it may be not keying in on what criteria are used to promote and making sure that it’s well known that what they do matches those.