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What men know: We can’t act like them, but we can learn from them

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What Men Know: We Can’t Act Like Them, but We Can Learn from Them

My story, with Chrystia Freeland, Arianna Huffington, Kate White, Elizabeth Warren, Suze Orman, Sheila Bair, Donny Deutsch, Valerie Jarrett, Carol Bartz, Brooksley Born, and Jack Welch

Finding Our Own Way

My own experience, and now the experiences shared by so many other women in these pages, convinces me that women can’t act like men and expect to be liked, to be able to lead, and to be paid what they’re worth. But we still need to accomplish all of those goals. Reuters’ global editor-at-large Chrystia Freeland notes, “We as women are still immigrants; we don’t speak the native language very well. It might not be that these male ways of behaving are, absent other factors, better, but they are the dominant cultural mode, and like all immigrants we have to conform to the dominant cultural mode. We can learn a lot from the men around us.”

Surely our demeanor and delivery have to be different, and that’s our main challenge. Huffington Post cofounder ­Arianna Huffington describes the situation succinctly: “In order to conquer the workplace as women, we need to approach it in our own unique way, not as carbon copies of men: briefcase-carrying, pinstripe-wearing career machines who just happen to have vaginas.” The way to get ahead? Huffington answers, “By learning how to play the men’s office ‘game,’ but tailoring it to our own style.”

A Sense of Entitlement

In addition to a career as the author of bestselling mysteries and thrillers such as Hush as well as nonfiction books such as Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do, Kate White is the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. She has many stories to tell about what women in the workplace could learn from men.

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“Some of the guys I’ve worked with have just had a really great sense of entitlement.”

—Kate White

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When she was the editor of Working Woman magazine, White hired a guy—let’s call him Jack—as a senior editor. There were three other senior editors, all women. When Jack was first hired, all the editors had their own offices, but soon, for economic reasons, the magazine moved into a new building with less space. “It turned out that all four senior editors were going to have to work out of this big room that had once been the company library,” she says. White knew this would not go over well. “I went down to see what was happening, and discovered that Jack had slipped some money to the movers when all the furniture was being delivered,” she tells me. “He arranged for them to give him a big old bookcase, which he used to divide off his area, and then he got them to bring up a little couch from the basement. Brilliant. Suddenly he had an office. If you had walked in you would have thought he was the boss and the three women were in the typing pool. He just said to himself, ‘Okay, this isn’t the best situation. What do I have to do to fix it to my advantage?’”

White says many women think, “ ‘Hey, we’re following orders here, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,’ whereas a lot of guys in the workplace make up the rules as they go along. Men scam the situation … Jack had an air of entitlement that said, ‘I deserve this, and I’m going to get it.’ I just laughed and thought, ‘What can I learn from this guy?’”

She’s right; a woman’s tendency is to fall in line and accept the status quo, even if it doesn’t benefit her. Women seem more willing to be accommodating than to insist on being accommodated.

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“Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop.”
—Elizabeth Warren

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Morning Joe regular guest Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard law professor. In September 2010 she was appointed Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a position in which she will build the new agency that will oversee the rules on financial products such as mortgages and credit cards. She’s a woman who surely would be horrified by all the mistakes I’ve made along the way in my career, or so I thought.

As a longtime advocate for consumers, Warren has gone up against some of the biggest names on Wall Street, and she has famously locked horns with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Warren, who has been on Time magazine’s list of the World’s Most Influential People for two years running and often appears on our show to talk about the economy and financial reform, impresses me as a sharp, gutsy, no-nonsense woman. But she admits to me that when it comes to her personal value in the workplace, she still struggles.

Warren remembers how surprised she was when she realized her male colleagues had that sense of entitlement that she lacked. It happened when she first started teaching at the University of Houston. Before the semester began, she heard from the associate dean, who was scheduling courses. “I got the call asking, ‘Would you teach the lousy course at the lousy hour on the lousy day in the lousy room?’” she says. She didn’t want to teach that particular class, but she didn’t see any way around it: “I thought, I’m sure someone needs to teach at the lousy hour on the lousy day in the lousy room, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

A couple of years later, Warren was promoted to associate dean, and it was now her job to assign courses, classrooms, and time slots. “So I took the map from the year before and started laying it out, and I sent all these notes out on what and when I needed people to teach,” she remembers. “But every single man on the faculty who didn’t like their schedule sent me back an e-mail saying, ‘You know, you don’t understand, I only teach at ten o’clock on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.’”

And the women?

Warren says, “Every single woman could be leveraged into teaching the lousy course at the lousy time in the lousy room. Men would just say, ‘No. That’s not convenient for me.’ I thought, ‘This is astonishing!’”

I ask Warren, “It never crossed your mind to say no?”

“Never,” Warren says.

“Why?”

“Partly I felt lucky to be there; partly, I’m the cooperator, you know, let’s get the job done. Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop. I really see this as the difference between putting ourselves, if not first, at least putting equivalent value on ourselves … we don’t see our own worth. We see how we can be helpful to the team or to the group. We see what we can add without stopping to ask, ‘Wait a minute, this is a valuable contribution—why am I making this, and what am I getting in return for it?’

“You’re always careful about generalizations here, but for me it doesn’t even cross my mind until later, when I’m committed to do something and I suddenly look around and ­realize, ‘So how come the three people who agreed to do the hard, invisible labor here are all women?’”

Warren points out that while the low-profile jobs may be both necessary and important, they just don’t garner the accolades or the money and promotions. For that reason, men simply never pick up the mop. She sees this at her faculty meetings at Harvard. “Someone will say, ‘Well, you know we should hire X because he …’ and they will name three very visible accomplishments. And I know for a fact, and every woman in the room knows for a fact, that X is a real pain in the rear: X won’t cooperate, won’t help out, won’t be a team player. X will not help move the whole institution forward, and that’s regarded as irrelevant. You know, it’s the difference between the big valuable things that people do, and all that stuff that women do—that’s all that crap stuff. That’s the stuff no one notices, no one cares. No one values.”

I can think of countless lousy shifts that I’ve volunteered to work in my life. Time away from my husband and my kids, time that I needed to take care of myself, that I gave up in order to work. To be the cooperator, the person with the mop. I know for a fact those lost hours made no difference to my employers, but it is the lost time with my family that I’ll never get back. I often pushed my self to ­extremes to get nothing in return except bad health, and
at one point, a baby with a broken leg. Warren’s description of herself when she was starting out made me cringe, because that was me. Always trying to run faster, to please everyone, and very seldom getting anything in return.

If You’re Not Paid for It, Don’t Do It

Personal-finance expert and force of nature Suze Orman argues that for their own sake, women have to resist the urge to always pick up the mop. When you know what you’re worth, you’ll have an easier time asking to be compensated for what you’re bringing to the job. And if you’re not getting paid for it, take a lesson from men and don’t do it.

“I know my own worth and I’m not going to settle for less,” Orman says. “It’s really just that simple. When I’m giving my speaking lectures, I get exactly what I want for my speaking lectures, and if you can’t pay me, then I’m not going to speak for you. I get exactly what I want from CNBC, and I’m very happy. I don’t have to demand; you either give it to me or you don’t. If you don’t, then it’s not my problem.”

Of course, at this point in her career, it’s easy for Suze Orman to say no. She acknowledges that in the current recession, most people don’t have that luxury. Most people do what they have to do, and sometimes, that does include picking up the mop and even working for free. “When you’re first working for someone, your goal is to make those people whom you are dependent on dependent on you,” Orman advises. “So when you first start working, you do not demand anything, you do not ask for anything. That’s when you do everything you can, even if you’re not asked to do it. You make them totally dependent on you—and then you’ve reversed the power.” When you really need the money, or the opportunity, sometimes you do have to get your foot in the door and take the lousy shift. But once you’ve made yourself essential, that’s when you have leverage. It’s up to you to make sure your boss sees your contribution and knows you expect to be paid for it.

Orman says she sometimes worked for free as she worked her way up. She worked unpaid the entire first year of her show, because she and her managers weren’t able to settle on contract terms. But at the end of the first year she had proven herself and was in an excellent negotiating position. At this writing, her show is in its tenth year.

Be Visible—and Willing to Promote Yourself

FDIC chair Sheila Bair told me that while she hasn’t haggled over the issue of compensation, she has certainly felt at times that her opinions have not been valued: “Traditionally women’s work or opinions or both have not been valued as much as they should. The societal notion that women’s work or opinions are less valuable can seep into our own thinking. Perhaps on a subconscious level, but I think it does seep in. We can be accepting of what we get and not ask for more and not think that we deserve more. I think that goes from compensation, office space, titles, to getting credit for saying something and making it your idea. Somehow it’s a bad thing to stand up for yourself or promote yourself … to speak up and say, ‘I deserve to be paid X,’ and we feel embarrassed or ashamed or bashful about that, and we shouldn’t.”

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“The societal notion that women’s work or opinions are less valuable can seep into our own thinking.”—Sheila Bair

***

Bair told me she thinks women need to be more assertive. She says we need to educate our managers about our worth: “When there is unequal treatment, learn how to promote yourself in a way that is constructive. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it; you can be factual about it. You say, ‘This is my idea,’ and don’t back down. Say it, and don’t be embarrassed by saying it.”

Advertising exec Donny Deutsch says that for men, keeping track of accomplishments is as natural as breathing. “Men grow up playing games and keeping score from the time they’re four years old, and that continues in the workplace. Keeping score by tracking how much money you make, how big your office is, what are the perks, what do other people think, how does it look.”

Deutsch says all that scorekeeping makes male employees high maintenance. “I’ve found without exception that for every alpha male who has worked for me, I’ve had to spend a lot more time negotiating literally and figuratively … the size of everything. For them it’s, ‘I want more; what’s in it for me?’”

Women may not need or want to keep calling attention to themselves, but as Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett put it, “If you’re not negotiating the size of everything, odds are, you’re not going to become the boss.” Because as I pointed out, even if we don’t care about nice offices or elevated titles, the rest of the world does recognize those symbolic stature-­oriented achievements.

Being Visible Has Its Drawbacks, but So What?

News of Carol Bartz’s compensation was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country when she got the job as Yahoo CEO in 2009. Bartz says she found it “absolutely fascinating” how reports exaggerated her pay, calling her ‘the highest-paid whatever,’ which is such bullshit because if they really read the fine print, they’d see the stock price has to go up, the moon has to be full and cats have to howl and so forth,” before she’d get her full compensation package.

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“First I got mad, and then I got embarrassed, and then I said, ‘You know what? Not my problem.’”
—Carol Bartz

***

But what bothered her most was “the sheer embarrassment of the scrutiny.” Everyone was coming up to my husband and saying, ‘Well, I guess you can afford a new set of clubs,’ and, you know, razzing him. People were putting copies of articles in his locker. It was just bizarre. First I got mad, and then I got embarrassed, and then I said, ‘You know what? Not my problem.’ I’m proud of this, and if some young woman thinks she can be ‘the highest-paid whatever,’ then good!”

Why are we afraid to be called self-promoting, and why wouldn’t we feel great about being “the highest-paid whatever”? Maybe we feel as if we’re being set up to be knocked down or that people think we’re only in it for the money. Or maybe the fact that people notice that we’re highlighting our accomplishments distracts from the accomplishments themselves?

In her experience as a law professor and in her government positions as chairwoman of TARP and now the chief ­advisor in charge of setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren knows that to be labeled self-promoting may not be a bad thing for a man, but it is for a woman: “It’s like having something sort of deeply wrong about you. You sense this is a really bad thing.”

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“The notion that I’m self-promoting somehow makes me gasp.”—Elizabeth Warren

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Warren has spent years advocating for consumer protections in the financial-services industry, and she was often interviewed by reporters covering the financial crisis. She has taken a lot of flak from those who don’t like her views, and she told me she understood that that came with the territory. But when the Wall Street Journal called her “self-promoting,” she says that she felt transported back to her childhood in Oklahoma, suddenly feeling like an odd girl out. She remembers thinking, “‘Oh my god, I do so much less press than I’m asked to do, and when I do it I always try to do it in the service of trying to teach something, trying to advance an idea’ … it really stung.”

Warren continues: “You know, when someone says, ‘Oh, she’s just plain stupid,’ it doesn’t cut to the quick. It doesn’t undermine me in the same way. It doesn’t even throw me off. But the notion that I’m self-promoting somehow makes me gasp.” She says that finally, after two years of working in a much more public position, she’s developed thicker skin and the ability to stop and think, “‘Wait a minute. Why does that one cut to the quick?’ I think more than once I’ve wondered, ‘Would you say that if I were
a man?’”

Speak Up, and Make Sure Your Ideas Are Heard

“I’ve been in a room countless times where I had said something and no one said anything, no one paid attention. Then a man has said the exact same thing, and people have listened,” Valerie Jarrett tells me. “It hasn’t happened to me in this White House, but it’s happened to me countless times in the past. I think that every woman has experienced that. I don’t know whether it’s the way we speak it, or if it’s because we’re women and people have discounted what we said. I can think of many, many times when I’ve said something and it’s been overlooked.”

Study after study has documented this phenomenon. And woman after woman told me she had experienced some version of it. But for women to achieve their value, they have to find a way to be heard. Nowhere has that been more difficult and more public than on Wall Street, where a few women have dared to go up against an army of powerful men.

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“What was frustrating was that they wouldn’t even engage.”—Sheila Bair

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FDIC chair Sheila Bair was one of the first people to raise concerns about problems with the subprime mortgage market. She famously battled the “men in charge” of the various regulatory agencies. She tells me it was often difficult to get her counterparts to listen. It was probably for a variety of reasons, including the FDIC’s traditionally conservative philosophy and posture. “I become frustrated when people won’t even engage,” she says. “If you’re not going to agree with me, tell me why you don’t agree with me and let me respond to that. Don’t just nod and smile and go off and don’t do anything. So that’s really frustrating, and I think that’s the first hurdle: at least getting people to engage—even if they’re going to disagree with you or not accept your views, at least get them to listen and have a give and take. You have to keep coming back at them and demand a response to your views.”

When I press Bair for an instance she would be willing to share in which she felt her ideas were ignored, she refers me to a series of public incidents in 2007. At the time, the mortgage market was starting to go south, and Bair was pushing for a federal program that would encourage banks to modify loans for millions of homeowners. The idea was to lower payments and extend the length of the mortgages so families could remain in their homes, keep the mortgages performing, and head off an epidemic of foreclosures.

Bair was initially unable to convince Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson or the Bush White House to support the program. But then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to launch a loan modification project in California modeled on her plan. When Schwarzenegger adopted the project, he gave the idea additional credibility, and Hank Paulson saw its merits. “He came around … and it provided some momentum for the administration to say, ‘Okay, if Arnold is doing it, it must be a good idea.’ So then we did it on a federal level.”

Like Brooksley Born and Sheila Bair, Elizabeth Warren talks about the “profound insularity on Wall Street.” She says, “The guys who ran it were guys who talked only to each other and valued only each other. That was their downfall. They didn’t want to hear the evidence that said, ‘Your game doesn’t work. Your plan is broken’ … and so it was, you know, ‘Lalalala, we can’t hear you.’”

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“I’ve picked the girls’ end of the discussion.”
—Elizabeth Warren

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Warren’s work has an effect on Wall Street and corporate America. She told me that she works in “a field in which male voices dominate almost exclusively.”

Warren says she was not just in the minority because she’s a woman but also because she has taken the “girls’ side” of finance: “I want to talk about the consumer impact of much of what Wall Street does, and in many circles that makes it doubly unpopular. You know, I’ve picked the girls’ end of the discussion … because the cool stuff, the guys’ stuff, is to talk about leveraged buyouts and credit-default swaps.

“I’ve been in groups of academics and we’re talking about financial innovation, and everyone in the room wanted to talk about [mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations], and when I would raise my hand to say, ‘The first problem with financial innovation has been the families … the thirty-page credit card agreements and mortgages … there’s just a long dead silence, and finally someone says, ‘Well, yes, but we only talk about the things that have a really important impact.’

“I know what all that means and I can talk about it. We can sit here and have back-and-forth on theoretical ideas and what the data show, but the part that has been missing from the conversation is the impact on families … that the raw materials for much of the financial bubble and crash were people’s home mortgages and credit card agreements. We know that now, but no one wanted to talk about this three years ago.”

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“If I respect you, I will disagree with you. If I don’t respect you, I’ll just say you don’t understand.”
—Elizabeth Warren

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Despite resistance, Warren continued to voice her concerns. And she suffered a backlash, in a very public way.

She remembers the litany: “‘Doesn’t have the right background, doesn’t play the political game, doesn’t understand how things are done’ … for which there’s a little voice in me that always said, ‘Oh, no, I understand; I just think it’s wrong.’ … The whole game is ‘doesn’t understand’ rather than ‘we just disagree.’ You know, people need to show respect to disagree with you: if I respect you, I will disagree with you. If I don’t respect you, I’ll just say you don’t ­understand.”

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“How many men are called strident?”
—Brooksley Born

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Perhaps the best example of this backlash came a decade before the economy faltered, when another female regulator, Brooksley Born, went up against Wall Street. Born was the chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). In the late 1990s, she warned of the risk from the credit default swaps and other financial time bombs that would eventually cause the economic collapse. But nobody listened.

Born’s agency wanted to regulate these financial instruments, and that made some very powerful men angry. Born recalls, “They said I was pressing it. Well, I believed it. I thought that the country was in danger. I thought that the American public was going to suffer if we didn’t do something.”

She was publicly pilloried as being “difficult,” “stubborn,” and “strident.”

Born says that she had to ignore those labels. “If you stick to your guns, we all know that a woman behaving the way a man would is described by a different adjective,” she tells me. “But when it’s important, it’s important to do more to be heard.” Now, a decade later, she can laugh about her own bad press, but she asks, “I mean, how many men are called strident?”

Still, Born was basically forced out of her job by then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

So What Do You Do When You’re Being Ignored?

Sheila Bair insists, “Don’t be embarrassed about sticking up for yourself and proposing good ideas. Try and carry the day at meetings, and if someone else tries to poach [your ideas], stand up for yourself and say, ‘Well, that’s exactly what I just said.’ You can do that politely—you don’t have to be confrontational.”

Carol Bartz, however, is happy to be confrontational. When this happens to her, she tells me, “I say, ‘I think I just said that about ten minutes ago.’ I do that. Come on, they are not going to get away with that shit. I say, ‘I said that ten minutes ago, what was it about the way I said that that didn’t really work for you guys?’ You have to do that. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s a perfectly legitimate question.”

Bartz points out that men will also use the passive-­aggressive tactic of not responding at all. “You know, where they seem to agree but they really don’t,” she says. “I’ve always said, if you have an opinion, I don’t care what it is, we have a starting point. Which means I can convince you differently and you can convince me differently. But if I don’t know what you’re thinking and then you leave and I think you think one thing and you never did, we will never get anything done.”

Elizabeth Warren says what has worked best for her is “to let the men talk, but then to say, ‘Yes, but let me ask that question again … maybe I didn’t quite hear the answer, but let me push on that again,’ because it means I’m listening, I’m treating this as a two-way conversation and I have noticed that you danced away from the central point… . For me that’s always been the most effective.”

But former GE CEO Jack Welch argues that women don’t have to do anything to be heard: “When we’re in a meeting and a woman speaks up—because they don’t often speak up—when they do you can hear a pin drop.”

I think he’s probably right in situations where there’s only one or two women: you stand out by virtue of being the only one of your kind. But more often than not, women have to try harder to be heard.

All the tools mentioned here add up to one piece of advice: be confident enough to raise your hand. Men just seem to have an easier time doing it, but making yourself visible is no less important for women. Bringing attention to yourself, your ideas, and your achievements means you’ll be scrutinized. And if you fail, people will ask whether any woman can handle the job. But it’s hard to get ahead if you’re invisible.

Personally, I can use each one of these pieces of advice on the set of Morning Joe, and I work every day to keep them in mind.

What men know: We can't act like them, but we can learn from them

Updated