Episode 136: Loyalty Has Limits

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…why it can be so hard for women to leave a job they’ve held for a while… 

“I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to let not only my coworkers, who were my family, but the community, I didn’t want to let the community down.”

And later in the show, what part do emotions play in how women are perceived at work…

“So it’s like, I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much has changed since I started the podcast almost 7 years ago. Women and work wasn’t a big topic of conversation then – now, it is huge. Some of my first shows don’t sound as relevant any more because the topics have been so well covered since then. But some things feels just as relevant today as they did then. One of those topics, I think, is the complicated feelings a lot of women have about leaving a longtime job.

Back in 2013, I talked to Daniella Maveal. Danielle had worked for Etsy for years. She was one of its first employees when it was a scrappy startup. And as I said at the time, she felt really lucky to work there.  

But even when she started to feel restless, about four years in, she couldn’t bring herself to leave. Her job was to liaise with all the sellers who sold their goods through Etsy. Essentially she supported them and coached them on how to better promote their businesses through the site. It was a very public role.

“My face was on blog posts, my face was on the forums, I led live workshops, I traveled and met sellers in person. So people know me as Danielle XO…I’d go to a craft show and…

AM-T: “Just to be clear, that’s your Twitter handle…”

“That’s my Twitter handle and it’s also my Etsy user name and my admin name, it just was everything, Danielle XO, and I’d just picked it out of the blue when I started at Etsy and it was who I became and was recognized as. So I actually probably should have left a year, maybe more than a year before I did, and I just couldn’t imagine who I’d be if I wasn’t Danielle XO. And if I would – if ever again I’d be as important, as respected or listened to, really all of my, I don’t know, my identity, was this Danielle XO.”

So Danielle’s whole sense of herself was bound up in her job. She struggled with the idea of leaving everything she’d built in her role, even though she no longer felt challenged or even felt she fit in that well at the company any more. It had grown massively since she started. When she finally did leave Etsy she was struck by how many of her female friends had similar tales. They weren’t happy at work but couldn’t quite move on. She described this in a blog post she wrote last year as a new problem women have – this struggle to stay or go to the next thing.

“The reason why I say that is that I think men and women have historically been in one job for a very long time. So in terms of being a new problem a lot of people now are changing jobs every few years, especially men. But I think women still feel they have to prove themselves in a career, they have to move up some ladder, and they have to win, be as good as a man is, as strong as a man is, and they equate that to being in a position very long – I feel like it’s a winning thing, like I need to... I don’t know it’s like you never feel…or at least I didn’t…I never felt like I had proven myself enough. I felt like I still had somewhere to go. I think at the end that was the most frustrating part was I actually didn’t know where to go and I wasn’t given, sort of a path, you know, so I didn’t know what that next step was that I needed to conquer.”

I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence like this about women staying in jobs longer than men… and I’d also heard it said that this is another reason for the pay gap – that women move around less so they have fewer opportunities than men to increase their salaries.

But I wanted some hard facts. Terri Boyer is executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She says in the early months of a job, studies show women are likelier to quit than men. But this often has to do with family factors – like a situation suddenly arising to do with aging parents or kids. In those cases a woman is likelier to step away from a new job to deal with a crisis than a man is.

“However, as women stay in a job for a longer period of time they are less likely than their male counterparts to leave a job. And I think there’s a lot going on there. There is interesting information about job satisfaction and the external indicators of is my job good, will I have another opportunity, etc. But then there’s also this concept of the longer women stay in the labor market, the lower their expectations are for what is a good job and what their chances are for finding another quote unquote good job out there.”

So what is going on there?

“First of all, women tend to underrate their abilities and worth in the job market and men tend to overrate their abilities and worth in the job market. So when you put a job description in front of a man and a woman their reactions are very different as to whether or not they feel they are qualified and feel competitive with it. And there are different studies that say if you give a list of ten qualifications, a woman feels she has to meet all ten to apply for the job and a man feels like oh I’ve met about six, seven or so of these, therefore I can apply for the job. So of course when you’re thinking about leaving a job, if you don’t see a lot of jobs out there that you meet all of the criteria for, there’s going to be a difference there in thinking of what’s the next thing to move on to.”

As well as undervaluing their qualifications, she says, the longer women stay in the job market the more they factor in children, how they’re going to fit kids into their working lives. Terri says again, this influences their thoughts about where they work – they may think, I’m in a decent situation, it has its pitfalls, but that’s OK because this job fits around the rest of my life…and another job might not. Men are still less likely to think this way.

And there’s more. Listen to what Danielle Maveal said when I asked why she had stayed at Etsy even as she became more and more unhappy…and I should add that Danielle doesn’t have kids.

“Well, one big thing was that I felt I owed it to the company to be there. Like I…”

AM-T: “That sounds very female…”

“Right, it’s a very female perspective on a job. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to let not only my coworkers, who were my family, but the community, I didn’t want to let the community down. And if they were coming to look for me to say I need help with this, and I wasn’t there. That just – I mean even now it gets me emotional, it breaks my heart….and I don’t know if a man would ever be, ‘I can’t leave this job, it would break my heart.’ I mean maybe, but he’d have to be a unique guy at least to admit it.”

Ah, loyalty. Terri Boyer of Rutgers says on the whole, women are more likely to prioritize their relationships with colleagues and clients and it’s another reason why they’re slower to leave a job than men.

I asked Danielle what else she felt was holding women back from taking the plunge…

“I mean besides their own insecurities and fear I do think they’re not supported enough by friends, family, people in their lives to take big leaps. I don’t know why that is but the business coach that I was talking to when I wanted to leave Etsy, I was shocked that she said to me, ‘You should leave.’ Because most people, when I had talked to my mother, when I had talked to my friends, ‘You have a great job, you have a great salary, you have healthcare. Why would you leave this job?’ They didn’t ask me if I was challenged.”

Given the state of the economy perhaps it’s not surprising she got those kinds of reactions. Because she didn’t yet have a job to go to. But she wants to encourage other people to have more confidence than she did when she was on the fence, and value all the experience they’ve gained on the job...

“So I think that’s one thing that holds people back, they don’t really put together all that experience…all the ups and downs, even the mistakes you’ve made, really add value to who you are. So keep moving, keep moving forward, that’s something that’s important, and you’re going to be reaching another set of people. That’s something I didn’t realize. It’s like OK, I am leaving this job and these people, these people who rely on me, but I’m going to be going somewhere else where I’ll still have all this value and knowledge and experience and I’ll find other people who will need me as well. It’s OK to be needed.”

Which also struck me as something not a lot of men would say…

“I think it’s OK to be feminine in the workplace. You know to me, the downfall for me was I would take things personally. I would internalize, and I would hold on to…and that was not a positive. But there’s no way I will ever be a masculine worker…and I am OK with that. You know, I’ll cry at work. I’m OK with that. Just respecting myself and valuing myself I think was the big lesson for me.”

Something else I still think about – something that’s still being debated – is how women should be judged for showing emotion at work.

Several senior women who’ve been guests on the podcast have said women should really do their best NOT to cry openly at work. And this is the conventional wisdom, right? That by crying you’re displaying weakness and women should go to all lengths to avoid that if they want to be taken seriously.

But Anne Kreamer disputes that. She’s the author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. I spoke to her in 2014.

“I found that there’s no what I call tissue ceiling, that people at all levels of management reported that they had in fact had cried in the workplace – and that other people viewed the expression of emotion at work as a humanizing force…as something that showed empathy and compassion, and that it was women who were the harshest critics of other women who cried in the workplace. When men saw a woman…and I did a statistical analysis with J Walter Thompson really tabulating all this…and when women saw other women cry they saw it as a personal failure, a moral failing on their part, like they let the home team down. Whereas when a man saw a woman cry at work he was like, oh, she cried, it happens. Next.”

She wrote the book in part because she wanted to work out why women felt so bad about themselves after crying at work. Her research led her to the science of tears.

“Women’s and men’s tear ducts are anatomically different. Men’s are larger than women’s so that a man and a woman might be feeling the exact same degree of emotional distress, and his eyes will only well up, whereas a woman’s tears will spill out and down her face and make her look as if she’s more out of control, whereas in fact it’s just an anatomical difference. It’s crazy. And then the second thing is women produce more prolactin, which is the hormone that triggers treas. So from the get-go women are kind of hard-wired to cry more frequently and when they do cry to have their tears be more visible.”

She too knows this first hand. In the ‘90s, she was an executive at the US children’s channel Nickelodeon. The company had just signed a big deal to distribute their video and audio products with Sony – a deal she and her team had brought to fruition.

And I was celebrating in my office with my colleagues who’d all spent 18 months putting this deal together. And the phone rang. And it was Sumner Redstone… 

Sumner Redstone is the American media magnate who owns Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon…

“And I sort of naively thought oh how awesome, he’s calling me for the first time ever to congratulate me on a great job…when instead he just started to berate me instantly for having failed to move the Viacom stock price with the announcement of this deal. So I went from cloud 9 to kind of abject misery literally within the space of 90 seconds over this man’s anger frothing out of the end of the telephone receiver at me.”

After he slammed the phone down, she burst into tears. And immediately felt ashamed. She stewed over the incident and her reaction to it for hours, days. But some years later, she made a discovery.

“When I wrote the book about emotion in the workplace I went back and interviewed everybody who’d been in the room at the time - actually I also  tried to interview Sumner Redstone, who amusingly declined the opportunity to talk with me – but I was the only one who remembered the incident with the clarity that I did. One other person said oh yeah, I kind of remember that. But what happens with emotion is that if you ruminate on it…you know I went home and I was chewing over this thing, they went home and had drinks or met their family or did whatever they did, and completely forgot about it. So that’s another one of the interesting little elements of this, is that we all take things far more seriously than the majority of people who happen to be observers of them.”

Sociologist Marianne Cooper says there’s no doubt women have more to contend with when it comes to showing their feelings at work. Marianne is with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She was also lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in.  She says both men and women see women in a certain light, and that influences our responses to female behavior…

“It really starts form a belief that women are just inherently more emotional than men. A man and woman can have the exact same response to something but it will be viewed differently because we are expecting that women are going to be more emotional. So a man and woman doing the same thing, she’s going to be viewed as emotional and out of control…but a man will maybe be seen as passionate or just having a bad day.”

Take anger. Yale University research has shown women who display anger in the workplace lose status in the eyes of observers – these women are seen as being less worthy of a raise and as less competent. Men who get angry? They’re seen as just as competent as usual – and sometimes they even gain status. Marianne Cooper says women face a double bind…

“If you don’t show emotion in some ways you can get higher status as a result of that…but then you’re not really conforming to how people expect you to behave as a woman. So you might be penalized for not being friendly or warm or nurturing… if you’re too friendly or too nurturing or too emotional then you’re penalized for something else, which is not being competent, not being even keeled, not being calm under pressure. So it is a tightrope that women do walk.”

I asked her about crying and the advice senior women still give – just try not to do it. That is, senior women with the notable exception of Sheryl Sandberg. She says we should be able to be authentic at work. Marianne says recommending that we curb our tears still makes sense given many workplaces are pretty buttoned-up.

“…but I think, ultimately you have to understand and I’m sure all of these  women do, there are going to be moments that are just human, we’re not automatons, we can’t regulate our emotions every second of our lives. My hope would be we can work towards a system where women don’t have to  work so hard just to be taken seriously, and that that’s the kind of change we need, where when people cry it’s not perceived as a weakness, as being too emotional, or poor performance under pressure, it’s just seen as being human.”

But for some women in particular, being human, being able to be themselves at work, is something that feels a long way off. When I put out a call on a LinkedIn professional women’s group about this topic I was inundated with responses.

One of the women who got back to me was Kim Norris. She works for a healthcare technology company in the southern US. She trains staff who work in medical coding.

“My experience has been that if you express any type of emotion, even at times elation, it can be detrimental for your reputation.”

Kim is African-American and Latina. She says being half Latina, she uses her hands a lot when she talks. And she says her whole clan is pretty loud. Generally, she’s not shy about expressing emotion. But often over the years at various jobs, she’s had to tamp down her feelings for fear of how she’ll be perceived…and what she says are stereotypes about her race…

“I mean even amongst my female peers, I think that there are times when they feel somewhat intimidated or that I’m going to display aggressive behavior because I am African-American. Just the other day my boss called me into the office and wanted to discuss some possibilities for training and things like that…and she asked me my opinion and as a started to give it to her, she said now wait a minute, before you go there. And I was like wait, before I go where? I hadn’t even said anything really, yet. And that kind of thing. So it’s like, I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Which gets pretty exhausting. Kim got her bachelor’s degree at 40. She’s now in her mid-forties and she’s about to get her master’s in business administration. She says she’s proud of what she’s achieved professionally and educationally. Yet despite her qualifications, work can still be fraught with small, everyday communication hiccups…

“I find myself at times even not contributing as I would if I had the freedom to not have that stereotype come before me. There are times when I feel that it’s better to not say anything at all than to say something and possibly be misunderstood, so you really choose your words very carefully. And I feel it hinders me professionally a lot of the times because it’s easier for me to perhaps send an email or write a memo rather than being in a room interacting with my peers.”

At least with an email she can work out exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, ahead of time. But she wishes she didn’t have to.

McKinsey and Company and Lean In recently released their 2018 report on women and the workplace. It doesn’t specifically address communication issues and shows of emotion, but one of its conclusions is that women of color still find it harder to advance than white women and that black women get the least access of all to senior leaders. It also found that women of color are far more likely than white women to want to become a top executive. I’ll link you to a copy of that report under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

As ever I’d love to know if any of this jibes with your experiences at work. You can write to me at ashley @ TheBroadExperience.com or tweet me or hit up the Facebook page.

I appreciate every donation that comes into the show – this is a one-person production and your support really does matter. You can donate at the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. And if you can’t give, write a review on iTunes instead – I’d love that too.

 I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.