Episode No. 120
  •  September 7, 2023

The Four Hurdles Women Face At Work

On this episode of Crina and Kirsten Get to Work, our hosts reset the state of women at work after a restful and relaxing hiatus.  


Joan Williams and her daughter Rachel Dempsey, wrote What Works for Women at Work.  Joan has decades of experience as a law professor and she runs a project focused primarily on women at work called Work Life Law at Hastings Law School.  Rachel is a journalist.

The authors have characterized womens’ experiences at work into four patterns:

Prove it Again stems from assumptions about how women will behave at work.  This pattern looks like being penalized for mistakes that men make with little or no consequence; having to defend your decision or back it up with data, even if you are a seasoned professional; and the “stolen idea.”

The Tightrope stems for the precarious balance women are expected to strike between masculinity and femininity.  This pattern looks like being “too much” or “not enough”, being either a bitch or a doormat; and being pressed into traditionally feminine roles, such as taking notes. 

The Maternal Wall stems from the strong negative competence and commitment associations triggered by motherhood and prescriptive bias (mothers should be at home). Joan and Rachel say “the ideal worker is expected to be unreservedly devoted to work, while the ideal mother is expected to invest similar levels of devotion to her children. As a result motherhood is perceived as incompatible with high levels of work effort.”  This pattern looks like not getting hired or promoted because of the assumptions others make about the obligations of motherhood.

The Tug of War stems from women working in what is a dysfunctional system.  Rather than supporting each other, we can pit ourselves against one another, we can also buy into male norms. Sometimes our different strategies to deal with a dysfunctional system pit us against each other.

Joan and Rachel remind us of a few important premises when we consider these four patterns:

  • There is a stubborn gap at the top between men and women and their success at work
  • A lot of what we are told at work is wrong
  • Denial does not help – we cannot assume our excellence will save us from these experiences
  • Everyone’s a little bit sexist
  • Know the rules, then break them – “there is no right way to be a woman” 

The book is full of strategies to address the four patterns and a chapter on lessons learned from the research. 

Joan’s Work LIfe Law institute has developed what they refer to as bias interrupters, which are assessments and training to address the bias which is the root of the four patterns.  Check out Bias Interrupters on the Work Like Law website.

Joan and Rachel’s book is a comprehensive look at women’s experience at work.  They remind us what we experience is real, they help us to clearly define that experience and they provide excellent strategies, tools, lessons and stories for us to best manage that experience.