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Caught in the crossfire between saint and jerk

Submitted by on Tuesday, 16 December 2008 No Comment

Except for a nasty habit of laying people off by phone, Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg always has struck me as a savvy businesswoman.

I heard her speak at a luncheon for women in journalism almost five years ago, when she was with the San Jose Mercury News and Big Guy was just a babe. Anyone who could keep me awake during that era of twice-nightly feedings is a pretty inspiring speaker. Two things she said that day stuck with me.

  • Men take bows for leaving the office early for parent-teacher conferences. Women slink out and hope no one notices. For men, it’s a badge of honor. For women, it’s a show of weakness.
  • In the range of behavior between saint and jerk, men can go to either extreme and succeed. Women are limited to a narrow strip in the middle.

“You can’t be too much of a saint, because you’re a total pushover, and people are going to walk all over you. You can’t be too nicey-nice,” she told Cleveland Magazine in March. “But God forbid, you cannot be too much of a jerk, because then you are the B-word, and you’re just not acceptable.”

Most women in the room that day knew she was right.

What we didn’t know, and what I had never considered beyond anecdotal examples from my life that I just figured were personal bad luck: It’s much worse than even the saint-jerk analogy accounts for.

Seems that competence combined with ambition can be the kiss of career death. But social skills can undercut a reputation for competence.

That’s according to a study published in this month’s edition of Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Three Rutgers University researchers came to the conclusions after videotaping men and women interview to manage a computer lab. All “candidates” were told to present themselves as competent, but some were directed to appear confident and ambitious, while others were asked to depict modest or cooperative. Interviewers were asked to evaluate the applicants’ competence, social skills and hirability.

The findings demonstrate a triangular trap:

  • Ambitious women were rejected as lacking social skills.
  • Modest women were rejected because interviewers discounted their competence and overlooked the “high social skills” they found lacking in ambitious women.
  • Men were perceived as hirable no matter what.

What’s a girl to do?

In my situation, I have the additional burden of a smart mouth and sarcastic wit. Anyone who’s worked with me would be surprised to know that I actually do tone it down, because I’m painfully aware that what’s considered blunt but honest when a man says it is viewed as, well, the B-word when it comes from a woman.

But in more than two decades since college, I’ve seen men dress down subordinates in public, strafe the office with F-bombs and scold callers to the point of drawing a protest. I’ve never seen an impact on their careers, though.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable with veering that far toward jerk even if I could get away with it. It would be nice to know, though, that my lack of “cooperation” wasn’t such a liability mainly because of my gender.

Hillary Clinton might have shattered the glass ceiling into 18 million pieces but there still are at least that many more hanging overhead.

The Rutgers study proves that yet again.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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