Breaking the Cycle of Rhetoric: How Advice for Women by Women can Sometimes Be Harmful and What We Can Do About It

Breaking the Cycle of Rhetoric: How Advice for Women by Women can Sometimes Be Harmful and What We Can Do About It

A few months ago, towards the end of the semester, I attended an event sponsored in part by the student organization I help run - Women in Computer Science (WiCS) - at my university. This event is based loosely on the concept of “Lean In Circles” and are run by a (at time of writing) former faculty advisor of ours. At this particular WiCS circle, we invited women in the professional world to come talk to other female students about their experiences and give some advice to our (mostly) undergraduate female student population.

This event lasted for about an hour and a half and included a short video by the Lean In Organization. Throughout the entire event - barring the introductions - these professional, older women talked about their experiences in their industry. The more they talked about their experiences, the more I realized that what they were saying just didn’t match up with anything I, or anyone else in the student population, had been taught.

 I think it’s important that I talk, and break down, some of the advice we were given by these women because I honestly don’t think they saw what they said was harmful. Most of the women were thirty years old or older and had families so they entered into the technology industry at a different time than what we are entering. However, I believe that the advice they gave is harmful to young women entering into the workforce and it’s important to understand why. I am not naming names or sponsors because I do not think it is fair to these women, but I do want to talk about the kinds of advice we were given during this event.


“Be one of the guys”

This specific quote is one of the most shocking things I heard tonight. One of my good friends expressed to me how she felt when she heard this comment - and others agreed:

“I should be allowed to be silly and cute and girly and just be a woman while still being taken seriously and respected. I shouldn’t have to be something I’m not, and those kinds of sayings sound like they want to make themselves fit the mold when we should be breaking it.”

A woman SHOULD NOT have to change who she is and become “one of the guys” in order to gain respect. This internalized misogynistic comment only perpetuates stereotypes about women in computer science already in place. I often wear heels and a nice dress to meetings and my everyday life and I don’t expect to be treated like I am less of an individual because of this. I would still expect to be treated with respect even if I entered a room with jeans, sneakers, and a polo shirt. Any women should be treated with respect in the workplace without consideration for her attire or fitting with with “one of the guys”.

Attire is not the only thing that can separate a woman however, and it’s important to also understand that acting lady-like or femme should not affect how a woman is treated as a professional either. I should be able to be stern or likeable and friendly and have a “resting bitch face” without being disrespected by my coworkers. There is no reason for me to change who I am to gain respect. The rhetoric that was given by these women during the event made me doubt the confidence I had in myself for the first time in a long time.

While I do not think that anyone meant harm or to perpetuate a stereotype while they were giving us this advice, it’s still worth mentioning that what they were saying was harming instead of helping - even if they didn’t mean it to be. These were women who had been in the world of professional computer science for a long time - some since the very beginning - and this is how they were able to survive and gain respect. But, times are different, and we should not be giving the same advice to girls that helped women 20 years ago earn respect. It only holds us back from achieving our potential and the respect we deserve - as women, not as “one of the guys”.

Wanting to fit in with the team you are working with is understandable and should be encouraged, but when you push that desire for acceptance and respect to such a degree that you are changing who you are in order to gain that respect and acceptance - you aren’t actually achieving anything other than fitting the stereotype and holding yourself back.


“Being a mother first is more important than your career”

Another rhetoric that was surprisingly common was along the lines of ‘your career comes second to your kids - always’. This kind of rhetoric, while seemingly innocuous because it is the so-called standard of the professional world, makes it seem like each of the female students in the room would automatically have children and become mother’s one day and that motherhood would take first place to our career.

As someone who is not going to have children any time soon, this advice made it seem like my career would end as soon as I had children, and that as a woman it would be my first and foremost responsibility to take care of the children. Additionally, the rhetoric implied “women have the pressure of balancing work with home if men don’t have to do that”, according to one of the students who attended this event.

While the statement itself is not problematic as an opinion, the statement combined with the environment it was spoken in was. This was a group of 18-22 year old women who weren’t thinking about having children, they were thinking about having careers. Some of the professional women who attended this event had been in the field for over 20 years. While I understand that it is important to speak about your experiences, but implying that once you have kids you will return to being the stereotypical homemaker and will not have help from a husband or partner doesn’t help us move forward, it only holds us stagnant with the idea that once a woman has a child she becomes worth less because she is now taking case of said child.

In fact, once women have children, they actually earn less than their male counterparts who also have children. In part, I believe it’s because this negative rhetoric of the job coming second after children is permeated throughout the workplace. This idea needs to change, starting with the women entering into the workforce realising that they are not worth less once they have children and that you can have help to balance work and home life.


“Try not to be a woman”

This just made me mad and I don’t know if I can talk about this without becoming more angry.  

This particular piece of advice was given to another woman when she asked about why she wasn’t being respected as much as other men in her office. The answer to that question was “try not to be a woman”. There are so so so so so so so so so s o o o many reasons why this is just wrong, but I’ll be concise in why exactly.

  1. “Try not to be a woman” goes against literally every single piece of equality work anyone has ever done. This is the exactly the wrong thing to say to someone if we want any progress towards equality. This is basically saying, “you shouldn’t act like a woman, look like a woman, or sound like a woman if you want to be respected - in fact, try your hardest to be a man!”

  2. This goes back to my earlier point about how harmful being “one of the guys” is and the fact that erasing your identity as a woman (cis or not) is only holding us back from any progress with equality - whether it be equal pay, equal respect, or anything else.

  3. No one should have to change who they are as a woman to be respected. This whole “try not to be a woman” and “be one of the guys” rhetoric is honestly one of the worst things women can say to each other. This is basically saying - “I gave up on everything that made me me so that I could have respect, you should change who you are too and become of the boys so you too can have respect as a guy - whoops I mean woman.”

  4. This rhetoric is telling other women that they are not worth enough just by being themselves. They need to adopt the characteristics of men in order to be respected rather than be respected as an individual.


How we can learn from this rhetoric

This bears repeating, but, I honestly don’t believe that any of the women in that room had any intention of giving advice that resonated  like this to us students. They were there to talk about their experiences and discuss what they did to gain respect in the workplace as women.While it is important to know what others have gone through in order to pave the way for us, we should also understand that we can’t just repeat what the previous generation did and expect it to change.

It’s absolutely vital to have conversations with both women and men in the workplace to understand how they got to where they are, but it is also crucial to look at what they are saying the context of when this happened to them and how they reacted to it. The 1980s and 1990s were very different for women in workplace than they are today and while we share many of the same issues as we dealt with in the 1960s and 90s (Uber’s sexual harassment problem anyone?), we cannot keep repeating what others did and expect our male counterparts to learn on their own how to respect us.

We need to learn from what these women have told us about their experiences and the advice that they gave us, but we should not blindly follow what they say. Instead, we need to take what they have given us and use it to forge our own paths to respect and acceptance from our co-workers. Learn what others have to say, think about their words in context, and use them to progress towards equal opportunity, respect, and understanding.