Three Tactics that Block Women from Getting Ahead

Three Little Boys, Ashdale Gill
Credit: Geograph

1. Undermine and Critique

Step 1: Make it really hard for her to achieve something.

Step 2: Make completely reasonable comments about her progress.

E.g. Nitpick every detail, force her to prove that your suggestions can’t be done. Then complain she is not faster.

E.g. Avoid telling her key information up front. When it is discovered later, say it should have been considered earlier.

Pro-tipThe key to a “successful” execution us for step 1 to be a subtle as possible. Capitalise on Stereotype Threat to maximise effectiveness.

How to Avoid: Focus on surrounding yourself with people who want to see you succeed, and won’t push you over to mitigate their own insecurities. Be aware of step 1, because by step 2 it’s too late.

2. Marginalise and Attack

Step 1: Isolate.

Step 2: Whatever you want.

E.g. Ensure she is working on a low priority thing no-one else cares about. Then, however you treat her (gaslight! harass!) she will not have anyone else to look out for her or help her find an escape route.

Pro-tip: Pick your target here. The more gregarious may refuse to be isolated. New grads are the best target, as they have the smallest network.

How to Avoid: Steer clear of situations where your success or failure depends on one person. Always look for opportunities to broaden your network, Having lunch with someone you don’t immediately work with weekly is a good start.

3. The Unreasonable

Step 1: React disproportionately to something she says or does.

Step 2: Watch. Wait. Repeat.

E.g. Take something matter of fact, such as “does this class have unit tests that should be updated” or “hey, did you update the X?” and get really mad about it. “I can’t believe she asked me about the X, why doesn’t she respect what I’m doing?”

Pro-tip: Key here is capitalising on the fact that men are presumed to be reasonable and women presumed to be more emotional, and found to be less likeable. Successful execution encourages other men to follow in your wake.

Avoid: Hardest one to avoid, as typically this is said about rather than to you. Best to avoid possible triggers (which is hard, because anything that can be perceived as criticism can be used this way). Once you realise this is happening, be extra vigilant about all communication. Don’t ignore, as this can exacerbate.


These patterns come from my own experiences and those of other women I speak to. All stories are different, and yet given enough of them, themes emerge. So many times at GHC someone asks the question about who in the room has been described as “aggressive”… and almost every woman in the room raises their hand.

There are different kinds of gendered experiences. The outright sexual harassment, versions of “get back in the kitchen” is one, but another is patterns of behaviour that happen over, and over again to women, but much more rarely to men. It’s behaviour that men feel more OK with exhibiting towards women, because subconsciously they know they are much more likely to get away with it.

My experiences and the stories I have heard suggests that the reoccurring patterns of behaviour are so much more prevalent and horrifying than the outright sexual harassment. Whilst that is horrifying and unpleasant, it is in some ways more easily dealt with because everyone agrees that it is wrong. The patterns go unnoticed, are internalised. And so… we quietly go mad.

32 thoughts on “Three Tactics that Block Women from Getting Ahead

  1. I’ve found this is less of an issue for me as I’ve gotten older, and even early in my career I wasn’t labelled as “aggressive”. But I was called “scary”. By people who were way bigger (physically – like 6’4″ to my 5′) and more influential than I was at the time. I could never work out what I was doing that made me so scary, and when I asked I was told it was because I was “competent”, apparently so much so that I intimidated the guys around me. I don’t recall any women telling me I was scary. And I was lucky to have male managers who appreciated whatever those traits were that made me scary….

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  2. Thank you very much indeed for this. It really helps to have labels.

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