A couple weeks ago, I was working on a Business Communications project with another woman as well as a man for a class in the Ross School of Business. While working to devise an informative group report on an industry supplier, I often felt invalidated as a woman.
Despite the other woman and myself trying to provide efficient contributions to the work, our knowledge was mostly ignored throughout the project. Gradually, our male partner exhibited questionable intentions by controlling access to the Google Document, almost as if he didn’t trust us with the final product and only wanted us to complete busywork like acquiring research. No matter how many different ways we tried to contribute our knowledge, we were blatantly excluded from this process.
This created and fostered an uncomfortable environment for us two women who felt like our questions were disregarded or met with vague responses and unclear directions, which was beyond frustrating. Ultimately, group interactions filled me with anxiety, because even when typing out my suggestions via text, I couldn’t help but fear the repercussions of my words. Would I sound dramatic, stupid or possibly worsen the group dynamic for the project? After meticulously checking my verbiage to ensure I came off as sympathetic and not demanding, I eventually hit send. Perplexed by this hesitation, I reflected on my actions: Why did I have these feelings of sensitivity? Why was I afraid to be labeled as dramatic or bossy? Why did I have to tiptoe around my thoughts before confidently sharing my ideas?
The product of this tension was an unproductive partnership, and yet the man complained about the work he had put in, noting he “pulled an all-nighter” and worked too much. Feelings of guilt lingered within me given this distressing situation. Simply put, the product of this experience was self-doubt and a guilt for my lack of contributions, when in reality, it was his dominance and control that forced me into this submissive position. In search of some emotional outlet, I contacted the other woman separately and expressed my irritated sentiments, to which she agreed by mentioning, “Why is he making me feel so stupid?”
I still do not know his true intentions. Ultimately his exercising superiority was executed by making two women feel inferior.
In another instance during a recent group recommendation presentation where each student group performed scenarios as different company representatives that sought to lure college talent, I felt submissiveness had been made an assumed trait of women candidates, whereas assertiveness was expressed as a rare but highly desired characteristic. Someone asked one group, “How does your company further gender equity and women’s leadership in the workplace?” The response from a male student startled me, as he unhesitatingly answered, “Well, we have many initiatives, but most importantly, we actively seek to hire talented women who display men’s leadership qualities and are more assertive.”
For the remainder of class, I was left puzzled. What does it mean for women to be more assertive? And how assertive can a woman be without being labeled with overtly negative terms like bossy or aggressive? I reflected on how my presentation of self is controlled by the men taking up space in the professional and academic realm. However, in my reflection, I also realized that this ultimately wasn’t that one man’s fault or even the Business School’s fault — it’s a product of a larger patriarchy that dominates the business world and society at large.
From a young age, many women struggle with trying to please everyone given society’s emphasis on women as accommodating, nurturing figures. I know I’m certainly a victim of this because as a people pleaser, I initially sought to be acknowledged for my benevolence and compassion. Even successful women, including Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, mention their struggles with wanting to be liked and how, “This desire to be liked, whether it’s wrong or right, has a critical relationship to power.” Saujani is right because in the professional world, the gender norms that are created by patriarchal society make it so the qualities appreciated in women (such as modesty and humility) are undeserving of praise or recognition. Saujani even mentioned how qualities we tend to like in men — self-confidence, assertiveness when expressing desires or expectations — are the exact qualities we uphold in the business world.
According to the gender norms created by the patriarchy, women are submissive and shy. Any attempt to dismantle this gender norm, however, deems women as aggressive. When this is considered holistically, we must realize we cannot expect women to fix this problem, which is a demeaning patriarchal system working to limit women’s platforms in professional spaces. In this system, women are stuck, and this is proof of the patriarchy’s success: It is designed to keep women from advancing in society and professional realms. Instead, we must execute a societal unlearning of this patriarchy and relearn effective strategies for equity.
Many studies point to the fact that female leadership leads to increased productivity. The Introduction to Ross course is one resource at the school that places a considerable emphasis on equity and inclusion, but it still fails to address how to amplify a woman’s voice once they’re in the spaces we speak of making inclusive. How will people come to understand that female empowerment isn’t just needed for the sake of inclusion, but because it’s beneficial for everyone?
I’ve had some opportunities to surround myself with many intelligent freshmen girls at the Business School who are incredibly well-spoken and ambitious. Yet we’ve still shared similar sentiments such as feeling excluded (whether intentionally or unintentionally) by male students who often take the reins of the conversation or respond to our ideas in a condescending manner. Though some of us experience imposter syndrome, that is not the root of this exclusion. It is rather the environment created by this patronization that discourages us to participate or speak up.
The Business School’s unsuccessful attempts at addressing these issues is a smaller example of how society is failing to address these issues, as the Business School is a microcosm of the business world.
I believe the Business School can do more to dismantle misogyny. I believe the benefits of female empowerment haven’t been well integrated into the freshman experience and there’s much room to grow. For instance, I hope there’s more tangible learning situations that consider how misogyny limits women in real-world situations, as well as more female leadership seen in the Business School and the University’s administration. After all, real-world situations are much more productive means for unlearning the patriarchy as opposed to PowerPoints on the ambiguous powers of inclusion. Unless people understand and debrief these implicit discriminations, we won’t be able to further progress and facilitate a welcoming environment for all.
MiC Columnist Rachael Kong can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org