Friday, September 19, 2008

Women Bosses

A long time ago, I worked for a man whom I adored.  He had some weaknesses, but he was a great boss for me: supportive, helpful, appreciative.  Then he hired a woman to be his #2, and she was supposed to supervise me.  There was him at the top, then her, then about seven of us at the same level, each of us supervising dozens of people.  So I was supposed to work with #2 Woman, not #1 Man, and it was not good.  

First of all, I resented not having so much access to #1 Man, who was such a good boss for me.  Second of all, #2 Woman was a nasty harridan.  She really was: nobody liked her, everybody hated her, she should have gone and eaten worms.  So I struggled with her, and felt abandoned and on my own, but did a fine job with my work anyway, but did not do so well with her, in fact once I even had to walk out of a management meeting in tears, which is not a good thing.  

At some point in our struggles, she told me I had problems with women in authority, and I was incensed.  I did not have problems with women in authority; I had problems with her!  But it was one of those comments that stays with you, and makes you question yourself--or at least, it stayed with me, and made me question myself.  Because you know me: I am all about the women and the feminism and the respect and the positive working relationships, except that I am also all about the impatience and the non-suffering of fools and the frustration.

So do I have a problem with women in authority?  I'm not quite sure.

Let's leave out pre-full-time employment, because back then I was pretty lowly and generally effective at my lowly tasks and thus not particularly concerned with bosses.

Post-college job #1: Worked for woman I had worked for in college who sought me out when I graduated and offered me a job.  Adored her, learned enormous amounts from her, remained friends long after I left job (still holiday card friends, but too far away to maintain real friendship after 20 years).

Job #2: Worked for woman, everything great.

Job #3: Worked for Man #1 and Woman #2.  Results detailed above.

Job #4: Worked for man I adored in job with a lot of autonomy.  He was quite similar to Man #1: very smart and thoughtful, but kind of low-key and very much about empowering others.  Respected me and let me do what I wanted, but respect was mutual, so I always consulted him and followed his wishes, even as I did what I wanted.  One other thing I will say about both these male bosses is that when I told them what to do, which is a habit of mine, they did it.

Job #5: Worked for psycho female alias Anna Wintour.  Worst boss ever, as generally agreed to by everyone who was ever in her employ, not to mention widely-read (as per Google ranking) newspaper articles.  Refused to take terrible treatment. Left.

Job #6: Worked for woman I liked, under man who was completely incompetent but liked me, in bad work environment.  Clashed subtly with some other powerful older women.

Currently I am consulting, and the three main people I work for are all women.  One I adore and respect, and two I have difficulty with.  With one of the two, it is my fault: I do not like the work (and am about to get rid of the client), so am doing the bare minimum, so am making her nervous, so she is always harping on me, which annoys me, but, like I said, my bad.  The other is frustrating many people besides me.

Conclusion: Oh god, I don't know.  I can spin this for or against me.  The primary facts revealed here are, I think: 1) I have worked for/with a lot more women than men; 2) I am not good at working for people I don't respect and/or people who do not treat me with the respect I feel I deserve; 3) such people have, in my experience, mainly been women; but 4) there have also been many women with whom I have had great working relationships (also my record of lateral relationships and relationships with subordinates is generally good, though definitely not perfect).

Hmm, I'm getting bored of this post, so I will just say that I don't think I am off the hook altogether, because I think there is probably a feminist analysis to be made of how women respond to each other's competence.  The women bosses I have had difficulty with--could they be threatened by my competence and feel the need to assert themselves over me? I'd say, in several circumstances, yes.  Could I hold women to a higher standard of competence and thus be more easily frustrated with women who do not meet my standards?  Probably.  Could I, unconsciously and against all my overt principles, treat men with more respect and deference?  Oh god, I hope not, but maybe.

Really, all I want is to work with respectful, highly competent people.  It doesn't seem so much to ask...


Erika said...

amen - it just goes to show competence in engendering effective working relationships is not a chromosome thing (witness, God forbid, Sarah Palin). Great piece, it resonates! E

Kath Lockett said...

Dear Becca
In my googling, I stumbled upon this article which really interests me. I'm about to get into writing a book on woman bosses and how they like to 'talk the talk' about supporting other women to break the 'glass ceiling' but in reality often 'pull up the ladder behind them' because they like being up there as the sole female success story.

As such, I was wondering if I could quote your article?

Secondly, some of the examples you mention, would you be prepared to be interviewed (via email, cos I'm in Australia) with your examples?

If so, please contact me via - Thanks and regards, Kath Lockett

Tara Elocin said...

I don't think it is a case of having problems with women in authority.

I have worked for both men and women and with both genders there were good and bad bosses.

I am a woman and I am a boss - and I'd be shocked if I'd overhear my team saying they'd rather work for a man. I believe they judge me on my ability and personality.

I really think that the gender is irrelevant - the question is really if the person in charge is a good or a bad boss. Not what his or her gender is. And your boss would do well in understanding this herself if she wants to be respected.