In the course of my life and work, I’ve interacted with many successful women and heard about their experiences in male-dominated workplaces.
My own mother was recently awarded the Eileen Collins Professional Achievement Award from Corning Community College (both women’s alma mater). I’m so freaking proud of her! Being surrounded by successful professional women throughout my life has proven to be one of my biggest advantages. Here’s a picture of her with the other Reflections award winners. (PS – I’m not affiliated with CCC in any way, and this blog is not reflecting anyone’s opinion other than my own)!
Months ago, as I worked helping women communicate effectively with men, I set out to interview some of the successful women I mentioned to learn more about the difficulties they face in male-dominated workplaces.
Honestly, this is a hot topic right now, and I expected to hear some horror stories about men in the workplace. Part of me thought I’d hear about women being harassed and devalued, that their ideas weren’t being listened to, that they weren’t being respected or paid fairly. And to be fair, I did hear some of that.
However, there was one main takeaway from these conversations that surprised me, and it didn’t have anything to do with men.
Many of the women I spoke with didn’t seem to have much trouble at all with their male co-workers, even their male bosses. They said they’d developed a deeper understanding of men throughout their careers, and they’ve built some great skills for communicating with them.
What I heard instead time and time again, was that powerful females in male-dominated workplaces are much more challenged by their ever oppressive, male-favoring, even “b*tchy” female supervisors. (No shortage of stories about catty, controlling, unpleasant female coworkers either).
Have you ever encountered these women in the workplace? Or fallen victim to a “b*tchy” supervisor?
Maybe she’s prevented your hiring or career acceleration. Maybe she’s led the troops in treating you like an administrative assistant (when you’re already over-qualified for the non-administrative position you were hired for). She’s giving your male co-workers amazing feedback and opportunities while giving you the cold shoulder.
Maybe you feel criticized, rejected, judged, undervalued, or powerless, and it’s getting on your last nerve. Couple that with other women complaining about your clothes, casting judgmental looks, and/or spreading unpleasant rumors, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a really uncomfortable work environment worst-case-scenario.
As I heard these stories, I remembered that I’ve experienced the same challenges with women throughout my life. I’ve been criticized, back-stabbed, sexualized, manipulated, and rejected by many of my fellow women. It’s made it difficult to trust new female friends, which has honestly been a barrier at times to running a successful business.
After all of my research and conversations on the subject, I KNOW I’m not alone here.
What is this all about, anyway? Shouldn’t we, as women, be supporting each other? Many of us are working to heal this divide, more so every day.
I’m sure the answers are complicated (to say the least). What follows in this blog is a humble but educated guess about some contributing factors, along with suggestions for overcoming hostile work arrangements that can easily block our success.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
As women started entering the workforce, especially in the 60’s and 70’s, the value of having them there was highly in question. I suspect that many women tried to act similarly to men, so they could fall in line and compete with them. Maybe women during that time didn’t feel it was safe or effective to be overly feminine (unless, of course, they were in a role supporting a man).
Maybe many women, while following their hopes and dreams of successful careers, valued the display of more masculine traits (like competition, logic, and discipline) while concealing their feminine traits (like empathy, nurturing, and patience).
Haven’t we all done this?
It’s possible that women in our society have become more competitive and judgmental with each other (and more judgmental of ourselves) as a result of all this feminine de-valuing. Unfortunately, competition doesn’t fuel feminine relationships quite the same way it can fuel masculine ones. It leads to really, really deep sisterhood scars. (I’ve acquired several myself, as I’ve mentioned).
To be very clear here, both men and women are equally capable of displaying the full spectrum of masculine and feminine traits, though we tend to be naturally inclined to one side or the other (through nature and nurture, probably a combination of the two). Both sets of traits are equally valuable and important, despite their differences, and despite the value structure, our patriarchal society has laid out for us.
So, anyway, back to your boss. The one who’s generally grumpy and cold, who favors all the men (or holds their balls in a vice grip).
She probably wasn’t born this mean, though she could easily have some horror stories in her background. Many of us do. She learned somewhere along the line that this version of herself was necessary for her survival and for her success.
And, let’s be honest – as women, there isn’t a single one of us that’s never been subject to these “catty” types of women. We’ve been hurt by each other and we’ve been hurt by the world around us. We understand the feeling of being in competition with each other. We can relate to these women, whether we like it or not.
Here’s the good news: it’s completely possible to transform your relationship with your “b*tchy” boss so that it doesn’t dampen your work environment and your opportunities for career growth. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Understand her point of view.
Leave your judgments at the door. Preconceived notions are the enemy of good communication. When we think we already KNOW what the other person is thinking or what their situation is, we don’t take the time to understand what’s ACTUALLY going on. And – get this – when we think we know how a situation/conversation is going to turn out, we actually act in a way that brings that outcome on. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2. Stay calm.
Easier said than done, right? Work conflicts can set off our body’s emergency alarm (fight, flight, or freeze), because they’re a threat to our livelihood and our income, even though the fear we experience in these scenarios usually feels more extreme than the truth. Regardless, we need to stay calm, cool and collected to observe a situation clearly. Only then can we respond logically and effectively. Practice makes perfect. (Music is always calming for me, and this song seems perfect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmy113gMds0)
3. Be yourself.
Don’t change who you are to make ANYONE else comfortable. Don’t change the way you dress to be less feminine. (DO follow dress codes and respect others). Don’t apologize for making decisions that align with your priorities. (DO be willing to speak up and explain your point of view). Embrace your feminine qualities unapologetically. The resentment that comes from living in a box will always build up and boil over in the end, whether your boss sticks around or not. You will be most valuable to everyone around you when you’re being 100% yourself. And, you know what? As women, when we fully value ourselves in our feminine glory, men value us too. True story.
4. Support her.
Be nice, even when she’s not. Take her priorities into consideration, and give her exactly what she needs when she asks for it. Listen to her with a truly open mind. Ask her clarifying questions. Give her the support you’d like to be getting from her.
A similar approach worked for one of the women I interviewed. During our conversation, she told me the story of a past boss who fit this “b*tchy” description. She described how she’d taken similar steps as those I’ve outlined here, and get this – by the time her boss moved on to a new role, they were on MUCH friendlier terms. For this woman, offering compassionate support privately to her boss (who was handling a personal challenge at the time) totally transformed their relationship.
Remember – as women, we ALL know what it’s like to climb the ranks in a male-dominated workplace, and it was even harder for the generations before us. In our bones, we know what it’s like to be a woman in a culture that oppresses and devalues femininity.
It really doesn’t need to be that way, but change starts with us.
We need to value ourselves and each other NOW, because of our beautiful femininity, not in spite of it.
It warms my heart to see both women AND men promoting an equality that accounts for all of our complimentary differences, rather than insisting on our similarity. There’s plenty of success, wealth, and happiness to be had for all of us, and we’re stronger together.
Men and women are equal but different. In our differences, we can find our strengths, and in our weaknesses, we can find each other. It’s time to start valuing everyone, at all points on the spectrum, so we can all feel the benefit of a truly inclusive society.
If you need some extra help getting through a particularly hairy work scenario, let’s talk.
Until next time… love yourself, and love each other! Lots of love and success to all.