The following guest post is excerpted from “What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know” (January, 2014; New York University Press).
“The Smurfs,” a television show popular in the 1980s, took place in a world populated by little blue creatures, all of whom contributed to their society in different ways. There was the leader, Papa Smurf; Hefty Smurf, who did the heavy lifting; Jokey Smurf, who kept things light with jokes and tricks. There was Chef Smurf, Cobbler Smurf, Barber Smurf. And then there was Smurfette, whose contribution was being a woman. The only woman.
The Smurfette Principle is a term coined by theorist Katha Pollitt to describe an ensemble cast in which exactly one of the members is a woman. It is an example of tokenism, the use of a limited representation of a minority group to provide a false sense of inclusivity and diversity. And it’s not confined to our television screens. In influential studies of tokenism, Rosabeth Moss Kanter documented that, in workplaces with few women, those women face performance pressures, highly freighted decisions about whether to assimilate into male norms and networks, and the threat of being trapped into narrowly cabined female roles.
“Frankly, I think that there is this view that opportunities for women are very zero-sum. If one woman gets a prized position or assignment, that means another woman won’t. And so it breeds a sense of competition,” says one attorney. The results can get brutal. “We used to call it the ‘crab pot’ mentality,” says a lobbyist. “Like when you’re boiling a crab, and the crabs climb on top of each other to be the only ones that can get out.”
Tokenism complicates relationships among women in predictable ways. “If you’re used to being the one woman,” says a professor, “and you’ve had to be that much smarter and that much better, then all of a sudden … it’s almost like you can’t work with other women because you’re so used to being the ‘only woman.’”
Adds a consultant: “Until maybe a year ago, I had a woman who was ahead of me. And when I got to her level, she would not let me through. She was very passive-aggressive. Like, she would talk behind my back, but to my face, she was my best friend. She would leave me off invitations to things, hold back information. … It was very clear that she was going to let me rise to a point, but there was only going to be one seat at the management table.”
Sadly, the consultant says, it was true. There really was only one seat for women at the management table. And that’s why it’s important to look for the wider patterns that lead to certain workplace dynamics. There is no question that it is destructive to women as a group—and to the general health of the workplace—when women lock other women out of positions of power to secure their place at the top. But the focus should not be on the supposed personality problem of the Queen Bee. The focus should be on the gender bias that pits women against each other by sending the message that, while men will be promoted on their merits, talented and ambitious women need to undercut one another if they hope to attain the only available seat at the table.
The irony, of course, is that there has been a lot of research that has shown that as more women move into positions of power, circumstances improve for all women. When women are in the minority, their gender becomes a defining characteristic, which makes all the biases we have discussed much worse. In these cases, men and women alike are more likely to see women in terms of the stereotypical characteristics that make them seem like bad fits for leadership positions.
Women, when in the minority, are also more likely to be acutely aware of the biases against their gender and to suffer the decreased performance that results from the stress, anxiety, and isolation of stereotype threat.
As more women join the larger group, the salience of gender decreases. Research has pointed to the “one-quarter” rule: women are less likely to be stereotyped if they make up at least 25 percent of a group. One particularly dramatic study showed that when women make up less than 20 percent of a group, evaluations of their performance are significantly lower than those of their male counterparts. When they rise to more than 50 percent of a group, their evaluations actually rise such that they exceed men’s. In fact, some of the women from the New Girls Network–the group of savvy women who helped us write our book—said they have observed this pattern of change in their own careers.
We are so over the Smurfette Principle. Women need more than just a seat at the table: What women deserve are workplaces where it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man. Sadly, we’re nowhere near that goal. What works for women at work unfortunately is often quite different than what works for men. We’re still waiting—after all these years—for organizations to change. But at least we now have tried-and-true strategies that women can use to survive and thrive in workplaces as we find them: deeply shaped by subtle gender bias.
Joan Williams is Hastings Foundation chair and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Rachel Dempsey is a student at Yale Law School.