7 things you don’t know about women and work

One of the earliest pieces of advice I got when I started getting paid to write was to not write about women. So I have spent a good part of my career trying to figure out how much of myself to put in the picture.

My first monthly column was in Business 2.0 magazine, and every time I wrote about women my editor deleted the section. When I insisted on writing about what it’s like to be pregnant  he fired me and suggested that I try to write for Yahoo’s women section.

I didn’t, of course. I wrote for their finance section, because that’s where you get paid the most. And they fired me because the stuff I wrote geared toward women was off-topic.

When I negotiated my first book deal, I had to present a ton of metrics to show that my audience was half men.

And when I was just writing for myself on my own blog, and I could write about whatever I want, I realized that if I wrote about women and sex, men would stick with me through the women stuff. (Here’s a link to women and sex for men who are about to give up on this post.)

This is all to say that today’s post is death to professional writing. The more I write about women the more career trouble I have. But people send me tons of great research about women and work, and it piles up, because I get scared to write too many posts about women.

Here’s the best from my pile:

1. Women make the best fighters. I have documented this on a small scale with my bickering at work and at home. However now it’s clear that this goes beyond psychic war: Women are more ruthless in life-or-death battle than men are as well. This research comes from the Council on Foreign Relations. In an interview with a retired Colombian colonel about his experiences fighting female members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), he said that any sensible soldier would shoot the women first. The women had a “Kamakaze-like mentality” that made them the most deadly opponents.

2. Women keep other women from getting ahead. I know you know this intuitively, but here’s research to back your intuition: Young human resource employees have a bias against interviewing pretty young women. Bradley Ruffle, economist at Ben-Gurion University,  attributes this tendency to our evolutionary goal of competing against other women.

Also, women enjoy being the only woman in their arena, according to research from Michelle Duguid, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University, (via The Economist). Women see their solo stature as special (a perception which is likely valid) and women are likely to balk at adding another woman when they are the token woman.

3. US women would rather clean than take care of kids. It turns out that social pressure in the US to work full time is as bad as social pressure to be thin.

It’s true that women are leaving the workforce in droves to take care of their kids. But polls show they’d rather work part-time. In case you thought some women were born to stay home and take care of kids, most find it difficult but they do it anyway. How do we know? Economist Daniel Kahneman writes, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, that it’s more pleasant for women to mop the floor than take care of kids.

Which is why I bought a $300 vacuum cleaner. Because there is something really pleasing about being able to turn on the vacuum and clean things up. Whereas the efforts I put into my kids at any given moment often turn out to be useless.

4. Dutch women work part-time and don’t care that they have no power. Seventy-five percent of women who work in the US work full-time. And they say they don’t want to, according to Pew Research. Their instinct is right that they will feel better. We know this because Dutch women work part-time and they are happier, according to a piece by Jessica Olien, in Salon. Very few Dutch women work full-time and very few say they want to.

It turns out that the real barrier to women being happy with their choices is women feeling okay with a sub-par career. Which is not surprising. Women like being high achievers. Look at school: women are outscoring men to the point that it’s easier to get into college if you’re male.  Women graduate college at a higher rate than men and women earn more than men in their 20s. It’s crushing for women to get accolades their whole life and then give it up.

5. Canadian women feel pressure to leave work for one year for each new child. Can you imagine the US workforce if our culture said taking leave from work is what successful women do? The woman who’s the director of development for my reality TV show is from Canada, and she just came back from a year-long maternity leave. When I commented about what a big deal that is, she said that in Canada maternity leave is state funded, so people wonder what’s wrong with you if you don’t take it.

When we talk about what cultural pressures women have, I think the biggest one is to perform at a high level in the workplace. But the workplace for high achievers is absolutely not set up for people with children.

6. US Moms who launch startups have rich husbands. The hardest part of a startup is the long hours coupled with insane instability. Which means that most women have no interest in startups.

However, a startup is the perfect way to have control over your work life and still have interesting work if you can fund the startup yourself. The New York Times has an article about this that is full of good examples of moms who are using a startup this way.

The average age for a first-time entrepreneur is 39. Women who do this and have kids are women who have rich husbands. Why? Because women would not do a risky venture like a startup if they were risking money they needed to put a house over their kids’ heads. Women would not do a startup if they couldn’t afford full-time child care. And women would not have a career big enough to fund a startup themselves if they also had young kids.

What if you don’t have a rich husband? Have kids early, wait until they are grown up, and then do a startup.

7. Most women don’t care about being right. They want to be liked. The majority of women have an F in their Myers Briggs score, which means they care more about feelings than ideas. I am not burdened with this F trait. In fact, like most entrepreneurs, I care more about being right than earning money. Which is why I can throw caution to the wind and continue writing about women. And maybe it’s okay that I keep losing gigs because I write about women, because earning a lot of money makes you mean, and that’s true for men as well as women.

62 replies
  1. my honest answer
    my honest answer says:

    “Can you imagine the US workforce if our culture said taking leave from work is what successful women do?”

    You pose a question and I can’t help wondering what your answer is. Do you think that it would be a good thing, or a bad thing?

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      I already think taking leave from work is what successful women do. They are the only ones who can afford it. The rest of us would do it in a heartbeat if we had enough money.

  2. Maia
    Maia says:

    Definitely agree that being your own boss is great, despite the long working hours. Research does show that people are happier if they have their own business even though they have to work longer hours, but it’s still better than working for someone else.
    Also having more time equals being happier, that’s why I guess Dutch women are happy working part time.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I can’t remember where I read this reports about Indian women attending and graduating college more and more but not entering the work force because the culture dictates that men are supposed to provide for the family. So why sacrifice kids and family when your husband can provide financially?

      So the government is rolling out “incentive programs” to lure women in the workforce but it’s not going great.

      Why would you want to?

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        You might want to have a job (or at least updated skills) and work because:
        – you like to work and do not only want to be at home all the time
        – you are deeply fascinated by your work
        – you do not want to descend into poverty if your husband dies, your husband falls ill, your husband looses his job, your husband leaves you…
        – and maybe your husband also want to have time to enjoy being with you and the kids and does not want to be only the breadwinner but also dad.

  3. christy
    christy says:

    I like that you write about women in the workplace. You’re the only one who (imo) writes anything that makes sense on the subject. Of course, I’m a woman who works outside the home, and I’ve had some similar experiences to yours.

    Unrelated: I was picked for a survey about Chase Bank. Apparently, they sponsored this post. Because I like supporting you, I took the survey (I don’t normally do this). It was a very strange survey. I hope that doesn’t become a norm for your site. (Or perhaps it is, and since I usually read via my Reader I just don’t see it.)

    • scarlit
      scarlit says:

      i don’t wanna seem like a troll here, but you’re not chosen for surveys because you’re special. everyone gets those adverts. it’s called closing the window.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “4. Dutch women work part-time and don’t care that they have no power.” until they are told they have no power. Then see “1. Women make the best fighters.”

  5. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    i do agree with the other commentator that working less often leads to a happier life as “full-time” rarely means 40hrs per week… similarly that “part-time” rarely means just 20 hrs per week.
    Also, something that I find missing for women, wanting to read about women in the workforce, is blogs about women in the roles of directors, in the c-suite or other higher level managerial positions. As I’m promoted and advance through my career I’m looking for fellow women of this level to give advice on their experience… aside from a few articles, I don’t see much… maybe you or other readers can advise?!

  6. emily
    emily says:

    In my experience, #2 is the hardest thing about doing a business when you’re a woman. The long hours and instability, noted in #7 are somewhat worth it except for when you get kind of successful. And then I’ll be damned it if isn’t other women shoving a big old piece of glass between you and what’s next.

    Underlying that all is, yes, a Feeling. It’s the Feeling (applies to women only) that you aren’t supposed to be out there in the public world with your boobs and your lipstick and making money too. So if you’re a T woman you probably are good at ignoring those feelings, knowing that you have just as much of a right to be out there as anyone else.

    While I agree that money and principles do not always go hand in hand, it seems a little to simple to say that women, especially feeling women, abandon their ideas in order to be ensure their families have a roof over heads. What if it’s more about making the most of your F relationship building skills in order to get what you need in the world?

  7. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m female or a results junkie, but I sure do love the immediate gratification of turning on the vacuum and watching all the dirt disappear!

  8. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Thank you for #6! The last college graduation speaker I heard was a woman who had started a very, very successful business in her basement. She told the graduates to follow their dreams, reach for the stars, etc. the usual graduation stuff because look what she accomplished with a small amount of money and a plan. “Poppycock!”, I thought. “You and your business partner’s husbands were lawyers. You didn’t have to work to keep food on the table. You had time to plan a business and if you lost your initial investment, no matter how small you thought it was, c’est la vie. If I lose $1,000, it will take me weeks to recover from the loss.”

    And for the record, I don’t like to clean.

  9. Georgina
    Georgina says:

    Penelope, you are the only person who writes about women being multifaceted (mum, successful worker, individual) and it makes sense now I know its considered such a bad idea!
    I’m a mum to a 4 year old and I was expecting to give up my financially rewarding career to work part time. However I have been completely unable to find any part time work – its ironic that all I want is a simple part time job and I can only get high paid work, full time. Because I need to earn something to top up my husband’s salary, I have worked full time since the end of my maternity leave and I’ve missed out on so much of my son’s youth.
    From my experience, firms in high paid industries aren’t interested in women with families or part time work.
    As I couldn’t get part time work, my husband went down to 4 days a week – oh the judgement! People assumed he was taking me for a ride even tho we’ve been married 12 years and have joint finances!
    Thanks for the great post x

  10. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    I work 20-30 hours a week, and I volunteer once or twice a week. If I were to do one of the research projects rattling around in my head, I might work longer hours, but otherwise I can’t think of a reason I would WANT to have a full time job.

  11. whattosay
    whattosay says:

    I find point 2 especially unsettling. On one hand, most of the HR nowadays are checking your linkedin page, where uploading a photo has been recommended by many career-advice articles. On the other, you have the reality which is not at all surprising. Too bad most of the HR are women. And I doubt that only truly beautiful women are in trouble. If you’re young, with a decent, commonly appealing look, and aspire to get a position that usually enjoys more respect than HR, there’s a good chance that the HR worker coming through your application is no more pretty, and surely not too happy with the idea of some woman getting ahead of her.

  12. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    Some people forget that women are still second-class citizens. If you can’t even write what you want to write on your own f-ing blog, how far have we come?!?! Scares me.

    #7 Liked it. If people are upset that I’m right, it’s not my problem;)

    • Ebriel
      Ebriel says:

      Absolutely agree. A mentor of mine has often mused: “Women really don’t like you” and over the years has changed it to “They’re threatened by you”. (Men have no problem with me.)

      What he means, of course, is I don’t give a damn about trying to be likeable in the way women are generally trained to do.

  13. KM Hurley
    KM Hurley says:

    I don’t understand all the editor-level aversion to writing for women. Why? Aren’t women big readers, moreso than men? Or do women shy away from reading columns about women? Curious.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hanging out in the women’s area of anything is not going to be a high-powered place. Because most women don’t want a ton of power, and the women who do want a ton of power are usually solitary among men (see point number 2 in the post).

      This means that all women stuff is on a continuum between power and mommy hood. And most stuff, to be honest, is way toward the mommy side than the women want to admit.

      Editors want to be editing the power stuff. Power is fun. And, if you can’t have real power, at least you want to be able to assert power over the people writing about power :)

      Also, in terms of advertisers: on the Internet there is tons and tons of stuff written about women, because women write so much about their own experience.

      People with power are not nearly as interested in writing stuff on the Internet about their experience with power. So writing about power is more valuable than writing about parenting.


      • Ebriel
        Ebriel says:

        “if you can’t have real power, at least you want to be able to assert power over the people writing about power” Reminds me of struggles with my editor for a small company.

        So true of publishing, one of the few creative industries where there are lots of women at nearly every level.

  14. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    7 things that really made a dent in me growing up, courtesy of the media and their seeming bias against everything woman
    1. The hurt I felt when going to see the sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there was no Marian, or even a mention of her This made a deep impression on me, women are expendable, women are temporary, women don’t count.
    2. The angst I felt after going to see the Star Wars sequels and Princess Leia clung to Luke Skywalker when they swung on that rope? A huge void was created in me, women don’t have fun, women don’t save themselves.
    3. After seeing American Graffitti I realized George Lucas had some issues about women and it was too bad he was such an influence on my generation. Need to frame my own reference for what women are.
    4. After seeing the Power Puff Girls, I thought that if I had seen that as a kid, my whole life might be different. Pretty girls with high squeaky voices working in a team could possibly save the world, or at least a small cartoon town.
    5. Where was Laura Cross 40 years ago! You go babe. She’s so hot I breifly consider lesbianism.
    6. Baby Mama with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler redefines “chick flick”, to any man who didn’t see it, you’re loss.
    7. Lost Girl on SyFy. Redefines fantasies, redefines friendship, redefines power, redefines independence, so refreshing.

    The list could go on, I think the more human issues are allowed to be discussed in media the better. We’ve gone way too long with everything mainstream being man-centric. That is so disempowering to half the population.

  15. Tina
    Tina says:

    I call bullshit on the Myers Briggs comment. F preference has nothing to do with ideas – it is about how people prioritise the information they receive and then make decisions. Using MB to pigeonhole people is what happens when someone has a superficial understanding of the tool and then misuses it. Next you’ll be saying that introverts are shy and socially awkward.

  16. Heather
    Heather says:

    I love when you post about women. But maybe that is because I am a woman. I also do not have an F in my Myers Briggs and I like working with women. Especially if they are women not used to working with other women, because they usually haven’t learned the cattiness that women can have in female dominated roles (e.g. nurses).


  17. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    I went to a women’s college. My favorite jobs have been working for women–especially driven, talented women who held me to high standards. My current workplace is 99% female. I realize this means I am in a low paying career, but I kinda don’t care, because I have great coworkers who I trust and admire, and the culture of the place is amazing. I work hard when I’m there but I get lots of time off. I suspect I can transition to part time when I have kids. An all-female environment is not something I set out to find but it just seems to work for me.

  18. TAE
    TAE says:

    You write the “average age for a first-time entrepreneur is 39.” Is that among men and women? Women only? Does the average age differ substantially between gender? Also, 39 is an encouraging number, thanks! The celebration of wunderkind-owned startups in the media makes it feel like a later start, and all the risk that goes with it, is particularly foolish. Now I know there are many others sharing my crazy. On some days, that’s just enough to keep striving.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s the average age for both men and women.

      TechCrunch publishes a lot of statistics about the average age of entrepreneurs, if you want mire reading on the topic.


  19. Esther
    Esther says:

    I enjoyed being the only woman in my office until the men were comfortable enough with me that the sexism started seeping in. Some of it directed at me, right to my face. For your entertainment:

    Me: I ran cross-country in junior high.
    Coworker: Hmm. Did you run like a girl? [runs all floppy & giggly]

    I’m 32 and the men are all in their late 50s.

    Sexism came seeping in along with every other -ism on the list. So. Equal opportunity.

  20. Senait
    Senait says:

    I love that you write about women. Aside from your fearless honesty, that is my favourite thing you do on your blog. You are one of the few women I read that can speak frankly about the reality/limitations of modern women in the workforce.

    I also think you’re writing about women is very much in tune with Gen Y – which is your topic of interest, right? I think you’re 100% on to something by writing about women’s issues as opposed to men. Men are not interesting subjects in the workforce. Men have always worked. It’s women working with men that makes for juicy/sensitive/interesting life issues.

    Keep up the great writing! :-)

  21. Lilly26
    Lilly26 says:

    Also, I’d be really interested in finding out more information from the pile of data that you have. I’ve been involved for years in a group to help to help women succeed in a field in which they are usually in the minority. After many years in this group, in fact being in charge of it from time to time, I find that many of the women are mean, gossipy and not very helpful at all in aiding other women in finding jobs (which is why many young women eventually leave). The infighting is exhausting and a total waste of time. Many of the women are baby boomers (not me, though–I’m younger). I’ve had enough.

  22. Help4NewMoms
    Help4NewMoms says:

    The old Diane Keaton movie, BABY BOOM, was on the other day. She was a high-powered career woman who inherited a baby girl. She thinks she is going to give the baby up for adoption. The night before she is to give her up, she nurses the child through a cold. I was watching the scene with my 15 year-old daughter and she looked at me and said, “Why are you crying, Mom?” I said, “Honey, it is the same for all women, once you become a mother and attach to that baby for the very first time, there is no going back…no amount of success is as important as your kid.” Diane Keaton’s character, to your point Ms Trunk, had to leave the high-powered career (actually they pushed her out). What did she do? Naturally, she created a start-up and went back to New York City to her old job and stepped on their faces! That movie was made in 1987. Not much has changed!

    • Mel
      Mel says:

      I remember watching that movie as a little girl. Funny what makes a big impact on your life without even realizing it.

      And scarily, your last bit is more truth than tongue in cheek – nothing much has changed at all since 1987. So scary.

  23. andrea
    andrea says:

    “One of the earliest pieces of advice I got when I started getting paid to write was to not write about women.”

    – I’m left wanting to know why you got this advice in the first place?

  24. Jeanette
    Jeanette says:

    “Canadian women feel pressure to leave work for one year for each new child”…

    We don’t feel pressure but rather feel enormously privileged! We know all too well that our neighbours to the south have mere weeks of leave, as do many other countries.

    In 2001 our Employment Insurance program expanded the leave from 10 weeks to 35 weeks and yes, we pay to have this privilege.

    But don’t mistake this leave for lack of ambition. What you will find is that a large portion of Canadian women will start their own business during this ‘time off’. As you know, children change our priorities and many Canadian women use this period of adjustment to realign their work and family commitments. I know I did.

    Canada Maternity Leave: Women Quitting Jobs After Childbirth A Wake-Up Call For Businesses http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/19/canada-maternity-leave-women-quitting-jobs_n_1600955.html

    • Helen W
      Helen W says:

      You know, as a fellow Canadian woman, I can’t help but think that it DOES hurt us career wise to take that year off. When I had my son, it was still six months leave, and I felt that I was not taken as seriously afterwards, though perhaps that started changing when I announced my pregnancy. Although most women are taking the year, I can tell you from experience as a hiring manager that shamefully I had a bias against hiring women that I thought would be in a position to have a baby soon. I don’t think I would have considered it as much if the mat leave were shorter. I had no bias regarding working mothers, but it was there for the leave. It caused a lot of headaches when I had 6 women pregnant at the same time in a department of 17! I don’t know how I would have managed if the year had been in place at that time.

      Coming at it from the other side, I encourage women to take advantage of that time if they can. Nothing will replace those years, I don’t care how much career advancement can be made in that time.

      • Mel
        Mel says:

        It’s a privilege. P is snarking on us Canadians because she’s envious, like on the American women in my company’s NYC location are.

  25. le_third
    le_third says:

    hello P – loved reading this – I identify :) just had six months off my choice – ya – now facing a new work challenge and finding time to catch up with you – best le

  26. Lani
    Lani says:

    I’m really glad my friend told me about you. I am enjoying your articles and this one is no different.

    It’s interesting that in every field, that I can think of, besides education, high achievers need to have children, in order to be perceived as an “expert”.

    When I was fired as a Waldorf teacher, a couple of the criticisms I received was, I was too young (29) and without children, therefore, what could I possibly know about working with them?

  27. Emily Bradbury
    Emily Bradbury says:

    this is awesome and so true. “There is something really pleasing about being able to turn on the vacuum and clean things up. Whereas the efforts I put into my kids at any given moment often turn out to be useless.”

  28. Helen Wro
    Helen Wro says:

    I’m a Canadian professional woman and wanted to clarify the point on mat leave in Canada. We’re eligible to take up to 12 months off (split however you want between a couple), but ‘state funding’ is quite meagre and tops out at maximum employment insurance levels. Most companies don’t supplement this funding, so for example, while on mat leave, my monthly income was roughly 15% of my working income.
    So it’s not necessarily financial freedom that encourages many Canadian women to take 12 months off, but rather the guarantee of a job to return to. Many women (and their partners) take advantage of that year because it allows us to both spend a meaningful amount of time with our children, but also continue with our professional careers, rather than feel our only choice is to become stay-at-home moms. Oh, and that time at home also allows us to more comfortably breastfeed for the full 12 months (rather than lugging around a breast pump to the office when you have a 3 month old baby at home).
    And we’re not the most progressive ones on this matter – the Scandinavian countries have even more generous mat/pat leaves.

    • Nicole
      Nicole says:

      Thanks Helen for sharing this information and I believe that does make a difference. Here, in my US state of Florida, maternity leave alone is not a requirement at all for small companies (I believe smaller than 50). Thus I know people who were granted 2 weeks off or less. Others more, but no guarantee of their same job upon returning. I think I’ll check out how Canada and Scandinavia started their journey to the “mat leave” as you mention; I can’t sit by and watch…

  29. Dawn Stanyon
    Dawn Stanyon says:

    As always, Penelope, great and thoughtful content. I’m going to riff on the “women not wanting other women” idea on my blog. Thanks for the fodder.

  30. Dan
    Dan says:

    I used to read your articles on yahoo finance, and you got fired because your articles weren’t very good. I love how your ego clouds your view of reality. They didn’t belong in yahoo finance because customers like me didn’t want to read your social babble. I want to read about AAPL stock and what products they are introducing, what their earnings per share might be, are they paying a dividend? Which of your articles even came close to this?

    • Nad
      Nad says:

      Are you kidding me? You came all the way to her site, read one of her most recent blogs just to tell her that she sucks?

      Penelope, you must be doing something right.

  31. Liz
    Liz says:

    I love reading your posts about women. I think you are always RIGHT!!! I am an entrepreneur at heart but a stay at home mom right now so your posts are very relevant to me. Keep it up!!!! I also have a sister with aspergers (although she doesn’t know it). Your blog has helped me understand her soooo much better. We used to say “she just doesn’t get it” and now I know she really doesn’t and its not her fault. Thanks to you.

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    Rajasthan Tours says:

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  33. Marcel
    Marcel says:

    Canada maternity leave is state funded for women and men ( MEN gets 3 weeks ) the only problem u are getting less than a half of your monthly salary.

  34. Career Choice
    Career Choice says:

    This is a great article about the logic of women and work. This posts helps me justify my choice of being a work at home mom.

    Thank you very much for this great insights.

  35. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Really enjoyed this post. For a young woman who chose Computer Science for her major and has 2 years left of college, your posts, and more importantly, your honesty are very refreshing and challenging.
    As an ENTP, I am very successful in business (even at a really young age) but I also want a family – and be excellent at both. But I know, when the time comes – I would rather have a sub-par career then a sub-par family.
    I’ve noticed that most advice for women (and people in general) encourages us to be very selfish i.e. tells us its all about us and only us. If I want a family, job, and husband then its my damn right. Well….They don’t talk about your husband deserving a wife who is present. They don’t talk about your kids who deserve to have their mother around and involved in their lives. Every role we take on, it impacts those people who we’ve made part of our lives. They deserve something too. And if you can’t give it to them, why assume that role?
    What do you think?
    Again, your honesty about the consequences and advantages of your choices is amazing.
    Thank you!

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