Women, Men, Work and Emotion

School Doesn’t Always Prepare You For Work

Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr recently co-authored Women Need to Realize Work Isn’t School, a powerful call to action containing five straightforward guidelines that challenge women to rethink their approach to professional success:

1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority.

2. Prepare, but also learn how to improvise.

3. Find effective forms of self-promotion.

4. Welcome a less proscribed, full of surprise, career path.

5. Go for being respected, not just liked.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and I intend to refer to it regularly in my work with clients and students at Stanford (where today the MBA Class of 2012 is just 39% women).

I want to augment Johnson and Mohr’s perspective with two points: First, while I firmly agree that these five issues affect women more often and more severely than men, they certainly affect men as well. In my own professional development I’ve wrestled with each of these issues, and while I had an easier path as a man, it was nevertheless an intense struggle. (And it still is–I’m not suggesting that I’ve permanently resolved these issues for myself, just that I’ve addressed them and made what feels like meaningful progress over the years.)

And as I reflect on my male clients and MBA students, my sense is that every one of them is coping with one or more of these issues. From my perspective Johnson and Mohr have identified a critical set of universal challenges we all face in professional life, and they’re shining a necessary spotlight on the unique difficulties faced by women in surmounting them.

Second, while these strategies point out the ways in which women can often undermine themselves and suggest useful alternatives, my experience as a coach tells me that simply knowing what we should do is rarely sufficient motivation on its own. In order to take effective action, we have to acknowledge and address the emotions that get stirred up by the prospect of doing so.

Any of us–women and men–who wrestle with the issues above can use Johnson and Mohr’s call to action as a starting point to begin to understand the mental models that hold us back. And yet I suspect that sustained progress will depend on our willingness to understand ourselves at an even deeper level–for example, how our emotions affect our reasoning and decision-making or our performance under stress.

When we find ourselves acting in opposition to Johnson and Mohr’s guidelines, it’s likely that emotional factors are at play. Habitually deferring to authority, failing to improvise, rejecting appropriate credit for our performance, turning down surprise opportunities, focusing on being liked while failing to command respect–these are all professional missteps with a profound emotional dimension to them. Even as we’re making such a misstep, we know it’s the wrong thing to do, but somehow it feels better, safer, less risky to make the suboptimal choice.

So once our awareness has been raised and we know what we should do, our fundamental struggle in addressing these issues may be acknowledging and overcoming the anxiety, the embarrassment, the shame, the fear that well up when we contemplate taking that bold step. This is the complex and difficult work of self-coaching: engaging ourselvesunderstanding ourselves, and ultimately accepting ourselves even as we strive to do better.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Originally posted at http://www.edbatista.com/2013/01/women-men-work-and-emotion.html

About Ed Batista

Ed Batista is an executive coach, a change management consultant, and an Instructor and Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.


  1. @ Dave & Justin: I fully agree. School rewards obedience and compliance, but that’s not a recipe for success in the real world–so it’s important to unlearn some of the behavioral lessons we absorbed as kids.

    @ James: Thanks! As I mention above, I’ve wrestled with these issues myself, so it’s heartening to hear that others might benefit from this post.

    @ tim: Both realities are true: Boys are clearly falling behind in education, and women are still well behind in business. (Women are 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 16% of board members.) The point that Johnson and Mohr make in their original post actually links these two realities, noting that one reason why women don’t do as well in business is because they apply the same principles that served them well in school, failing to recognize that the disobedient, non-compliant behaviors that get us in trouble at school often serve us well in business. On the matter of suffering, I don’t apply a means test to empathy, nor do I believe it’s a finite quality that I must dole out carefully lest I run dry. All the best.

  2. It was interesting to read that article; it assumes that women are victimized because they are in a ‘double bind’ created entirely by men – where they are not allowed to be too ambitious.

    I just finished reading the article here on this site about the rapid and pervasive falling behind of boys in grade school and high school.

    So I am left wondering: Which is the reality? Are women really automatically victims at this point? And how does this professor treat the men in his class, if he believes the women are being treated unfairly by the men, simply because they are men? There is no data provided. And should I really pity anyone who is an MBA student at Stanford when there is so much suffering elsewhere?

    The professor bemoans the 40% figure for women in his classes. What would satisfy him? A 50% quota?

    The article seems like something from a time warp.

    What a terrible mess we have gotten ourselves into.

  3. When I’ve talked with close friends about advancing within their current job or during pursuit of their next job, I found myself suggesting several of the attitude shifts in this article … but the article really ties it all together very well. Thus shared/posted it on my Facebook. Kudos, Ed!

  4. Dave Kaiser says:

    school teaches us to be obedient and follow rules, but that’s not always what gets us ahead in business and life.

    • I agree, Dave. School is an appropriate model for children, because it works on the passive model where students surrender authority to teachers on not only the content of the courses, but on which courses are appropriate or required and when. Even if students in college approached school more as adults, not in this passive mode but as consumers (and college does encourage this model more than public school does, though it’s possible to take college just as passively as one does high school), I think they’d perform better. I know I felt more empowered in college, and that it was my responsibility to get educated for the career I wanted. I also did a lot better in college than I did in high school.

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