Playing the Wrong Game at Work

Women work very hard in the business world. Yet we are too often making efforts in the wrong direction. Harragan described our misguided efforts in terms of chess and checkers. Women play checkers without realizing they are in a chess tournament.

Working women are playing their best checkers, and if most of the people around them are women, their moves make sense. However, typically male careers require playing chess instead. Frequently women apply for these positions, or try to be considered for them, but they continue to play their best checkers. Working men can't figure out why these women keep making such confusing moves. Apparently, they are "unqualified."

Thousands of women are hired, trained, and promoted on the basis of gender, and they accept this from the initial interview. Some corporate executives profess that they want to put more women in key positions, but qualified women are difficult to find. Many an executive has lamented this predicament to me, "We really want to fill more decision-making positions with women, but it is so hard to find qualified women." My question is, where are all these qualified men coming from? The difference in these perceptions of qualified men and women has less to do with ability than with understanding and playing by the rules. Somehow, savvy men know the rules or are willing to learn them. Too many women assume that an entirely different set of rules applies to them and persist in playing accordingly. Or, we don't like the rules, so we refuse to play by them. When things don't go our way, we decide the whole thing is unfair. We stay on the sidelines, where things make more sense. We receive lousy pay.

When we feel unqualified for a job, we assume it is our lack of technical knowledge or experience at a specific job skill that keeps us from it. The reality is that our approach to risk, our task orientation, our inability to recognize and participate in negotiations, and our lack of teamwork are keeping us "unqualified." Recognizing this reality is the first and most important step. We have all learned to change our approaches and reactions to many things as we have grown and matured. Change does not come automatically, but it is often very simple, once we recognize what we need to change. Now is the time to change your approach to your career. It may even be the time to change your career. You have almost nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain. Many other women have changed careers for the better, so can you.

The generalizations in this book about the differences in approach between men and women are just that-generalizations, based on research and observation. Try not to get hung up deciding whether you agree with each and every generalization, but rather determine whether you would benefit by altering certain behaviors on the job. This book is written to help you fully contribute your strengths to the job and be paid accordingly. You won't fit all the stereotypes, but some things will ring true.

To gain consideration for a "male career path" and function effectively in it, we need to play by the prevailing rules. Both men and women are expected to know them coming in. But the rules also tend to change, depending on who is in charge. Women are more likely to feel uncomfortable with this. We want to have things spelled out for us. We want to be told exactly what to do and which yardstick will be used to measure our success. Melia and Lyttle believe that women want the security and assurance of rules, with firm guarantees that lead to success. If things don't work that way, we often persist in believing that they do. That attitude keeps us exactly where we are. We could try to change the entire structure of American business, but we will most certainly fail. Instead, we can get better at playing chess. There is not a businessman alive who is perfect at playing the business game. We do not have to become experts, we just have to get better.

There is no question that sex discrimination exists in the world of business. It is not my purpose to convince you otherwise. There is little that you can do single-handedly about the attitude of the people around you, but there is much you can do about yourself. Other women are making it work for them, in spite of the circumstances. So can you.

It may be time for you to get off the sidelines and onto the playing field. I suggest the following:


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