The Art of Being Underestimated

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Perhaps no female celebrity has been more fatally underestimated than Kim Kardashian. For years, everyone from anonymous Twitter users to cultural gatekeepers dismissed her as an empty-headed fame whore — only to watch her blithely monetize the very things that supposedly made her a joke, from her makeup routine to her selfies to her desire for fame. Now the buxom branding genius sits on a leopard-print throne atop a multi-million-dollar empire, laughing at the haters.

Kim is a handy unofficial barometer of social trends, so let us consider the possibility that she’s onto something. Maybe being underestimated — especially for daring to behave in stereotypically feminine ways, or even just for being a woman in the first place — isn’t a weakness; it’s a secret weapon. No less than Joan Didion, probably the anti-Kardashian, has noted the power of seeming like a nonthreatening girl. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” she wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “And it always does.”

What if, instead of feeling defeated by the constant low-grade slights of sexism, we used them against our opponents? What if, like cute little mongooses, we only looked nonthreatening to lull everyone into a false sense of security before going in for the kill? Maybe Helen Gurley Brown’s age-old advice — to use your feminine charm as a tool — just needs a modern twist, one that allows for Instagramming selfies as you breezily scale the corporate ladder. Maybe the secret to breaking the glass ceiling is to shatter it with our vocal fry and leave the shards glittering like diamonds in our blowouts.

It’s not exactly the solution to workplace sexism we’ve all fantasized about, but we’ll come up with that once we’re CEOs.

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The subversive power of being underestimated is, of course, a popcorn-movie staple — think of Legally Blonde, in which ditzy law student Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) helps win an important murder trial through her knowledge of hairstyle science. Plausible? Maybe not quite, but real-life stories of women triumphing over those who’ve written them off are just as delicious.

When Emily*, a reporter, temporarily relocated to cover a high-profile athlete’s murder trial, she was surprised by how deeply her arrival rankled the cabal of local male reporters also jockeying for the story. She’d been writing about the trial from afar for months, but that didn’t stop them from questioning her credentials and making snide comments about her age and work. It was particularly satisfying, then, when the defendant’s wife — a fellow woman in her 20s — publicly declared her intention to pass them over and give Emily the scoop.

“One day, after the trial, everyone was reunited back at the courthouse,” Emily remembers. “After the defendant's wife walked to her car, she rolled down her window and yelled my name and said, ‘Can you email me tonight?’ The reporters I'd sat next to for weeks turned and gave me bewildered looks.” Later, the source told Emily that she had chosen her to speak with because she seemed genuine and humble — the opposite of the testosterone-drenched bravado on display among the men.

Likewise, Jennifer, a former investment banking analyst, says that she was usually the only woman in investor meetings. So, she seized on her tokenism and deployed it as a power move. “When you're the only woman in the room, management teams tend to remember you, which makes it easier to get future meetings,” Jennifer said. She used their expectations about femininity to her advantage. “I try to play up that I'm a nice, calm young lady. CEOs and CFOs have all dealt with abrasive hedge-fund guys before and it's never pleasant.” She’s able to get what she needs “because I come off as nonthreatening.” Remember: Just because you look nonthreatening doesn’t mean you aren’t a threat.

And the power of being underestimated doesn’t only apply when you’re alone in a boys’ club — think of your female colleagues as a sleeper cell. When Maria became a doctor in the early 1970s, there were very few women in her field. However, much of the support staff — the nurses and administrative workers — were women, and it was the condescending treatment Maria frequently received from the male doctors that helped inspire them to support her.

“There was a sisterhood,” Maria told me. “In some ways the lack of respect in the workplace from male colleagues created something where I had this group of women who just really, really helped in any way that they could. It was a real underdog thing — they wanted to see me succeed.”

Ultimately, what could be more gratifying than pulling an Erin Brockovich? Even when it’s not helping you scale a corporate ladder, just winning the right to say “I told you so” to sexist doubters is irresistible. Last December, Casey Johnston wrote a story about gender diversity in computer science for the technology website Ars Technica. Johnston then tweeted the article, adding that “so many ‘solutions’ to the lack of women in tech don’t get at the actual problems.” A male follower — secure in his belief that he knew best (and that women don’t write tech stories) — decided to weigh in.

“Read the full article,” he advised. “There's a chicken and egg problem w/ female tech role models.”

“I wrote the article,” Johnston replied.

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As much fun as the anecdotal evidence is — and what woman doesn’t read this stuff with a sigh of recognition? — there’s also some social science to back it all up. Dr. Laura Kray is a U.C. Berkeley Business School professor who has studied the relationship between gender and negotiation. Her work found that “negotiation is a man’s game with men’s rules” and the very practice of it disadvantages women, making them less likely than their male counterparts to receive what they ask for. Several years ago, she was discussing the findings with a male colleague when he expressed his surprise. I feel like women are pretty effective negotiators, she remembers him saying. All my wife and daughter have to do to get what they want is bat their eyelashes and I can’t say no.

Kray was perturbed by the comment but also curious: Could using your feminine charms actually have a positive impact on negotiation?

As it turns out, according to her paper “Feminine Charm,” the answer’s yes — at least to a certain extent.

“I went in thinking, ‘No, flirting isn’t going to be beneficial,’ and I think there are many times when it’s not,” Kray told me. “But as a one-off with one person, a little bit of flirtation may make it harder to say no during a negotiation.” The behaviors her study classified as “flirtatious” included sustaining eye contact, showing positive emotions, and nonthreatening body posture — basically, internalized female protocol for making other people feel liked and accommodated in social situations. And showing these behaviors can in fact elevate the mood of the man you’re negotiating with, making him more likely to give you what you want. (It does have to be a man, Kray said.)

What’s more, a 2011 study that appeared in the textbook Stereotype Threat suggested that simply recognizing stereotypes can make them into something beneficial. “Knowledge about [stereotypes] can be empowering if they put that knowledge to use,” notes Hannah Riley Bowles, a public-policy lecturer at Harvard. “Reflecting on positively stereotyped identities can give women a boost in their performance.”

In other words: If you believe that being a woman is a professional asset, it becomes one. This comes as no surprise to the restaurant owner and chef Barbara Lynch, who considers everything from the pressure to take care of the household to having her period a benefit in the restaurant business. That approach made her the second woman ever to receive the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.

“[Being a woman] makes me much stronger, it makes me a winner, and it makes me be on top of my game,” Lynch told me. “It’s definitely working to my advantage.”

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Here’s where I state the obvious: No, reclaiming stereotypes alone won’t solve the problem of workplace sexism. Just as sexual assault on campus won’t be solved by telling female students to drink less, embracing conventional femininity won’t eliminate gender bias; these are short-term solutions for greater structural problems that will probably take generations to actually change.

But if using “gender judo,” as the feminist psychologist Joan C. Williams calls it, can even the playing field just a little bit, or boost your chance at a raise by making you feel moderately more confident in your negotiation skills, why wouldn’t you at least try it? The tactic will at least give you the thrill of exacting revenge on your unsuspecting enemies. Plus, how cute would you look in that corner office?

* Some names have been changed.