Corporate America sucks: don't fight the truth, learn the system
Updated: Oct 21
Last week I listened to a guy giving what can only be described as a… mansplanation of being a female executive. I listened in awe: imagine being a privileged white American man who feels entitled to express such opinions with no first-hand experience! But I also had a grudging recognition that he had something right. It’s OK, both things can be true at once.
His point was that women expect progression to be grounded in doing the best job, and believe that should be enough. I didn’t join in with the indulgent, knowing smiles of the other gentlemen on the webinar, but I will say this. What I’ve learned in 20 years in corporate is that, yes, doing a good job is important, but it’s not enough on its own, no matter how much it should be. You have to also know how to merchandise it, you need the style plus the substance.
It’s a microcosm of a realization I came to some time ago. Corporate life isn’t fair. If you’re laboring under that misapprehension, I’m breaking it to you for your own good. Better to accept it than deny it. We don’t have to like it. But what can we do with the truth now it’s set us free?
Here are four lessons I’ve learned working in the fire pit that is Corporate America. And also, come to think of it, Corporate Britain, which isn’t the same thing at all, but also isn’t entirely different. Maybe you grow up knowing these things if you come from a certain type of background. As the child of two librarians, I learned them the hard first-hand way. As I wrote them out, I realised how helpful it would have been if someone had sat me down at some point, gently patted my hand, and told me some home truths. You're welcome.
1. Corporate is a man’s world
Corporate America functions as a system built by men, for men. Who knows how a system designed by women might look? The point is not that one is bad and another good, just that where the power lies in the the corporate world was at its inception, and still is, male-dominated. Fact.
Gail Evans wrote the book Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman about the rules of the business game, the ones that we're never explicitly taught, as they apply to women. I read it as the belated instruction manual I was never given, and throughout snorted, gasped, laughed, and uncomfortably recognized myself.
The battle I personally faced in my corporate life wasn’t been being treated as any less capable for being female. I wasn’t stereotyped into the typing pool. I had a successful corporate career, I had stock options and a corner office. I absolutely didn’t achieve that by working in environments, or for people, that were anti-women.
If there was no sexism of an overt kind, then what’s the problem? For a long time, I thought there wasn’t one. Then I made it to executive, and the scales rapidly fell from my eyes.
That’s when I learned that business is a man’s game. It’s about winners and losers. About brokering deals and creating battle allies. About what used to be called “gentlemen’s agreements” that get made away from conference rooms. Of course, women can do all of those things. But a left-handed person “can” write with their right hand, it doesn’t mean it feels right. And it has to be learned, and you have to know why you should: how many times in corporate life are you actually sat down and systematically told which behaviors will make you successful?
A few years ago I went away on a vacation thinking that I had a new job. I returned to find I didn’t. Huh? The person (man) who had now been given the job had had a word with the hiring manager (also a man). He told him how he much he wanted the role, and how good he’d be, and the decision was made.
I didn’t particularly want the job, that wasn’t really what made my blood boil. That was more… How is it even a thing that two guys have an IPA together, one casually lobbies the other for a position, and anything gets decided that way? Who does that?
I’ll tell you who does that. People who aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, because they’re not worried about looking pushy or unlikeable. Who see an opportunity and go for it, because rather than agonizing over what happens if they get knocked back, they see it rather as nothing ventured, nothing gained. Who see a list of 10 requirements, know they can do 3 of them, and are confident that the rest they’ll figure out. Instead of checking 9 out of 10 on the list, but holding back because they can’t do the tenth.
For the sake of argument, let’s call these people “men”, because more often than not, that’s who they are. And as these are a sample of the behaviors that are on the secret “good things to do“ list, embracing them makes it more likely that you will advance your career. And not embracing them means that you are competing at a major disadvantage: and let’s not be under any illusions, corporate America is a contest.
I tussled with that realization for a while. In the end, I chose to change my job because at that point in my life, I didn't want to invest my energy in finding a way to behave the way I needed to in order to thrive and still feel authentic. It's a decision I’m very happy I made. But I would love it if other women could find a way to play the game and win their way. It would be so much more wide-reaching and culture-shifting than the cosmetic attempts I see some companies making of putting women in leadership positions to fulfil some kind of quota, without actually changing anything in the process. I’d love to help make that happen, to help find the way to get successful outcomes with behaviors that don’t feel alien. Hey, what do you know, that’s partly why I became a coach!
2. Salaries are a supply and demand economy. Don't be scared to demand
Exactly one day into my career, I figured out that I had entered an opaque land. I started in a graduate cohort, and on our first day, the group got to talking money. One mentioned how pleased she was with her salary, and mentioned a figure that was $8k a year more than mine. Ummmm… what?!
I have very strong feelings about fairness, and it appeared that this company didn’t. What a terrible place to choose to work! But actually no. This is totally normal. What I learned that day is that you don’t get paid for a job description, but what it takes to sign on the dotted line: a complicated dance between the value an employer puts on your skills, and what you’re willing to ask for.
Two people with the same experience can do the same job with very different compensation. Being offered a job is no different to any other negotiation in life. If you’ve fallen in love with the idea, and the decision is made in your mind, you’ll accept the terms with minimal muttering. If you’re (or rather, if you act) more dispassionate, you are in a stronger bargaining position. It’s all the balance of what you will accept, and what you will risk demanding for greater reward.
I’m much better at negotiation on behalf of other people, because then I don’t have an emotional attachment to the outcome. But I know when it comes to my own life, I tend to decide what I want and that’s that, no poker face. What even I have learned, though, is this: it never hurts to ask. If an employer is making an offer, they want you. The question is how much. I have never seen it happen that by asking for an extra week’s vacation, or an extra $xk, an offer is rescinded. That doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to get what you want, just that the ground won’t open up and swallow you either way.
3. Doing a good job isn’t enough if the right people don't know about it
While I hate to agree with The Webinar Mansplainer, in my experience it’s true that many people, not just women, believe that doing a good job is what it takes to be successful. They’re also likely to believe that good work will automatically get noticed on its own merits. Newsflash. That’s a recipe for frustration.
It's not that working hard works against you, just that on its own, it’s not enough. Here are some other things that that aren’t enough:
· Having the best ideas
· Working the longest hours
· Delivering no matter what you sacrifice elsewhere
As a person who used to be part of promotion discussions, here are some things that I’ve seen for myself make the difference:
· Who gets the credit for having good ideas
· Who’s built relationships with the right people
· Who’s established the reputation for leadership potential
The difference? Perception and publicity.
I’ve met many people frustrated at being overlooked to the extent that they’ve left jobs. Back in my youth, I was one of them. So I get it, who wants to be somewhere they don’t feel valued? But is it about being deliberately passed over? Or is it expecting the big cheeses to understand how much you matter but without ever actually explicitly telling them and relying on them noticing on their own?
It’s not necessarily a gender issue, although it’s true that most women I know don’t want to have to ask for attention. They want it to come to them when appropriate, because they’ve earned it. And in general, men are much more likely to feel comfortable in proffering their achievements on a platter with a: LOOK WHAT I DID.
Whoever you are, what counts as much as what you do, is who knows you did it. The key is in finding a way to do it that feels authentic to you. Does “look what we did” feel better than “look what I did?” Does slipping it into 1-1 conversation feel better than writing a mass email? Does seeding the knowledge of your successes with those who have the ear of the person at the top of the tree feel more you than barging into their office? Great, those things all work equally well!
4. There's power in the sisterhood. Use it
I used to sneer at women’s workplace groups. For a start, I thought that being a woman made no difference, so why would I need one? For second, they often seemed to involve wearing pink T shirts and taking yoga lessons. I own plenty of pink T shirts and I have nothing against yoga, but… would a men’s group involve wearing baby blue and learning karate? Actually that sounds kind of fun.
When you realize that life isn’t strictly fair, you think about things differently. Find your advantages and maximize them is the name of the game. I am a women’s network convert. There’s a new generation of them out there, pink T shirts optional. I joined a virtual conference a few weeks ago from Ladies Get Paid. It was a revelation. There’s a whole generation of women who, instead of being annoyed that their counterparts are being paid more than them, are going out and doing something about it. Go on, Gen Z, take the lessons of us Gen X-ers and go get ’em.
I don’t want to draw lazy parallels between the attitude in female networks and the way women are socialized to show up as nurturers and relationship builders. But I can honestly say that every group I am a member of has open arms, and a simple attitude – “what can we do to help each other?” Help. There are no scores being kept, no banking system. Just people who want to offer support on the basis that one day they will probably need a favor and they can rely on the honor system.
You know what else? Exacerbated by COVID, which has taken a disproportionate toll on women’s employment levels, I’m noticing a ground swell out there of women asking each other what they can do to make a difference. Corporate America isn’t fair. We’ve operated under the old ways for long enough, and just as it seemed to be getting better, it’s suddenly going backwards. It feels like a lot of us have decided it’s time to find some new tactics. Pink T shirts or no pink T shirts. Don't let a misconception stop you joining the quiet revolution.