Leaning in to Sarah Cooper’s satirical business hacks can teach working women what not to do.
“Pepper your emails with exclamation marks and emojis so you don’t come across as too clear or direct,” the writer and comedian instructs in her latest book, “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.” “Try to keep your pregnancy a secret until your child is at least eighteen years old.”
Another tip: Have men explain things you already know “over and over again” to make them feel useful. In a pinch, slap on a mustache “so everyone sees you as more man-like” and less of a threat.
The former Google
designer’s suite of “non-threatening” strategies for working and thriving in a man’s world — presented in both written and illustrated form — holds a mirror up to women contorting themselves to sidestep men’s egos.
“A lot of these behaviors in the book are kind of minimizing yourself and changing the way that you talk in order to prepare yourself for the sexism that you expect to be getting,” Cooper, who lives in Brooklyn, told MarketWatch. “The hope is that women will read it and … see that maybe they don’t have to act this way, and don’t have to minimize themselves or say ‘This is stupid’ before they share an idea.”
Research suggests that women are penalized more than men for engaging in the same assertive behaviors, like negotiating a raise. Women of color often have it worse: For example, “successful black women walk a tightrope of emotional expression,” as the Harvard Business Review put it, at the risk of being perceived as intimidating or too ambitious.
So the bitter joke, one might argue, is that many women do have to play this game in order to advance their careers. “Over time, my hope is that we don’t have to,” Cooper said. “If more women stop doing these things, then it will become more normal for them not to do them.”
The set of male-established norms in male-dominated workspaces “has made us try to fit into their world,” she added, “and I’m hoping that we won’t have to fit into their world as much if there’s more of us around.” (Women chastising fellow women for being unlikeable is yet another problem that needs solving, she said.)
Though the book is geared toward women, Cooper estimates it has “pissed off more women than I’ve pissed off men,” to her surprise. Some women have missed the joke and criticized Cooper for espousing retrograde views. Still others, she said, have been left disappointed after “looking for a real toolbook” on tiptoeing around men’s feelings. Meanwhile, many men have expressed support.
“There’s guys writing me, like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s given me a window into a world that I’d never thought about,’” she said. “And that made me feel so good, because this is all about perspective.”
Cooper, who emigrated at age 3 from Jamaica to Rockville, Md., in 1980, says she carved out a “consensus-builder” role in both her home and work lives. She grew up wanting to be an actress, earning a theater scholarship from the University of Maryland, but switched to an economics degree at her parents’ urging. She later earned a master’s degree in digital media from Georgia Tech in 2002.
Cooper became a designer, but kept up her acting on the side. She worked as a designer at Yahoo in San Francisco for nearly two years, and in 2011, bolstered by liquid courage, she tried stand-up for the first time at an Atlanta comedy venue. She eventually “went broke and then ended up at Google” from mid-2011 to late 2014, heading up user experience for Google
Docs, Sheets and Slides in the company’s New York office.
Along the way, Cooper discovered her knack for pinpointing corporate-world absurdities. She launched a website called the Cooper Review a few months before leaving Google, going viral with a post called “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” (Draw a Venn diagram, she suggests, and ask “Will this scale?” regardless of the topic.) In time, that post spawned Cooper’s first book, “100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” She hopes to turn her newest book into a television pilot.
Cooper’s advice to readers often lies in the opposite of what she prescribes. Take the book’s “daily apology checklist,” for instance, which includes items like “asking to be paid,” “speaking too softly” and “speaking at all.” “People get very angry because they don’t understand that I’m actually saying, ‘Don’t do these things,’” she said. “But I don’t like being overt with ‘Here’s what you should do.’”
Cooper also touches on race a bit, recommending “hairstyles to avoid.” (Natural hair is “too black,” and braids are “way too black.” A headscarf is “too religiony.”) Being an immigrant woman of color who has two sisters with disabilities, Cooper said, has made her attuned to the ways in which she is and isn’t marginalized. “I have privilege in a lot of ways,” she said, “and there’s other privilege that I don’t have.”
Good satire, Cooper said, “makes fun of powerful people and it does it in a way where it makes it clear what you really think about it, but in a funny and surprising kind of way.” She cites The Onion as a chief influence; a favorite headline of hers is “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.”
But the advent of fake news and the misinterpretation of satire — a Republican congressman later fell for that same Onion story — have given way to a bit more earnestness among comedians, Cooper said. “It’s gotten to the point where we feel like we need to be a little bit more clear about what we’re saying,” she said.
The conclusion of her book, in turn, beams with sincerity — urging women to “be successful whether men’s feelings are hurt or not.”
“I still need to make sure that people know that what I really believe is that these rules are bullshit,” she said, “and that we should be making our own rules.”
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