The corporate world isn’t a just and fair place for female talent. It’s time for women to accept that the system is rigged—and learn to beat it.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D.
Women remain substantially underrepresented in partner positions at law firms, c-suites at large companies, and top positions in academia.
We can respond in several ways. We can continue to tell organizations and governments what they should do to clear the many obstacles and give women a diversity advantage. We can continue to bemoan the unlevel playing fields on which women are forced to compete. Or here’s a radical idea: Women can simply accept that the system is flawed and focus on beating it, like so many top female leaders already have.
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Peter Ueberroth, former Major League Baseball commissioner and czar of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, reportedly said that power is 20 percent granted and 80 percent taken. The successful women I know intuitively and instinctively follow that advice as they proactively and unapologetically build power.
They create and implement strategies that have brought them professional success without waiting for the world to change. Here are some lessons that I’ve gleaned from watching their careers and listening to them speak to my classes at Stanford Business School.
Lesson #1: Own Your Career & Take Responsibility for Everything
At lunch, a talented woman with an accomplished engineering background who co-founded a company that was eventually sold to Google related how she left that company.
Like many startups, the place was struggling not so much with product—it had lots of talented engineers and software designers—but in generating revenue. She and her (male) co-founder had engaged in an extensive search for a strong marketing and sales leader to get their start-up to the next level. They had found such a person and recruited him.
Now, just before he was set to start, he went to my lunch partner’s co-founder with two demands: a better pay package and a comment that he could not work for the female co-founder. Her response when she heard the news: For the good of the company, emotionally painful though it was, she decided to leave.
Her executive coach had sympathized with my friend for having to deal with a sexist outside hire and a co-founder who had not taken her side. My response was less sympathetic. Did she think her male co-founder would have behaved similarly in comparable circumstances? Probably not, she admitted. Did she think the prospective hire was bluffing? Maybe. Did she do everything she could to ensure she remained in the organization—had she looked out for her own interests as energetically as the co-founder and new hire had? No.
But she replied, wasn’t I “blaming the victim” with my line of inquiry, implicitly (or maybe not so implicitly) suggesting that she should not have been as accommodating and acceded so quickly?
Maybe, but here’s the sad, horrible truth: Everyone, men and women, eventually runs into people in the work world who are racist, sexist, and selfish bullies. No one, at least in the short run, can change those behaviors. We can’t do anything about what others do—the only thing we can control is how we respond.
There will certainly be times that people are going to lose political struggles regardless of how hard and effectively they work. But, because we can only control our own actions, people have a choice: bemoan life’s inherent unfairness or do what they can—as strategically and effectively as possible—to push their own agendas and careers. Simply put, take care of yourself because no one else is going to.
Lesson #2: Don’t Define Yourself in Less Powerful Ways
A former student sat in my office. She had gone to work for one of those iconic Silicon Valley companies in a marketing analytics role, had run a project that was responsible for a $4 million profit, and had been promoted to run her own group.
One of her male peers had gone to their male boss and suggested that her group be moved under him—a smart ploy that would not only remove a competitor, but also permit him to get credit for her continued good performance. What should she do?
In the first 10 minutes of conversation, the former student frequently repeated that she was the only woman, the youngest, and had the least seniority at the company. Finally, I stopped her to note how many times she used adjectives that defend herself in less powerful, less deserving ways.
“So,” I said, “let me give you some other adjectives to describe you: You are the smartest, the only one who has graduated from a leading business school, the most analytically experienced, and the person who has actually run the project that has had the greatest economic impact.”
She sat up straighter in her chair. “Yes,” she admitted, I was probably right. So, I noted, there are a number of adjectives you can carry around in your head to describe yourself. You get to choose which ones you adopt. I am happy to say that, now in another company, she learned her lesson.
In 2003 I wrote about Laura Esserman, a breast cancer surgeon who is changing not just cancer treatment, but medicine in general and drug development in particular. In 2015, Time named Esserman as one of the most 100 influential people in the world. When Esserman came to my class, I decided to make a somewhat politically incorrect observation: “You don’t seem to carry a script in your head of how you should respond given your gender. Nice women don’t swear or get angry—you do both.”
I went on to list the numerous ways in which she violated gender-role stereotypes. After a brief pause, Esserman told the class she thinks of herself as a surgeon, physician leader, and a person who’s passionate about making a difference. “I am who I am and I have a right to be that way,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m a woman or a man.”
The simple, but important point: No one should define themselves—or what they can or can’t do—in any way that limits them. This doesn’t mean turning one’s back on race, gender, religion, or anything else—but also don’t be defined by a characteristic that cannot be changed and is irrelevant to success.
Lesson #3: Ignore the Leadership Bromides
One of the people I asked to endorse my book Leadership BS was Gina Bianchini, a former student who’d gone on to co-found Lean In and was a highly visible entrepreneur in Silicon Valley for years.
I will never forget the email she sent to me after reading the manuscript over a weekend. She noted that aspiring leaders are given a set of things that they’re supposed to do and be, but those prescriptions—be authentic, tell the truth, be modest and self-effacing, take care of others, and so forth—are at best uncorrelated with, and at worst negatively related to, the behaviors required to be successful in the world as it is. (This, of course, is in stark contrast with the world as we wish it to be.)
And then Bianchini noted that this disconnect and people’s believing in aspirational virtues rather than social science evidence—and for that matter, everyday experience—had much to do with the lack of career progress among women.
I don’t have hard evidence for this, but my casual observation suggests the people who believe the leadership stories the most are women, ethnic minorities, and immigrants—outsiders in some sense who, because of the obstacles they have faced and will face, want the most desperately to believe that the world is fair and if they play by the rules, they’ll be all right.
Maybe that’s why my material on power has been embraced by programs designed to enhance the careers of Asian leaders, and why my Stanford colleagues Deborah Gruenfeld and Margaret Neale teach the importance of acting with power in the programs they run for women executives.
Lesson #4: Stop Worrying About Whether Others Like You
Women—and many men—have been raised to be concerned with what others think of them. When I was in kindergarten all those decades ago, I recall being graded on the “getting along with others” skill. I wonder how Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, George Steinbrenner, or Jack Welch did on that criterion. I bet they all spent time on the thinking chair.
As I often tell people, don’t worry too much about what others are thinking about you, because they are mostly thinking about their favorite subject—themselves. Moreover, being obsessively concerned with what others think unnecessarily delimits what someone is willing to do, their appetite for engaging in conflict when required, and their readiness to make tough decisions.
In one of my favorite pieces of advice a CEO has ever dispensed to my class, Gary Loveman, the then-CEO of Caesar’s, the massive gaming company, said, “If you want to be liked, get a dog. A dog will love you unconditionally.”
Loveman went on to explain the tough decisions he had to make as Caesar’s weathered the consequences of a leveraged buyout and a severe economic downturn that particularly devastated the gaming industry in Atlantic City. He laid off about 13,000 people.
He noted, “Some of them were single moms. Some were cancer patients who would lose their health care coverage when they lost their jobs. Do you think any of those people like me? Do you think their families like me? I assure you they do not.”
Did Loveman do the right thing to save the other jobs and the company? That’s something he’s more than willing to debate. But, he notes, to make decisions based on what others think of you is impossible in senior executive life.
Moreover, liking becomes increasingly irrelevant as people move up organizational hierarchies. In school, you can hang out with who you want to. In senior executive roles, critical relationships simply have to work. And it doesn’t matter if you like someone or not if that individual is critical to helping you get something done. Nor, for that matter, does their liking you matter.
As the insightful social psychologist Bob Cialdini once explained, if a person becomes powerful—and you want or have to deal with them—they will seem more likeable than you first thought. And once you’re in a position of power, many people will come to like you. Power creates “likeability.”
So worry about being successful and effective. This is not advice to go out of your way to be gratuitously difficult or nasty. It’s just that in the panoply of things you need to be concerned with, likeability should not be near the top of the list. Or even on it.
Lesson #5: Take Care of Yourself
I have known Joel Podolny since he interviewed for his first job at Stanford Business School a long time ago. He had gone on to become dean of Yale’s School of Organization and Management and was running Apple University when he invited me to lunch.
After we caught up for a while, he told me he did not like some aspects of my book Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t. He particularly was dismayed by the message to look out for one’s own interests and not to be too worried about one’s employer.
My reply was to note that Apple itself, and virtually all of its business brethren, had assiduously embraced the concept of “at will” employment (something that exists in no other industrialized country, but that’s another story) and had, for decades, told employees that the employers’ only responsibility was to give them interesting and challenging work that would, hopefully, make them employable in their next job.
For eons, HR professionals have told people to manage their own careers, build their own brands, and look out for themselves. I merely take all of that good advice seriously and strongly believe many, many more people should heed it.
Stop looking to your employer as some kind parent or other family member who cares about your well-being. You may work for such a place, and if you do, count your blessings and hope it lasts.
Employers, even before the pandemic, have shed employees by the tens of thousands, reduced retirement benefits, shifted health insurance costs to employees, vigorously fought union organizing attempts, and turned careers into jobs and then transformed jobs into tasks to avoid all the burdens of having too many employees.
Do you actually believe the diversity officer in your company, assuming it has one, is going to stand up for your rights if the choice is your job or keeping the powers that be happy? I know where I’d place my bet.
A friend, the former chief technology officer of the New York Times, once told me he regularly re-read or re-listened to Power and Leadership BS. Why? My advice is for people to do things that, at least at first, don’t come naturally. To put aside what they may have been taught by their parents or learned in school, and certainly to eschew the feel-good platitudes of the leadership industry.
If it were easy and natural to be thoughtful and strategic—to not buy into self-handicapping behaviors and identities, not care too much about being liked, and so forth—everyone would do it.
In personal life as in business, easy is negatively correlated with valuable. In the end, it seems clear that women can no longer wait for the beneficent help of government regulations, enlightened workplaces, or a world free from bias. Women will only seize power by identifying their strengths, understanding their barriers, and relentlessly and persistently taking it.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., is the Thomas D. Dee II professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He’s the author or coauthor of 15 books, including Leadership BS and Power, and has presented seminars in over 30 countries around the world.