The XX Factor

“Own the Room” but Don’t “Over-Occupy the Space” and Other Maddening Advice for Women

A little too much.

While I’ve been critical of the Lean In movement, Sheryl Sandberg should get ample credit for pushing issues of corporate sexism into the media spotlight. In particular, we’re now aware of the impossible, invisible line of appropriateness women have to walk in order to get to the upper echelons of corporate America. The totally contradictory advice given to working women is best illustrated by an article in Sunday’s New York Times, in which four female executives weigh in on succeeding in business as a woman.

Amy Schulman, an executive vice president at Pfizer, had this maddening tip for young women trying to get ahead:

One problem is that we say to women that you have to claim your voice. Don’t make statements that sound like questions. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Own the room. Speak with confidence. But to the extent that doesn’t come naturally, women, in an effort to do precisely what they’ve been told, sometimes will over-occupy the space … We give really mixed messages, and we don’t teach women exactly how to do that because it’s not very graceful when somebody’s trying to claim a room in a meeting.

Her solution for helping women get ahead? Teach women “strategies” so they can speak the “unwritten language” of corporate America. Um, OK. She also says institutions need to be “slightly more forgiving if you don’t get the jargon right all the time.” But basically, the onus is almost completely on women to speak what Schulman admits is an unwritten language in a way that’s not too loud, but not too quiet. Own the room, but don’t over-own it. While this may be correct, it’s almost impossible advice to carry out, and that alone might explain why there’s still a paucity of women at the top.

It’s somehow not surprising that the one woman of color that the Times interviewed—Lisa Price—is CEO of a company she founded. The wage gap is even bigger for black women than for white women, and they are fighting stereotypes on two fronts.

Sure, there are some Goldilocks women who manage to get it “just right”—three of the four women interviewed by the Times rose through the ranks of big companies. But the recipe for getting a better gender balance in the boardroom isn’t to continue giving this advice to women on how to walk this narrow line in just the right way. It’s about making institutions aware of their cognitive biases and encouraging them to change.