And yet, we’ll never really know, will we? This is what troubles every ambitious woman: You’ll never really know how big a role sexism plays in your setbacks. There is clearly an element of sexism in how women are treated in the workplace. But just as clearly, women are not superhuman martyrs who only fail when the patriarchy sabotages them. Some women, like some men, really are excessively pushy, abrasive, difficult and domineering. Some are stupid or wrongheaded. Some just aren’t very good at inspiring others, setting priorities or determining the correct strategic focus. Some are good managers who make bad mistakes, not special-woman kind of mistakes, but just boring-old-human kinds of mistakes.
I have seen women inappropriately censured for doing things that men got away with, even got admired for. I have also seen women who failed at their jobs attribute their failures to sexism, rather than their own technical or organizational weaknesses. Unless you were there, you can’t really know … and even if you were, there will almost always be doubt. Would a man have been given more time, and better mentoring, to grow into the role? Are the men in your office really getting away with more because they are men or for subtle reasons of personality?
One of my favorite bosses ever was so abrasive that his personality could have been used to peel paint off exterior walls. His favorite technique for offering constructive feedback began “McArdle, you’re an [expletive deleted]!” Could a woman have gotten away with this? Probably not.