It may seem like harmless advice, but men don’t face the same judgment. Here are three different approaches for women in this situation.
“You don’t smile enough, you’re unapproachable and generally come off as bitchy.” These were the words my Seattle friend Kelly’s manager opened her performance review with 10 years ago.
Since then, she’s heard variations of this advice in more subtle, yet similarly aggravating ways. “There’ll be complete strangers in the elevator saying, ‘Smile, it can’t be that bad,'” she tells me. Her male colleagues, she claims, can easily get a free pass for having a bad day, while she’s always expected to be cheerful.
Telling women to smile sounds like harmless advice, on the surface. And yet, it’s a demand that disproportionately affects women; I’ve never heard a man being asked to smile or appear more cheerful. Certainly never in performance reviews that would affect their pay and promotion opportunities.
So, what’s the best way for women to respond to this “well-meaning” advice from co-workers and managers?
When a manager tells you to smile, it’s helpful to explain the problem with that. It’s always hard to bring up implicit biases at work, but if your career depends on it, bite the bullet. The manager is likely to have a big impact on your advancement, so it’s necessary to explain how this demand could mean you’re being unintentionally judged.
I’d start with the compounding evidence of how gender impacts who we consider leaders, and even how we advance employees. For example, one study of performance reviews found women are more likely to receive negative feedback, and often related to their demeanor — such as being called “abrasive.” Men didn’t get labeled the same way. Another one found male professors received higher student evaluations than female professors, even when they exhibited the same behavior.
Expecting women to smile falls in the same category — we’re so conditioned to believe women must be likable. Some useful phrases include: “I notice you never bring up how Steve doesn’t smile,” or “I know you mean well, but here’s why it’s not sitting well with me.”
Use your discretion with peers. You don’t owe them an explanation, but if they’re proffering advice without malice, it could be worth having this conversation.
I’m always hesitant to ask women to explain themselves. So unless you’ve received this advice from a direct manager or someone you trust, a polite “thanks, but no thanks” should suffice. When I’m offered unsolicited opinions in a professional setting, I like to politely end the conversation with: “This advice makes me uncomfortable. Can we change the subject?”
Sometimes there’s just no way to have a productive conversation. Either they get defensive, or they won’t stop even after you’ve alerted them of your discomfort. In these moments, I’d say it’s best to not bother. If it gets particularly egregious or is affecting your work, report the matter.
More companies must seek to create inclusive cultures where women have an opportunity to advance without being expected to conform to outdated standards of femininity.
Kelly adds: “Men can have bad days, but women have to be enthusiastic or perky. We’re categorized too easily … We’re either happy or bitchy, never anything in between.”