I was teaching a workshop on self-promotion to a few dozen students at an all-women's college. I asked the women to reflect on their strengths, then write down a self-promotional remark.
"How would you describe yourself to an employer?" I asked.
A young woman raised her hand and took a crack, concluding unsmilingly that she was an "outstanding scientist."
It was exactly what I'd asked her to do, and yet I confess: She sounded cocky. I suspected that her sharing this with a prospective boss could be a liability. But what could I tell her? Don't speak up? Speak up, but smile? Tout your accomplishments, but do it modestly? For the last 40 years, educators like me have been telling young women like her that the path to success is simple and straightforward: state your opinion, ask for what you need and self-promote until you get what you want.
Our advice serves girls well in school, where they outpace boys in grades and college enrollment. But the tide turns when girls depart college for the real world. An increasing drumbeat of data is suggesting that women summon the courage to lean in, only to be knocked back. Meanwhile, a generation of girls is still getting the message that confident self-expression is the answer.
We are teaching girls to speak up in the world we wished they lived in, not the one they actually inhabit. And we may be doing them a profound disservice in the process.
Researchers like Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles have shown that women who ask for more money are penalized by women and men alike. They are often seen as too "demanding" and avoided by male and female colleagues. In job interviews, women who mention their qualifications or refer to prior successes damage their prospects of getting hired. Sheryl Sandberg calls this the "likeability penalty:" the more competent a woman is, the less likeable she becomes.
Girls are savvier than we think about the harsh world that awaits them. When I taught at my first girls' leadership camp 15 years ago, I was sure that all girls needed to learn was how to make fierce eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up. I lined the girls up facing each other and had them stride across the room to practice introductions. I sat them in circles and had them go around the room to share a talent.
The room grew silent. When I asked what was wrong, the girls explained. "I don't want to say what I'm good at. If I do, everyone will think I'm conceited."
And then? I asked.
"Then they won't like me anymore."
The girls intuitively understood that an excess of confidence would poison their social status at camp. In my research, I have found this is a lesson girls first learn among friends, but quickly sprawls across a range of relationships. A new study by the Keds Brave Life Project and Girls Leadership Institute found that teen girls believe it's harder for them to be brave than boys, and that boys get more credit for being brave.
We are out of step with what girls and young women need to navigate, much less succeed, in a world still ambivalent about women's power.
So what should we be teaching girls? The answer may be a phenomenon known as "gender judo." Coined by UC Hastings Law Professor Joan Williams in her book, What Works for Women at Work, gender judo is the art of combining masculine competence and feminine warmth in order to remain both likeable and respected. Many of the women Williams interviewed engaged in gender judo consciously, while others would not have named it. But chances are slim that any of them learned how to do that in Girl Scouts or at another girls' empowerment program.
Should they have? In my workshops with undergraduate women, I am direct with students about the cost women pay for being too assertive. I encourage students to role-play asking a hallmate to turn down her music while smiling. I urge them to smile in order to take the edge off of a polite request others might interpret as rude. I advise some organizational leaders to soften their tone when they direct subordinates, by including phrases like, "It would be great if you could" or "Would you mind..." This kind of work can be particularly valuable for young women of color, whose assertiveness is regularly misinterpreted as aggression.
At Harvard, Bowles has found that women who negotiate with communal, "I-We" language -- who show concern for organizational relationships and explain how their request will benefit others -- are likely not only to score the raise, but stay in good social standing. Even popular culture is catching on: a recent viral shampoo ad called out women's propensity to over-apologize, but didn't conclude with an inspiring call to stop apologizing. What should women say instead? "Sorry, not sorry." How's that for gender judo?
Offering a Girl Scout badge in gender judo is tricky business, to say the least. But the first day of a young woman's job may be too late to intervene. As we wrestle with the question of women and success, we need a more integrated conversation that includes girls. We owe it to the parents and educators on the front lines of girls' leadership development. And we owe it to the girls who need more straight talk about the world they are getting ready to enter.