How Sexism Has (and Hasn’t) Changed Since 1995


Kate White ended her 1995 book, Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do: 9 Secrets Every Working Woman Must Know, with an optimistic statement: “Though I know my publisher wouldn’t like this, I hope this book is totally obsolete by the time my daughter launches into her career.”

Her daughter was five then. More than two decades later, that little girl is in her 20s and the state of affairs for women in the workplace has certainly changed. But it’s safe to say that gender bias isn’t obsolete and neither, therefore, is advice geared toward women trying to get ahead in their careers.

That’s why White decided to update her book for a younger audience. The Gutsy Girl Handbook: Your Manifesto for Success hit the shelves in April 2018.

“The important thing is that it’s still relevant,” says White, who explains that “in many ways I didn’t change much of it.” The principles at the core of her gutsy girl approach haven’t fundamentally changed in the last 23 years, but there’s a reason she felt it was time to rewrite her guide.

For one thing, though the obstacles and sexism women face in the office have hardly disappeared, the bias has mostly shape-shifted into variations that are harder to detect.

“The bias against us was more obvious sometimes,” back when White was writing her original book. At the time, she recalls, “women had really only been pouring into the workforce for like 15 or 20 years,” and “there was still this sense that there are growing opportunities but there’s not a lot to go around yet.”

There was such a dearth of female leaders as role models in the early 1990s, White says, that people were still invoking the historical and fictional likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Drew—“they carried a lot of weight.” Redbook, a magazine for women that White led when her 1995 book came out, only got its first female editor-in-chief in 1981.

In the late 1980s, White had sexism slap her in the face, hard. She lost out on a job and a male colleague later told her explicitly that her proposal had been the best one, but she’d been passed over for the position because she was a woman. It was one of the reasons she’d gone back to women’s magazines, and perhaps part of the impetus for her transformation from good to gutsy.

In those days, “you didn’t even flinch” at such blatant discrimination because it was so commonplace, she says. “Now it isn’t as obvious, because there are so many opportunities and the part of the pie for us is bigger,” she explains. That’s a good thing, but it can also “make you less aware of ways that there is bias against you,” she adds. “It’s really important to understand that those things are still at play.”

White, who went on to be editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan from 1998 to 2012, recalls such a situation she encountered right before she left that magazine. A new guy in a digital role there had to cancel a big meeting that involved busy people across departments at Hearst as well as the president of the magazine division. Upon rescheduling, he suggested a 7 AM time, to which the boss agreed.

“These two guys have stay-at-home wives,” White says, but “this is a company filled with working moms,” where people generally started at 9 AM after dealing with home and family obligations. “That’s the kind of thing that struck me—someone’s not taking that into consideration,” she says, referring to today’s bias as “lots of little paper cuts.”

Two decades later, the sexism is subtler, and so are the changes White thinks women need to make. Where she once saw cause for major overhauls, she now argues the case for nuanced tweaks.

“I think when I wrote the original book, many women would have said that going from good to gutsy involved making pretty significant changes in how they approached work situations,” she says. “Today so many young women take a gutsier approach (though not all; I hear many women talk about worrying too much about being nice),” she adds. “But I still think many confident, together young women can benefit from tweaking their behavior, kicking things up a notch. Little, sometimes subtle moves can make a big difference.”

She gives three examples of what those tweaks might look like: stop qualifying your ideas, keep negotiating, and speak up in times of crisis. That means you should cut out phrases such as “I’m just spit balling here” or “Maybe we could…” and “I still have to do more research on this but…” when sharing ideas.

It means you shouldn’t shy away from negotiating “out of fear of rocking the boat,” even when an offer is “good enough,” and instead say something like, “I’d love to work here but I was hoping for X amount.”

And it means that instead of going quiet, overanalyzing, and hunkering down “when shit hits the fan,” women should “move faster, fight for resources, and make decisions earlier than you may be comfortable with.”

White is thrilled to see that “Millennial women are so wonderfully gutsy and confident, which I admire fiercely about them.” But the tweaks she’s talking about are a reminder that “part of being gutsy is being strategic.”

She’s had a slew of young women report to her and her advice is not only to go for it, but also to ask yourself what the best way to play the situation is. In most cases, that means avoiding framing an ask in terms of why it would be good for you, and talking instead about how it would benefit your boss, department, company, or professional contact.

“Women in the ’90s didn’t expect a lot,” she says. Those pursuing careers today “assume things will happen for them, which may make them sometimes unaware of how gutsy and strategic they still need to be.”

In other words, White no longer has to work as hard to convince women they should be a little gutsier. But she’s still trying to show them what that should look like.

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