Here is a very impressive group of women: Jean Case. Rabia Chaudry. Rochelle Keyhan. Joanne Lipman. Arati Prabhakar. Sandra Phillips Rogers. Gillian Tett. My Atlantic colleague Gillian White. Case is, among other things, the CEO of the Case Foundation. Chaudry is, among other things, the president of the Safe Nation Collaborative. Phillips Rogers is the group vice president, general counsel, and chief legal officer of Toyota Motor North America. The list goes on. On Thursday evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic—in a conversation moderated by Pamela Reeves, gender advisor to Melinda Gates (and the wife of Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief)—they gathered to share stories of challenge and success in an American work environment that was not designed with women in mind.
The women told tales of discrimination both overt and subtle. They discussed finding their own ways to rise above it. And at the end of the session, they offered up more concrete advice—for finding success in general, but particularly for finding it in that basic setting that can so often determine achievement across the arc of one’s career: the meeting. The place where workers in so many industries perform and, consequently, are judged.
What strategies, Reeves asked, do you use to make sure you are heard—and, by implication, impressive—in meetings?
Here were some of the women’s answers:
It’s all extremely good advice. It’s advice, notably, that works for men as well as women who want to be seen and heard and valued. What’s also striking about these assorted workhacks, though, is the common idea that unites so many of them: Many of these tips are premised on the value of women imitating stereotypically male behavior in the workplace. Be loud. Take up space. Project gravitas. Women would be well advised, many of these expert tips are suggesting, to mold their behavior according to a paradigm that has been established by centuries’ worth of primarily male leadership, in business and beyond—a paradigm that rewards things like, say, overt confidence, and unapologetic volume, and underlying swagger.
And: The experts are entirely correct to offer that advice. If women are to be better represented in business as in other arenas of American life, they need first of all to have that proverbial and all-too-literal seat at the table. Often, the seats are allotted to those who best fit existing notions of “powerful” leadership—to the people who prove best, in the end, at swaggering. As a consequence, fake-it-’til-you-make-it isn’t merely a theme at the Aspen Ideas Festival; it is also a strategy regularly offered within the growing field that advises women on the tricky work of succeeding in business while being female. Sheryl Sandberg advocates for it (or, more precisely, for a version of it: “fake it,” she advises, “’til you feel it”). So did many of the women writing essays for Robin Romm, in the recent collection revealingly titled Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Strategic performance is a way to combat imposter syndrome; it’s also a way to ensure that women will be able, within a cultural context that hasn’t been designed for them, to align their behavior with their ambitions.
But fakery-until-makery is powerful primarily as a kind of transitional measure: It’s a means to an end. It reflects the world as it still is: a world in which stereotypes of male leadership still shape our conceptions of prowess and efficacy and success. In 2017, a group of highly successful women shared a collection of very useful tips on how to be louder and brasher and more performatively powerful. Perhaps, at an Ideas Festival years down the road, those same women, and those who follow in their path, will offer a different set of advice—workhacks reflective of an environment where women have many more seats at the table.