Career advice for women is a form of gaslighting. Seriously?

Career advice for women fuels the double bind – or does it?


There has been a lot of buzz around gender equality in the workplace and tackling sexism for years. Nay decades. But despite all the talk, the fact is that the needle is barely moving. Fostering gender differences begins early on, in the way boys and girls are raised. This creates different expectations when young women enter the workplace, as they operate from a different starting point to their male counterparts.These women know they are as good as their male colleagues, but they struggle for the appropriate level of recognition and reward.They are penalized for their style and delivery rather than their performance.Their voices are criticised, their manner, make-up, shoes, and clothes are scrutinized and even their smiles.

Women are brought up to live their lives defensively and have different motivators and benchmarks for success.Yet career advice for women is perceived differently to the advice given to men. In some quarters it has become part of the double bind that women face. Damned if they do. Doomed if they don’t. Now it has been suggested it’s a form of gas lighting. I get where that comes from – it can drive you crazy all this fake advice which some women don’t need. But many do need career advice in the same way as many men do. So to suggest that career advice for women is a form of gaslighting in itself adds to the confusion. It contributes yet another dimension to the double bind that women face every day in their professional lives. An additional layer of doubt. So possibly by the same token even more gaslighting.

Carry on or wait?

Research from Duke university (Grainne Fitzsimmons, Aaron Kay, Jae Yun Kin) indicates that suggesting that women who try to adapt to male coded cultures “diminish people’s sense of systemic obstacles that require social redress.” Women who are proactive in taking their future into their own hands, inadvertently they suggest, assume responsibility for lack of progress. The alternative is to wait for an unspecified someone (male ally?) to foster systemic change which could take decades.

So what’s a woman to do? Get on with what she can in her own sphere of influence? Or wait for someone to take care of business on her behalf?

The research from Duke University explored both sides of the equation and examine the responses to the two ideas. On the one hand the idea that it’s processes and organizations that need to change. On the other, there are things that women can do to themselves to bring about a basic shift. This is solution driven and individualistic. It is also immediate. Something women can do now for themselves, rather than waiting years (over 200 in fact) for organic cultural change.

Victim blaming?

The Duke researchers investigated the notion that if women solve the problem themselves, success and or failure of their efforts, would be in their hands. Their experiments were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at  six studies covering approximately 2,000 US-based participants to test out the two hypotheses which they called the structural approach and the DIY approach. “Participants read text taken directly from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book listened to audio clips from Sandberg’s TED talks, that described the problem of women’s under-representation in leadership.“ The notion of Lean In gained traction amongst new generations of women who had missed the consciousness raising of the 1960s and 70s. But it also accessed research that cited the structural problems in our organisations that plague women professionally and culturally.

Sandberg’s basic message is that women are limiting themselves and if we can just get out of our own way, and “lean in”. What she means by this is they assert themselves in male-dominated offices and board rooms. At that point the entire “power structure of the world” will be changed and this will “expand opportunities for all.”

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Prolonging the vicious cycle

Writing in HBR, the research team outlined the project: “One group of participants read or listened to the DIY messages, which emphasized that women can act more ambitiously, speak more confidently, demand a seat at the table, and take more risks. The other group read or listened to sections that which emphasized structural and societal factors, such as discrimination. We also employed other control conditions. People who read or listened to the DIY messages were more likely to believe women have the power to solve the problem. That, on its own, may very well be good news. However, they were also more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem — both for causing it, and for fixing it.”

This is yet another research project that creates a double bind for women.

  • The first is that it is an US study which almost surprisingly is a geography that ranks low in the world for conditions for women. If the sample group was based in locations which have better conditions foe women already in place – would the results have been different?
  • It fuels a victim blaming culture where whatever women do – it’s never right. Women can’t do right for doing wrong as they say.
  • It encourages systemic change to replace individual effort which is not happening at anywhere near the pace it should. Unless there are more women positions of power with a seat at the table, who is going to take responsibility for being the drivers of change? The current male leaders are not getting it done.


I was never a fan of the Lean In craze and anticipated that it would be driven by Sheryl Sandberg’s celebrity with the potential to burnout.  It rekindled a flame of interest but as I said in 2013 It now up to everyone involved in any part of this process to fan those flames to stimulate the right level of engagement to produce meaningful outcomes from those many discussions. More is needed from this fire than celebrity endorsed and branded hot air and smokescreens. And talking in “circles”  We need real systemic change and at a faster pace.

The goal of any movement for gender balance is that women achieve the same levels of representation, compensation and power as men. There needs to be more than their own motivational efforts to challenge a male dominated culture. The dilemma is that as long as women are entering the workplace in a  different place to their male colleagues, at least in the short-term, we need women to become empowered. That needs specialist, specific career advice for women designed to meet their different challenges. It doesn’t and shouldn’t mean caving into bias and discrimination, but about tackling the situation from a place of power and inclusion.

Without that, organic change will take even longer than it has done to date. To say that women being pro-active is responding to gas lighting just muddies the murky waters even further. We know that systemic change is required, but someone needs to make sure that it actually happens. This is the fuzzy bit. In the meantime educating women on the unconscious bias they face very day in their professional lives is imperative. They need to learn to self-advocate but also how to become upstanders and support other women.

If your organisation struggles to reach gender parity contact 3Plus now.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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