Real Women Wear Pink

Female executives at some firms get anti-assertiveness training


| September/October 2002


Women can break through that glass ceiling at work by wearing pink, stammering a bit, and weeping freely-or so executive coach Jean Hollands would have us believe.

In Same Game, Different Rules (McGraw-Hill, 2001), Hollands makes the case that women are more likely to get ahead if they don't act too much like men. The book is based on her experiences as the creator of Bully Broads Boot Camp, a high-priced reform school for women managers who are seen as being too pushy on the job. The course is designed to help them succeed in a workplace rife with double standards, teaching them how to avoid being overly assertive and take a softer tack instead. When dealing with a troublesome underling, for instance, a former bully broad is encouraged to try this: 'I'm feeling rather inadequate right now. I don't know how to motivate you.'

Many Silicon Valley corporations-Cisco and Sun Microsystems among them-send their offending female execs to Hollands' program at as much as $20,000 a pop. Not everyone approves, including Lisa Nuss in Nervy Girl (March/April 2002). Nuss argues that Hollands' call for a return to female timidity in the workplace is part of a greater backlash against feminism. As she notes, the media judge women in power on the clothes they wear and the jobs they choose. 'Whether women are aware of it or not, they are all engaged in the debate over women's roles,' she adds. 'With such attention paid to the minutiae of how they dress, every little detail is seen as a vote for one camp or another.'

Robin Gerber, author of Leadership: The Eleanor Roosevelt Way (Prentice Hall, 2002), agrees. 'Hollands has convinced her clients that leadership comes only to women smart enough to curb their confrontational tactics and boost their sensitivity to subordinates,' she writes on the University of Maryland Web site (www.academy.umd.edu). 'Men don't need to worry about these things, but, as Hollands says, women must 'fake it until they make it.' '

But the fact of the matter remains: If you're too forceful, you may offend a sexist boss; if you're too sensitive and demure, you run the risk of getting ignored. So what can you do, short of wearing pastels and learning to stutter?

'It's always possible to try to open people's eyes to their sexism, Gerber suggests. She acknowledges, though, that some cases demand definitive action, and she recommends that women know their rights and seek legal recourse when the situation requires it.