I came across an article recently that had a unique take on the kinds of career advice that is typically given to women. The main concept of the article is that women are being sold on the idea that it is up to them to change workplace culture and to make the workplace more encouraging and nurturing to the women who occupy it, and that this is a form of gaslighting. Gaslighting, in case you’re unaware, is a form of manipulation whose end game is to sow doubt in the mind of its victims. By design, gaslighters want the objects of their manipulation to think that they are the problem and that they are the crazy ones. Gaslighting serves to erode confidence and make the target second-guess her every move.
I admit that I never thought of career advice as a form of gaslighting before reading this article. Most women’s career advice revolves around balancing work with family obligations, being assertive, and how to act to be taken seriously. When I evaluated this typical career guidance given to women, I realized how pathetic this truly is.
Be more assertive when you negotiate your compensation. Dress appropriately. Modulate the tone of your voice—you don’t want to come off as shrill! Set high expectations for your team members but don’t be too harsh on them. Be more ambitious. Take risks. All of these put the onus of fixing the problem on the women. What’s even more insidious is the implication here, which is that women are the ones who have caused workplace inequality. That is dangerous, dubious, and wrong.
I thought about this some more.
This goes beyond workplace culture and extends into how women are regarded in general society and culture. Women are told to be mindful of their surroundings, to dress appropriately (not promiscuously!), to watch their drinks when they go out, to not drink too much, all to avoid being assaulted. Where are the reams of advice and training courses to teach men not to assault women? Just recently, at the funeral for Aretha Franklin, singer Ariana Grande was assaulted by a male clergy member. The outcry was palpable and predictable. She was wearing a short dress, you know.
At work, walking down the street, at home, in the grocery store, stopped at the red light. Regardless of where abuses of power occur, women are not responsible for those abuses. The responsibility to fix this is not on the victims—it is on the system and the institution which enable these mindsets and behaviors. The biases and abuses that women face are pervasive and profound and are too big for individual women to change alone merely by being more assertive.
Our society is all about the quick-fix. But presenting women with flimsy, DIY pseudo-solutions to deeply ingrained systemic injustices and cultural biases is not the answer. If it was that easy for women to change the culture in which we operate, don’t you think we’d have done that by now? Here’s a quick fix: Teach men to treat women as equals. Teach men not to assault and harass women and impose significant punishment on those who do. Mandate paid parental leave. Stop demanding that the victims fix the problems created by the perpetrators.