There’s a little thing that can make a big difference to women’s success at work

Acknowledgement fuels ambition.
Acknowledgement fuels ambition.
Image: Amazon
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In Good Girls Revolta new Amazon pilot that dramatizes the true story of how 46 women sued Newsweek in 1970 for gender discrimination, the sexism is as obviously retro as the typewriters and ashtray-laden desks. Like Mad Men with their secretaries, each male writer at Newsweek—or “News of the Week,” in the fictionalized drama—had a female researcher-reporter who supported him behind the scenes, while he got the bylines.

There is a scene in the pilot—which I highly recommend watching—when Patti, a young researcher-reporter who has been working the phones regarding the deaths at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, uncovers what appears to be a falsified police report. At the day’s end, the editor-in-chief passes her desk, and Patti describes her findings to him. He pauses for a beat.

“’Atta girl, Patti,” he says.

A kick drum thumps as he walks away and Patti looks down at her desk, smiles to herself, and picks up the phone to make another call. The next shot is an aerial view of New York City on a new morning.

The power of recognition

Something in my chest swelled as I watched this scene. Perhaps I should have bristled that Patti’s editor called her “girl,” but instead I felt the pride and exhilaration that made her smile—and then get back to work. The rest of this series hasn’t been made yet, but we know how the real-life version went, so it wouldn’t be a spoiler—or a stretch—to say a moment like this could motivate a female journalist to believe, radically, that she should have the same opportunities as her male colleagues.

Recognition for one’s work is a powerful thing. Psychiatrist Anna Fels has identified the twin engines that drive ambition, which we know is essential for women to excel at work. The first is the mastery of a skill. The second is recognition of that mastery by an appreciative audience.

“In my life, it was very important to me that whatever work I did was seen by the outside world, meaning my boss, or readers, or whoever my outside world is, as being good,” Lynn Povich, who was one of those 46 women at Newsweek and the author of the book on which Good Girls Revolt is based, told Quartz. “Most of the women I know—certainly in my generation, I can’t speak for yours—really gained a lot of confidence when they got the outside confirmation that they were doing good work. I understand that.”

Although Povich and the women of Newsweek changed the workplace by becoming the first in the media to sue for gender discrimination, she’ll be the first to tell you we’ve got a long way to go. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, it may take around 118 years to close the gender gap worldwide; and the US, the researchers say, has just slipped from the top five countries when it comes to women’s economic participation, thanks to “less wage equality for similar work.” Add unconscious bias, the confidence gap, the ambition gap, and the glass ceilingor cliff, you pick—to the mix and it’s easy to throw our hands up and say, frankly, that women in the workplace are screwed.

But properly acknowledging the work of women is a deceptively simple action we can take to help them excel on the job. Today, a failure to recognize women’s achievements is a form of gender discrimination as harmful as it is insidious.

The sin of omission

And it’s something that, chillingly, we saw outlined on Nov.16 in a story about another New York-based media company, Gawker, some 45 years after the Newsweek case.

The story’s author, Dayna Evans, a former Gawker writer, detailed her own self-doubt after discovering an “egregious pay discrepancy” during the staff’s unionizing process, and then as she reported a story that exposed an endemic culture of gender discrimination at her former workplace. (Evans is now a writer for New York Magazine’s The Cut.)

A lack of proper recognition was pervasive, as Evans wrote about women of Gawker doing the “invisible work” of facilitating the artistry of star reporters, many of whom are male; of upper management’s inattention to online harassment at Gawker’s women-focused site, Jezebel; and of her colleagues’ insistence that she come up with more concrete examples of discrimination—an understandably tricky task.

“This is a ‘sin of omission’ rather than one of commission, so it’s hard to spot,” Fels wrote more than a decade ago in the Harvard Business Review. “The social rewards that women can expect to reap for their skills are diminished. The personal and societal recognition they receive for their accomplishments is quantitatively poorer, qualitatively more ambivalent, and, perhaps most discouraging, less predictable.”

Again, that ”qualitatively more ambivalent” recognition can be hard to identify, but we know it when we see it, and it’s why Evans’ reference to a memo announcing the appointment of Alex Pareene, Gawker’s new (male) editor-in-chief, and acknowledging Leah Beckmann, a female editor who had done the job in the four-month interim, hit many of us like a punch in the gut. Evans wrote:

“The memo that went out introducing Pareene as the new Gawker EIC also thanked Leah Beckmann for ‘stepping into the breach and helping out.’ Beckmann had taken on the full-time role of Gawker EIC at a time when the site was wavering on the brink of chaos and implosion. During her tenure, had its highest traffic day in history. This recognition of her performance in the role came off both dismissive and gendered. Only a woman would be thanked for ‘helping out.’”

To be sure, the original memo devotes a paragraph to Beckmann’s loyalty and willingness to do what is ironically described as a “thankless” job “during a goddamned horrible time for the site’s staff”—which unfortunately, is the sort women often take on—but the only acknowledgement of her accomplishment and performance was to say that “she kept the wheels on,” which doesn’t sound like much of an acknowledgment at all.

“We are not used to thinking of recognition as a fundamental emotional need, particularly in adulthood,” writes Fels. “But multiple areas of research have demonstrated that recognition is one of the motivational engines that drives the development of almost any type of skill. Far from being a pleasant but largely inessential response, it is one of the most basic of human requirements…In the typical learning cycle, recognition fuels the next stage of learning.”

In other words, the need for recognition is neither generational nor gendered. It’s human—and it’s essential to our success.