As a supervisor for a large multi-national organisation, Michelle King said on her first day she felt justifiably proud of herself.
After years of hard work throughout her 20s, at last she was a leader. A manager. ‘What I hadn’t realised,’ she says, ‘was that the rules had changed.
‘I walked into the kitchen area on that first morning and my boss was standing there. When he saw me, he picked up the tea towel, and threw it at me, saying, ‘Michelle, there are dishes in the sink. You’re a woman, why don’t you wash them.’ True story.
‘It was really weird, one of those situations where it was a joke but not a joke. Some of the men who reported to me were standing around the kitchen island — none of them said anything — and I remember feeling the blood drain from my face.
‘In that moment, I had to choose whether to take it or not. In the end I said to him, ‘You’ve got two hands, why don’t you do it?’ and then walked out. Of course, later he told me I couldn’t take a joke, that classic line used by all bullies.’
It is, says Michelle, the perfect example not of the glass ceiling but of what, in her new book The Fix, she calls the ‘Glass Office’, where the entire culture of a workplace undermines and undervalues its female workers, especially when they reach senior levels.
‘It’s as though organisations can tolerate women up until the point they’re managing,’ she says.
‘But as soon as they are, they’re under the microscope and all the gender stereotypes come out to define them.’
At 37 — now the director of inclusion at Netflix, responsible for promoting diversity within the streaming service — Michelle is the latest in a line of women calling out what they see as a world designed for and by men, often to women’s disadvantage.
The Fix, subtitled Overcome The Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back At Work, does for the office what Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women did for the world of data and design (revealing, among many other facts, how the smartphone is too big for women’s hands and heart attack protocols have been researched exclusively on men), opening eyes to a deeply unfair status quo, where men are considered the default as both workers and bosses.
In particular, Michelle identifies the ‘ideal standard’ to which workers are forced to aspire — a man with a suspicious resemblance to the ego-driven ad-man Don Draper in the 1960s-set TV series Mad Men. She calls it the Don Draper Prototype.
‘Male leaders tend to hire, groom, accommodate and promote those who look like them, often unconsciously. Workplaces are hardwired to support Don’s success. The more ways you differ from Don Draper, the more challenges you are likely to encounter trying to advance at work.’
With a background in both HR and TV journalism, Michelle has worked all around the world, from London and Sydney to Malaysia and Houston, logging incidents like the tea towel ‘gag’ as she goes.
In New York, she worked on gender issues for the UN, and today she lives in LA, with her husband and two small children, Milly, six, and four-year-old Rex. Immaculately groomed and polished, she looks every inch the token female in the boardroom whose solitary nature is very much her point.
Everyone agrees that at the top of companies, change is far too slow. In the UK, while a third of FTSE-100 board members are women, the number of those who rise to the very top is falling. Just five of the CEOs of the top 100 companies are female — earning a shocking 54 per cent of what their male equivalents are paid.
Leaders are expected to be aggressive. But if women act like men they become ‘less likeable’
So why is this figure so low? ‘The bottom line? People don’t leave sexism at the door to the office,’ she says. ‘Women have internalised the problem so they think if they’re not progressing, it’s their problem. That’s the saddest thing of all.’
Indeed, the central message of The Fix is that women aren’t to blame. Michelle’s book is the antidote to the concept of Lean In, popularised in a 2013 book by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, which exhorts women to work harder, strive more, network like crazy, take bigger risks — all to bag that bafflingly elusive place at the top table. Michelle thinks it misses the point entirely.
‘Lean In, and all those programmes that teach women to negotiate harder, speak up, do better, are saying the lack of women leaders at work is because of a problem with women. That’s how it’s framed — we have to fix women.
‘But it’s not a woman’s issue, it’s a workplace issue.’
In navigating workplaces still designed for Don Draper, where leaders are expected to be ‘dominant, assertive, aggressive’, women fail at the first hurdle. Michelle calls it ‘The Confidence Catch-22’.
If they act assertively and confidently, they confuse gender stereotypes and become ‘less likeable’ as women. Witness the flak aimed at Theresa May for being ‘unemotional’ or the host of negative labels applied in general to women in charge — ball-breaker, ice queen, difficult, pushy, bossy. And yet, if they aren’t confident, it’s often said they lack ambition (which they don’t, according to studies; women have exactly the same career aspirations as men).
In this context, women can never fit the model and Leaning In is always destined to fail.
‘Lean In was really popular right after I first became a mother,’ says Michelle. ‘But the thing is, I was doing it all already and I still wasn’t being promoted. I’d taken four months’ maternity leave and come straight back full-time.
‘I had a masters degree, I’d just finished an MBA, I was giving it all at work, and still I watched my male peers, less qualified than me and honestly less good, getting those bigger jobs over me.
‘When I asked for feedback, I was told, just wait, you’re a bit young —but some of the promoted men were younger than me!
‘It felt humiliating and I didn’t want to wait.
‘I’ve always been interested in facts, not opinions, so I decided to start reading the academic literature to find out what was happening.’ In fact, having left the toxic boss, she began a PhD on the subject, which became her new book, The Fix.
As she speaks, you get a sense of a radically altered perspective. Male executives tell her the problem with women failing to rise up the ranks is primarily down to the time they take out with babies and children.
‘But that’s blatantly misogynistic,’ she cries. ‘It’s saying it’s only a woman’s choice to have children. Women and men choose to have them. Are you saying men don’t want to stay at home with their children? It’s not a woman’s problem. It’s a question of inequality.’
The average workplace isn’t just tough-going for new mothers, she continues, but positively ‘hostile’. ‘I use that word deliberately.
‘And it’s especially hostile for women who are breastfeeding or pregnant.’
She tells a horror story of an office in which a picture of a cow was pinned up in the side room given to a new mother for pumping milk. ‘That happened recently, too. It wasn’t years ago.’
Men tend to promote those who look like them, often unconsciously. The more you differ from Don Draper, the more challenges you’ll face
When women and men enter workplaces they are equally confident about fulfilling ambitions to rise to the top — but within just two years, the number of women aspiring to lead drops from 43 per cent to 16 per cent, while men see only a 3 per cent fall. Women’s experience of the office, says Michelle, shows them how high the barriers are and what a typically successful worker looks like, which isn’t them.
But fixing the culture of Don Draper benefits men, too. Michelle says men operate under a pressure ‘to ensure they don’t appear too committed to their families’, which requires them to hide or deny a big part of their lives. (Indeed, one 2013 study showed that men who took time off to look after children suffered a bigger wage penalty than women when they returned to work.)
‘Once, in New York, my husband was going to take my son for a doctor’s appointment, and just as I was leaving for work at the UN, he asked me what reason he should give his boss for being late that day. It frustrated the hell out of me. I actually put my bag down — I was going to be late, too, but I thought the UN would understand — and said, you tell him you’re taking your son to the doctor.
‘Men have to do this and tell the truth about it. This is being an ally to women. If you admit to family responsibilities, you make it easier for everyone.
‘We have to get rid of this shaming of people for having a life outside work.
‘I know a female partner who’d put parents’ evenings in her diary as work meetings so no one knew she was leaving early for the sake of her child.’
What happens in her house? Yes, her husband is at home with their children right now, but it’s a temporary thing, she says quickly.
‘I married someone who was not a feminist and didn’t necessarily get all this. But he’s gone on his own journey through me being his wife. He had to learn how to value my career in the same way as his. That’s just a requirement for us to be married.
‘But it’s also about allowing men to discover parts of their identities outside of work. My work at Netflix has freed my husband up to do that, too.’
Michelle denies being ‘driven’ (though she’s also competed in half Ironman triathlons, which sounds insanely driven to me).
She’s especially dismissive of the ‘Superwoman’ phenomenon — that exceptional female CEO with half a dozen children, a beautiful house and doting husband who willingly concedes the limelight. ‘It’s such a dangerous idea,’ she says. If she’s done it, goes the theory, it’s perfectly possible to do — and if you can’t, it’s just because you’re not trying hard enough.
Midlife women face different problems. If women do get to a top-level position in their 40s and 50s, they’re more likely to be dismissed from it irrespective of performance — 45 per cent more likely, if they’re a CEO.
‘Women’s careers are seen as expendable,’ says Michelle. ‘Very often the riskier top-level roles are reserved for women. They take them because nothing else is available, and when they fail, it reinforces the idea that women aren’t as good.’
So what’s the solution? When I suggest boardroom quotas, where a certain number of seats are reserved only for women, Michelle winces. ‘I can do a five-minute rant on this. I’ve had female partners say to me, we need them because otherwise we’re never going to get there, but actually, I think they do real damage.
If you cut and paste a woman into a leadership role, her legitimacy is questioned, she questions herself and she has to work ten times harder just to be considered average.
The Superwoman phenomenon is a dangerous idea. If she’s done it, goes the theory, it’s your fault if you haven’t
‘When you ask them, men name women’s advancement as the No 1 barrier to their advancement. Quotas result in backlash. They’re a great example of lazy organisations wanting the points but not willing to do the work to create a real culture of equality where women rise to the top naturally.’
That work, she says, starts with leadership treating inequality like a profit-damaging ‘business problem’. She cites a host of ways to do it, and though many of them are clothed in management speak, it’s hard to dispute their logic.
Young women need to be fast-tracked and groomed for CEO positions just like young men, for example. Mothers — and fathers — need to be supported back into careers without paying a penalty; top roles should be open to job sharing; gender equality has to move beyond tokenism or PR.
The concept of a sole breadwinner is outdated — instead, we must learn to talk about ‘bread-sharing’ where responsibilities for work and family are split right down the middle; and of course sexist jokes disguised as ‘banter’ should be unacceptable.
All of this action, she says, would reduce the extraordinary iniquity of the gender pay gap, too. She cites big companies such as professional networking site LinkedIn and cosmetics firm L’Oreal as examples of good practice.
At LinkedIn’s sales division one (male) manager, frustrated by the lack of women leaders in his department, ‘owned the problem’ and set his team on to it with a demand for change. The proportion of female managers increased as a result from 6 to 30 per cent.
‘If I could do one thing,’ says Michelle, ‘I’d spend a day with business leaders locked in a room just showing them where inequality lies in their organisation. It’s a harsh message but it’s their leadership that’s holding women back.’ She’s sent free copies of her book to dozens of CEOs already.
Whether they’ll listen is another matter. Besides, some of the real problems are found much lower down the pay grade, in jobs like caring, where skills are undervalued because they are ‘feminine’. The 9 per cent full-time gender pay gap in the UK hasn’t shifted at all in three years, after all.
‘We can be depressed about it and think it’ll never change,’ says Michelle. ‘But this is a fight we have to have. We can hold these organisations to account and raise consciousness the same way #MeToo did. Things do change — look what happened to Harvey Weinstein.
‘Companies need to be clever, too. We’re not going to wait. Technology is changing the way we work all the time, and when you ask people to rate leadership skills for the future, they think women have more of what’s needed. Things like resilience, managing people, adapting to change, emotional intelligence. Companies that get this right will win.
‘The reality is women are remarkable. They’re taking on two jobs already, one in the office, which doesn’t support them to succeed, and the other managing the home, which is completely devalued and invisible. Who wouldn’t want someone on their side who can survive all that?’ Here is one of the realities of life.
The Fix: Overcome The Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back At Work by Michelle P. King (£20 Simon & Schuster).