“Own the Room” but Don’t “Over-Occupy the Space” and Other Maddening Advice for Women

What Women Really Think
Oct. 14 2013 1:14 PM

“Own the Room” but Don’t “Over-Occupy the Space” and Other Maddening Advice for Women

A little too much.

Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

While I’ve been critical of the Lean In movement, Sheryl Sandberg should get ample credit for pushing issues of corporate sexism into the media spotlight. In particular, we’re now aware of the impossible, invisible line of appropriateness women have to walk in order to get to the upper echelons of corporate America. The totally contradictory advice given to working women is best illustrated by an article in Sunday’s New York Times, in which four female executives weigh in on succeeding in business as a woman.

Amy Schulman, an executive vice president at Pfizer, had this maddening tip for young women trying to get ahead:

One problem is that we say to women that you have to claim your voice. Don’t make statements that sound like questions. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Own the room. Speak with confidence. But to the extent that doesn’t come naturally, women, in an effort to do precisely what they’ve been told, sometimes will over-occupy the space … We give really mixed messages, and we don’t teach women exactly how to do that because it’s not very graceful when somebody’s trying to claim a room in a meeting.

Her solution for helping women get ahead? Teach women “strategies” so they can speak the “unwritten language” of corporate America. Um, OK. She also says institutions need to be “slightly more forgiving if you don’t get the jargon right all the time.” But basically, the onus is almost completely on women to speak what Schulman admits is an unwritten language in a way that’s not too loud, but not too quiet. Own the room, but don’t over-own it. While this may be correct, it’s almost impossible advice to carry out, and that alone might explain why there’s still a paucity of women at the top.

It’s somehow not surprising that the one woman of color that the Times interviewed—Lisa Price—is CEO of a company she founded. The wage gap is even bigger for black women than for white women, and they are fighting stereotypes on two fronts.

Sure, there are some Goldilocks women who manage to get it “just right”—three of the four women interviewed by the Times rose through the ranks of big companies. But the recipe for getting a better gender balance in the boardroom isn’t to continue giving this advice to women on how to walk this narrow line in just the right way. It’s about making institutions aware of their cognitive biases and encouraging them to change. 

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.