Social Rules Most Women Unknowingly Follow

One of my biggest regrets about my time in undergrad (which was a long time ago, but we're not going to talk about that), is that I didn't get involved in my school's women's center. It wasn't until I graduated and started making my way out into the real world that I started seeing the many unhealthy, dysfunctional, and destructive "rules" that influence women's mental health and behavior. While the topics listed here are by no means comprehensive — there are many a book on these very issues — this can help all of us (myself included) get a handle on some of the most pervasive and gnarly social rules most women unknowingly follow. 

We tend to struggle with self-confidence

One of the best books I've read in recent years is The Confidence Code, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. In it, Kay and Shipman — journalists who work for BBC World News America and ABC News, respectively — discuss what amounts to a gaping chasm between how confident men and women feel about themselves. "To our surprise, as we talked with women, dozens of them, all accomplished and credentialed, we kept bumping up against a dark spot that we couldn't quite identify, a force that was clearly holding them back," Kay and Shipman wrote in a 2014 Atlantic article discussing their book. "There is a particular crisis for women — a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes."

One example that Kay and Shipman note is the information gathered by Marilyn Davidson, a professor at Manchester Business School in the UK: each year, Davidson asks her students how much money they expect to earn — and how much they think they deserve to earn — five years after they finish their MBAs. As Kay and Shipman note, "Compared with men, women don't consider themselves a ready for promotions, they predict they'll do worse on tests, and generally underestimate their abilities.... Men initiate salary negotiations four time as often as women do, and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.... On average, men think they deserve $80,000 a year and the women $64,000 — or 20 percent less." Ooof. That's a lot of lost cash.

We tend to play by school rules

As it turns out, being an academic superstar doesn't translate into professional success — and I don't know about any of you, but this has been a hard rule for me to learn. I first read about it in the New York Times-bestselling book Playing Big, by Tara Mohr. "Early in my work as a career coach, I noticed... the women who faced the biggest challenges in senior-level positions had often been star pupils in school," Mohr wrote in a Quartz article discussing what had inspired her to write Playing Big

She continued, "Now the same behaviors that had been essential for academic success were holding them back in the boardroom. Western educational systems train students... to prepare carefully and to complete the tasks that are asked of them; to do lots of research and homework to discover the right answers; to pay attention to what authority figures want and provide it." 

Those "good student" behaviors are useful during school — but ultimately, they undermine women's ability to get ahead in the workplace. According to an article in Forbes, that "good student" mentality — "believing that people in charge will notice their hard work and positive results, and [then] promote them," isn't how the working world works at all. And, as Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, and Rachel Simmons, the co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, note in an article published by CNN, "Indeed, if life were one long grade-school, girls would rule the world." 

We often attribute success to external factors

One key takeaway from The Confidence Code is that, while men tend to credit themselves and their innate abilities for their accomplishments, women tend to write off their successes as being due to external factors, like luck. The Atlantic article discussing The Confidence Code notes that even Kay and Shipman have attributed their successes to something else: 

Kay "entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which, surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth. [Shipman] found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was "just lucky" — in the right place at the right time — when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s."

Similarly, an article in Psychology Today highlights more of Carol Dweck's research on why ability doesn't necessarily lead to confidence in those skills: "bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up.... Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up." Why the disconnect between ability and confidence? According to Dweck, it all boils down to how people perceive their abilities. According to the same article, "bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe they can develop ability through effort and practice." 

Men and women have different expectations about career priority and child care

Ok, dear reader: I have good news and bad news. The good news is that, according to a 2014 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study, the lack of women in senior leadership positions wasn't due to the so-called "mommy track" that allegedly removes so many women from the work force. So, yay! We can put down that "opting out" guilt we've been shouldering, because it's not backed up by reliable data.

The bad news, though, is a giant bummer. The same HBR study found that "Harvard MBAs aimed for and continue to value fulfilling professional and personal lives. Yet their ability to realize them has played out very differently according to gender." It gets worse, y'all: the HBR study found that this gender gap was because "the vast majority of women anticipated that their careers would rank equally with their partners'. Many of them were disappointed."

Indeed, according to a New York Times article discussing the HBR study, "men generally expect that their careers will take precedence over their spouses' careers, and that their spouses will handle more of the childcare... women, meanwhile, expect that their careers will be as important as their spouses' and that they will share childcare equally — but, in general, neither happens." Ugh.

We do a ton of unpaid work

Along the same lines as that super-depressing HBR study, women tend to be stuck with a great deal of unpaid labor. According to The New York Times, "women do the bulk of unpaid work — cooking, cleaning, and childcare... the work is essential for households and societies to function. But it is also valued less than paid work, and when it is women's responsibility, it prevents them from doing other things."

And, unsurprisingly, studies point to a large disparity in the amount of time that men and women spend doing unpaid labor: "worldwide, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work...that is more than double the amount of time men spend," The New York Times notes. This increased burden tends to lead to burnout, according to Chantal Denis, a clinical social worker at New Beginnings Counselling Services in Ontario, Canada. 

In an email, Denis described how women's efforts to meet the expectations of both their employers and their partners leads to exhaustion and burnout: "Women often come home to a "second shift"— [taking on] home life responsibilities after a day at work. The price women pay for this... is emotional drainage. Their self-care tank runs on empty." All in all, the unwritten "rule" that women should handle the bulk of the unpaid labor is deeply damaging.

Toxic societal messages get internalized

For better or worse, many women tend to put a premium whether people like us and what other people think. Patricia O'Gorman, a New York-based psychologist, author, and speaker, gave this tendency a name: "girly thoughts." As she explained in an email, "Girly thoughts is an obnoxious but memorable name I've given to how a woman internalizes the relentless societal messages that tell her how she should act, should look, and what she should want, and turns these messages into negative self-talk," expectations that are impossible to fulfill.

O'Gorman noted some examples of girly thoughts, which include (but, of course, aren't limited to) women blaming themselves for their husbands' affairs, the belief that a woman is no longer desirable as she gets older, the idea that imperfections like pimples are disasters to be Photoshopped away, and the feeling that it's imperative to always be nice — never bitchy — at work. 

This leads to a tendency to second-guess one's own thoughts, actions, and decisions, which can turn into self-sabotage. O'Gorman encourages women to notice these toxic, internalized messages, realize that they're not alone, and remember that women have been conditioned to do this — we're not crazy for thinking this way!

We often think that we need to be more highly qualified before applying for jobs

This is something that struck me off-guard: men, when faced with a new opportunity — especially for a new job or a promotion — tend to apply without worrying about whether they perfectly meet the criteria listed in the job description. This blew my mind: isn't that precisely what a job description is for? Isn't the whole point to make sure that the applicants meet a minimum standard before being considered for job?

It turns out I'm not alone in that way of thinking: according to the Atlantic article that came out when The Confidence Code was published, "a review of personnel records [at Hewlett-Packard] found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements... under-qualified and underprepared, men don't think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over-prepared, too many women still hold back. Women only feel confident when they are perfect. Or practically perfect."

Women tend to seek input and advice, even when it's not needed

In addition to women's tendency to think we need to be better qualified before applying for jobs, women also tend to solicit opinions about decisions they're making — even when they don't need other peoples' input at all. 

Annie Durkin, an HR benefits consultant in New York, told me in an email that "This takes place even when the call is entirely theirs to make in a given situation... while their male counterparts are more likely to make the decision on their own before seeking advice or approval." She continued, "Working closely with HR professionals, I've seen this time and time again."

Durkin notes that this has been going on for generations — most likely because women are often penalized for making executive decisions without getting approval and buy-in first. And yet, if we don't challenge this construct, we can't change it. So, if you find yourself on the hook for a decision and you feel good about your ability to make a good choice with the information you have, go ahead and make an executive decision before seeking advice or approval.

We're often pushed to take on the role of caretaker

A study published in the World Journal of Psychiatry noted that "All over the world women are the predominant providers of informal care for family members with chronic medical conditions or disabilities, including the elderly and adults with mental illnesses." This pressure for a woman to assume the caregiver role for ailing partners and parents is, as the study notes, nearly universal, and it puts a tremendous strain on the woman in this role. Indeed, as the New York Times notes, it can be akin to "a roller coaster ride from hell."

According to Melody Li, a licensed marriage & family therapist associate based in Austin, Texas, when women take on the role of being the family caretaker, they will often "unknowingly behave in ways that minimize their worth." Li described to me that women may feel guilty or selfish for practicing self-care, causing them to neglect their own needs and, as a result, burn out. She explained, "A healthier outlook is for women and men to see caretaking as a shared, mutual responsibility and that they are equally deserving of self-care."

Knowledge is power

So, real talk: I've studied topics like psychology and gender issues for years, but it wasn't until I put all of this together that I realized how many of these tendencies I've fallen into over the years. This, I think, is one of those cases where knowledge is power — by knowing where these societal, mental, and behavioral pitfalls exist, I and other women can learn to recognize them when they come up, and find healthier ways of working with, or around, them. And, all the while, we can work to change many of these unhealthy societal expectations, gender norms, and behavioral "rules" that need to join the floppy disc in history's dustbin.