Stop asking women to change

As a physics undergrad, I found myself often dismissed or ignored by male professors and colleagues. It was enough to make me leave science for several years, and when I came back, I knew I had to help change the culture. How we might better encourage women to enter—and stay—in the STEM fields? Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO, banned negotiations from Reddit's hiring practices, after several other tech companies successfully adopted a similar strategy. Women tend to negotiate less in salary discussions, and it’s thought this ban could serve to equalize the pay gap between the sexes. Pao was already considered a suspect figure, and some saw this strategy as a callous bid to pay employees less.  Instead of increasing women's salaries to be equal to those of men's, men's salaries might simply be lowered to the level of women's. There's some hypocrisy here: why such horror that men's salaries might be in danger of being reduced to the level of women's, when this is a reality women have lived with for decades? This criticism also strikes me as overly cynical. In order for Reddit to remain competitive in hiring, they'd have to offer a higher baseline to everyone they pursue, and they know this. This strategy is also likely to attract candidates to whom diversity is important, and studies have made clear the importance of diversity to a healthy workplace. Regardless of outcome, this is an essential exercise. We've got to find ways to challenge our biases towards women without demanding they be more like men.

What's most refreshing about this approach is that it takes the onus off women to overcome their social conditioning, and begins to put it where it belongs: on all of us.  Women are not only expected to out-perform men in order to be seen as equally qualified, they're asked to find and reverse all the social conditioning in their behaviors. My colleague recently criticized a visiting job candidate whose work was impeccable but whom he found too deferential. "She used too much upspeak. Every conclusion sounded like a question." She didn't get a job offer. There's no denying that women are battling socialization, and we've got to stop penalizing them for this. We've got to fix these prejudices in ourselves and not demand that women act more as we'd like them to act, considering these preferences themselves are only a result of societal conditioning. Women who have worked hard to overcome such behavior—taken elocution classes or studied negotiation strategies—are often rewarded with hostility for appearing aggressive. It's on us to challenge our own misperceptions about what really makes a team member's contributions worthwhile.  And maybe being unsure of oneself can translate into a good thing–given mass charges of irreproducibility in research, shouldn't we be valuing a certain carefulness and circumspection now more than ever?

I've had to weed out the same dismissiveness in myself. In the past, I'd discount the opinion of female colleagues who in any way reminded me of a Valley Girl. But this was undoubtedly a flaw in myself, not in them. I've worked hard to look past word choices and body posture. In science, as in business, we forgive men of so much and women of so little. It’s no surprise that this is reflected in women's attitudes towards themselves. But their attitudes towards themselves, in turn, influence the attitudes of others. Companies artificially stimulate demand by inflating prices, exploiting the mechanism of cognitive dissonance. Likewise, we value more the people who demand more. This is likely some vestigial evolutionary process, an outdated script with limited merit in modern times. It's this kind of posturing that rewards asshole CEOs, that encourages "hustle," that results in the dramatically skewed resource distribution we now suffer. Studies have shown that women consistently undervalue themselves, and ask for less.  Thus, ensuring equal pay is not only necessary on a material level, it holds promise to help managers sufficiently value and respect their female employees on a personal level.

Pao's wording has been criticized—“Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate.” It's been interpreted as a sexist assertion that women are in some way less skillful than men. But she's not arguing that women can't be as skillful negotiators as men—the problem she's trying to address is the immense social pressure women experience that prevents them from advocating for themselves. Yes, this policy may penalize the best negotiators, men and women alike. But perhaps it's time to de-emphasize traditionally masculine qualities whose values are inflated because the professional world, and its definitions of success, have been male-dominated and dictated for hundreds of years. What's ultimately needed is not only the inclusion of females in male-dominated workplaces, but for more women to build their own companies to set a new tone for the working world.