That's What She Said: Insights From Author and Journalist Joanne Lipman

April 17, 2018Joanne Lipman is a woman on the move. On the morning we spoke, International Women's Day 2018, Joanne was in New York to give a keynote speech to the College Media Association's Spring National College Media Convention. But she could be almost anywhere by now: San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles.

Lately, she has been traveling to speak about her new book, That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. But she has actually been traveling for three years, speaking to men and women about workplace inequality, and what can be done about it. Spurred by the interest in an article she wrote about women at work that went viral, she realized why more progress hasn't been made already for women in the workplace:

"You think about all the issues that women face in the workplace that we are highly aware of and that we talk about with each other, things like: being marginalized, feeling less respect than the man who sits next to us, having fewer opportunities, being interrupted all the time... These everyday frustrations and obstacles that we face, we talk about them amongst ourselves, and there are books that have been written and conferences that we go to and talk to each other, but we haven't been talking to men. I felt that women talking to each other is really half a conversation, and we're only going to get to half a solution. We need to bring men into the conversation. That's the only way we're going to fix this."

Her book is the result of having conversations with executive men around the world who are working to close the gaps in the experiences and opportunities of men and women at work, as well as conversations with women of different industries, ethnicities, marital status, ages, and career goals about the effects of dealing with those gaps. The stories of these men and women are illuminating.

For instance, Joanne talks about so-called "invisible women." These are women who decide at some point in their careers to step back for a time by going part-time, taking a leave of absence, intentionally taking a lesser role, or slowing their career momentum by not working toward promotions. Women do this for a variety of reasons, but often they do it because they want to start a family or need to become caregivers.

The problem they face is that once they leave, they often find it quite difficult to either rejoin the workforce or to kick their career back into high gear. As Joanne said, "These are women who are ready, willing, able, and have all the ambition in the world to step up again. And they are absolutely invisible to employers."

And this issue of invisibility doesn't just affect these women as individuals. "I think that this is one of the biggest missed opportunities for the American economy," Joanne said. "If you add these women back into the economy, we would grow it by, I think the figure is something like $4 trillion. And you have these women who are smarter, ambitious... Their experience is incredibly valuable in the time that they've taken off. These are women who have taken off, but maybe they've run all the school functions and they've been on nonprofits, and they're active and engaged and smart and they will hit the ground running. And they can't get their phone calls returned."

I asked her to what she attributed her own success, especially in a culture in which so many women experience the fate of becoming "invisible." She said, "Every issue we discussed in the book, I think I've experienced all of them. Not sexual assault, but pretty much everything else. So it's not like I somehow dodged all the typical obstacles that women face. And every mistake you can make, I think I've made it." She laughed. "I hate to say it because it's such a female thing to say, but there's an element of luck in there. But the luck isn't so much, 'Oh, I'm lucky that I got noticed.' Where I lucked out is in having really great mentors who were sponsors. They were all men. I had male supervisors who took me seriously and gave me opportunities.

"I cannot overestimate how important this is. My own supervisors gave me opportunities even when I started having kids. And I would have mommy-tracked myself. They would offer me a promotion and I would say no. But what was so unusual about my situation was that my own bosses did not cross me off the list. They did not mommy-track me.

"That's something that I've tried to pay forward to others. I've been to so many meetings where there's a discussion about an opening, and someone will say, 'This particular woman would be great for that.' And someone else will immediately say, 'Oh, no. She's got little kids at home,' or 'She's pregnant. Her husband has a great job; she's never going to want to move.' And what I say in That's What She Said is: do not decide for her. Let her make her own decision."

There is evidence from the interviews Joanne conducted that it pays off to not assume what a woman's answer will be. According to Joanne, "There is a company that I spoke to that changed and started asking the woman. And they said that they were surprised at how many women said yes. People who they assumed wouldn't want to transfer, move overseas, etc. These women said yes. So, don't decide for her. That's hugely important."

Joanne digs into the causes of such problems, but also exposes issues that men have working with women. "When I would ask men, 'What perplexes you?' this is what I heard the most: 'I'm afraid I'm going to make her cry.' This just blew me away. I had no idea."

This lack of communication and understanding works to women's detriment. According to Joanne, the research shows that women cry at work not because their feelings are hurt. "The actual reason is that they're furious. They're angry, they're frustrated. A woman crying at work is the equivalent of a man yelling. But male supervisors don't understand that so they tend to be reluctant to give feedback because they're afraid of tears, whereas with other men, they give valuable feedback. Women tend to be given personality critiques, words like 'abrasive' and 'judgmental.' Or they get bland, nonspecific compliments. The men were not giving them constructive feedback, nor were they recommending them for promotions. So that's something men in leadership need to be hyper-aware of."

So what can be done? Joanne had some personal takeaways. "As a result of the research for That's What She Said, I actually made changes not just in my behavior but in my management approaches. For example, one of the issues I became highly aware of was [that] women are interrupted three times more than men. And also that women's voices are less often heard, particularly in a meeting where they make up usually a third or less of the group. Literally, their ideas aren't heard until they're repeated by a man. These are things that happened to me my entire professional career and I always thought it was just me."

But according to her research, it happens to all women. "I became much more attuned to voices in meetings and making sure that women and others who felt underrepresented—ethnic or racial minorities, could even be introverted men—I wanted to make sure I amplify their voices."

And it's not just that women aren't being heard. Joanne said another area where women are disadvantaged is the pipeline. "If you have all white guys doing the interviewing, you still do not get an optimal result. That also goes for making decisions for raises and promotions. Because we tend to gravitate toward people who remind us of ourselves, it disproportionately rewards the younger white guys. You have to be highly aware of that in order to work against the implicit biases that we all have. I'm always aware now when there's a job opening of who is raising their hand, and it is inevitably far more men than women. What I started doing is making sure I identify women who would be qualified to be in the pool of applicants, and I bring them into my office and I talk to them about it. I say, "Let's talk about what you might be interested in, now or down the line.'"

There are many practical solutions in That's What She Said. "I wanted to tell great stories and make [the book] highly readable, but with action-oriented lessons you can actually take away," Joanne said. "Some of the strategies are confidence builders. One of the things I talk about is the idea of amplification. When a woman says something in a meeting, someone else immediately steps in to say, 'Yes, Risa had a great idea,’ and then repeats that idea.

"The same goes for interruptions. You can interrupt the interrupters. Say, 'Hey, wait. Olivia was making a great point. Let's listen to Olivia.’ You don't have to be a boss to do that; you can be a colleague or peer. So, there's a cheat sheet in the back of the book with a dozen steps you can take right now to close the gap." 

I wanted to know if her findings on inequality were overwhelming, but Joanne’s perspective was interesting. She said, "In a sense, the research was comforting because, as I said, I've experienced every single thing in this book. And to understand that it's not just me was revelatory! You know the expression 'gaslighting,' where you're made to feel like you're the one who's crazy? Well, there's comfort in understanding the science behind it and also the research behind all of these issues. It helps to understand that we're not alone. If you have a problem with someone who is being disrespectful or abusive to you, it is highly likely that others have a problem with that person as well. And there are solutions that you can effect." 

The misperceptions of many men and the systemic norms still in place represent big challenges to progress. But Joanne is optimistic. "I was searching for men who are trying to find solutions. A lot of the invitations [for speaking engagements] are coming from men, which is also really good," she says. "I think that we're at a pivotal time where maybe we can actually push for culture change."


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.