In Search of the Secret of Success for Women

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Hollywood and the news media often depict women professionals as cold, sexy or goofy, all so that they can be as unthreatening as possible. These stereotyped views ignore the stories of real women, and lead to significant negative ramifications for women professionals in the real world.

When I was in high school, I watched a movie called The Secret of My Success. It was a comedy about Brantley, a young man just out of business school, who wanted to change the way business was done, but no one would give him a break. I’m sure you can guess the outcome of the movie and really, the plot is unimportant. What grabbed my attention was the way his love interest Christy was portrayed.

Christy was the only female executive at the company that Brantley wanted to run. At first she was cold and exceedingly business-like. Even though it was clear that we were supposed to dislike her because of her abrasive interpersonal style, there was still the sense that Christy, a Harvard graduate, had worked hard to get where she was. However, we soon discover that she’s been sleeping with the boss; and then she gets involved with Brantley. As she begins to fall in love with our hero, her interpersonal style abruptly changes. She becomes less sure of herself, is more easily influenced, her style of dress is softer and she even starts giggling. Later she is shown as being very sexy. So, across the movie, it was like she was two, even three, different people!

My teenaged self was quite puzzled by this inconsistency in Christy’s character and it took me a while to figure out. But I finally got it: Hollywood has no idea how to portray powerful women, especially those who hold high status positions. On the rare occasions when they are shown, women professionals are portrayed in one of three ways: (1) as uptight, unemotional Queen Bees; (2) exceedingly sexy and feminine; or (3) as personally deficient in some way, like being clumsy, silly, unable to maintain healthy relationships, or incompetent in areas outside their expertise. So, the feeling towards them often is hate because they’re mean, attraction because they’re sexy, or superior because they’re losers; there is little in-between. It’s almost as if no one in Hollywood has figured out that women are as multi-faceted as men.

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I hoped that in the 26 years since The Secret of My Success was released, things would have changed but alas, it appears as though they’ve learned little. Take HBO’s sophomore series, The Newsroom, for example. The women on that show are a mess. I initially decided to watch because it was created by Aaron Sorkin, the genius behind The West Wing, and I loved that series. However, I should have remembered that even that show didn’t have many female characters in high status positions, and only one was a series regular. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, given that approximately 2/3 of the writers for The West Wing were men. The Newsroom fares even worse, as only about 1/4 of their writers are women. But even given the low number of female writers — which, to be fair, is pretty typical for Hollywood — I have been shocked by how the female characters of The Newsroom have been depicted.

Executive producer MacKenzie McHale is supposed to be brilliant at her job — although even that is in question at times — but cannot figure out how cell phones and email works, is a klutz, forgets things like her purse, and constantly harasses Will (her ex-boyfriend) about the status of their relationship. At times she’s even shrill. Sloan Sabbith, a Senior Financial Reporter with a doctorate in economics, is socially awkward and frequently makes smug, insensitive and irritating remarks. Her most recent faux pas was posing nude for a man she’d been dating for only a few weeks and then expecting those photos to remain a secret. When he published them on the internet after their breakup, her response was to physically assault him, but she brought along a male colleague so he could help in case it got ugly. Given their antics, you start to wonder how these women ever succeeded in their chosen profession.

Obviously Hollywood doesn’t get the depiction of women professionals right: so what? Plenty of male characters — especially those on The Newsroom — come off badly too. Why does it matter? The short answer is because it’s bad for the human race, but the long answer includes a host of reasons. First, when you have a minimal female presence, the ones who are there represent the gender as a whole. This is known in psychology as a heuristic, a short-cut in learning, and it often leads to cognitive errors. It’s not fair and it’s not accurate but it happens. Consequently, if the few women around the office are cold, stereotypically feminine, cannot do the job well, or are troubled in their personal lives, then that’s the belief you start to hold about all women professionals. This belief then can (and often does) lead to the idea that women are not good employees, so they are hired less frequently than men. It is no accident that Christy was the only female executive and MacKenzie is one of the few female Executive Producers. The upper echelon of the business world still has far fewer women employees than it should.

Second, the inability to allow women professionals to be multi-faceted limits the talents of an enormous percentage of the population. Women can be just as strong, capable and personable as men but they are frequently considered threatening if they are. As such, women professionals have to make a lot of effort in order to appear either like ‘one of the boys’ (thus ignoring their gender, like Christy did initially), or very feminine (which is why Sloan’s appearance is a big deal on The Newsroom). This endeavor takes time away from job performance — it is much more difficult to get things done when you’re not taken seriously — but, in the quest for acceptance, the effort must be made. And lest you think this is just Hollywood nonsense, allow me to point you to Marissa Mayer, formerly of Google and now CEO of Yahoo. She plays both ends against the middle.

Mayer has gone to great lengths to deny that her gender is a factor at all. In a 2012 interview, she stated, “I’m not a woman at Google, I’m a geek at Google. If you can find something that you’re really passionate about, whether you’re a man or a woman comes a lot less into play. Passion is a gender-neutralizing force.” In other words, don’t pay any attention to my gender because it doesn’t matter. But it does and she knows that it does. Just witness Mayer’s recent spread in Vogue magazine, in which she is positioned in a way that no male CEO ever would be. Lying upside down on a lawn chair holding a fashion magazine while dressed to the nines is not something that screams power, strength or even competency. Instead, she looks every inch the kind of femininity that we promote in our culture. Thus, she is promoting herself in a way that is ultra-feminine while simultaneously proclaiming that gender is irrelevant.

Third, the inaccurate depiction of female professionals matters because it limits their ability to be role models for young women and girls. Watching Christy be a jerk, a giggling fool and a sexpot did not inspire my teenaged self to be like her. And who among us wants to trip, scream like an idiot in the midst of coworkers, and be unable to maintain a relationship, like MacKenzie? I can almost hear the murmuring, “If that’s what it takes to be an Executive Producer, then no thanks!” Or take Marissa Mayer (please). I’ve already read comments from other women mentioning how they could not do what she has done because they’re not pretty enough, or because they’ve encountered gendered roadblocks that she apparently never did (so there must be something wrong with them), or because they don’t want to be a workaholic with a maternity leave that’s only two weeks long. You cannot become something that you cannot dream about, so if we want to change the status of women in business, we need accessible role models.

Finally, it matters because I am sick to death of never seeing the women in my life on the screen or in the news. Hollywood and the media seldom show or tell us about real women. We rarely see women professionals who are not glamorous, who defy expectations, and are just themselves. I want to see and read about women who work hard for their accomplishments — the ones who do not rely on their sexuality to get ahead — and do not look silly along the way. I want to learn about real women’s lives and I want to be shown stories that emulate real women. But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because as long as the real stories about women’s lives get lost, we can make our own assumptions about them. We can pretend that women are not as good as men; that women cannot be tough, smart, capable and fun. We can ignore our good ideas in favor of our appearance because, after all, that’s what women bring to the table.

As long as those tired assumptions are there, nothing will ever change. Let’s face it: the portrayal of women as cold, sexy or ridiculous is getting pretty old — boring, even. I wish they would give us something new, something like the true secret of our success: talent, hard work, balance, love, and possibly joy. Maybe the next Secret of My Success movie could be about Christy.

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