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With the flurry of executive women stories in the news lately I am compelled to address the issue.  I must admit I have been avoiding the topic.  Not because I don’t have any experience or ideas about what is happening for women in the workplace.  My reluctance has more to do with…getting real.  If women really spoke the truth about what is going on it would not be well received.

Let me state a couple things up front.  1) I’m talking about white collar professionals.  I am not qualified to speak to the realities of other groups of women. 2) I am speaking generally about women and men in leadership roles.  There are exceptions to the norm…and I admire those men and women a great deal.  It’s just rare to encounter them. 3) This topic, along with what happens for people of color (more on that in later posts), is nearly impossible to speak about without getting uncomfortable or defensive or angry.  For me that signals this must be a real problem.

Okay, enough of the prefacing. What do women really want at work? Yes, it’s the family flexibility.  Yes, it’s equal pay and advancement opportunities.  Yes, it’s being taken seriously. We’ve been talking about this for decades and, sadly, we will have to keep talking about it.  But I want to address the micro rather than the macro issues.

Women leaders want the meeting or discussion or collaboration to be grounded in a complete conversation about the data and the analysis and the impact on the human beings and multiple points of view and the correctness of the direction…in other words a holistic view of the reality. Instead what we experience is a huge amount of posturing and smoke and mirrors presentations of the data and shutting down different points of view and rarely raising concerns about the human cost of a decision.  When women try to interject remarks pertaining to impact other than bottom line they are viewed as off topic or annoying. So lots of us have learned to pick our battles, be more passive than we really are and focus more on our teams where we have more control over having richer discussions.

Women are not amused by testosterone fueled antics.  I spent too many years being the only female in all-male board rooms. Because there was not a critical mass of women present they behaved as if I wasn’t there…which is wrong on so many levels.  What I saw…and what all women leaders experience…was men behaving badly. Under the guise of “being aggressive to get the best results for our shareholders” some outrageously hostile and destructive behavior is tolerated by male peers. But heaven help the woman who does one-tenth of this crap. Old (bitch) story…still true today.

Here’s my observation of all this male chest thumping.  If you stop paying attention to the content of what is spoken and just listen for tone and volume and watch body language around the executive table it’s easy to see adolescent boys sorting out the pecking order. It’s just a (not really) grown up version of a pissing contest. And here’s a dirty little secret. Women see this, don’t respect it, see the men as petty and competitive and don’t have confidence that their male peers are really taking care of the business.  They see these men as too self interested…and insecure.

But we don’t talk about this amongst ourselves much.  It’s just too close to the flame. We tolerate this as we are moving up the ladder because we have to play along to grab the big jobs. But once we are on the executive teams it becomes less bearable.  I think this is one of the contributing factors to why women start opting out once they have reached the top. It is a waste of time and talent to navigate these adolescent dynamics when there are serious issues to manage.

It’s true that women struggle more with self confidence and self esteem and that can be undermining. But if the work environment was more collaborative where the competition was outside the four walls instead of between employees they would thrive. In fact everyone would thrive including the bottom line.

Most of us are working in places where getting the few promotions is an extreme sport.  Men may be wired to enjoy and excel at this battle while women are wired differently.  They are more likely to be the ones who say, “I just want to come in and do good work.  That will speak for itself.”  Men know that is not how the game is played. We can try to persuade women all we want about how to take an aggressive (sic.male) approach to their career advancement.  But I think this dismisses the valuable difference women bring to the table. I think a more interesting question is “how do we make the workplace less internally competitive? How do we foster collaboration?” In other words, how about using some “typical female” traits to reshape the culture?

That said I think there is hope.  The 20-30 somethings are more inclusive and collaborative and I can’t wait for them to have a huge impact on the workplace.  And I don’t think this has anything to do with changes in parenting or our culture. I think it has to do with an internet orientation.  Younger people have a lifetime of experience that says open systems with lots of input from a wide range of sources makes cooler stuff.  So collaboration is highly valued…until you patent your app.

I will continue to write on this but that’s all I want to say for now. Let me leave you with my two cents about what could work in the real world.

Let women be women. Our natural tendencies towards big picture thinking, creativity and flexibility, getting to the nub of things and valuing relationships can only be good things for organizations.  So to all you women leaders, the next time your male boss/peer suggests that you grow a set or suck it up respond with, “It makes more sense to me for you to look more broadly at the issues you are trying to shut down.” My own response to that recommendation is not for public viewing!

And men, think about the fact that your posturing just looks silly.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathy #

    Yes, yes, yes! You’ve cut to the chase on this one. I’ve always wanted to say this but couldn’t have put it so well.

    On the subject of pissing contests, on occasion I’ve imagined that the men in the room are women just to see how it would look for a woman to “compete” as well as men do. At least at my workplace, the backbiting, gossip, silent treatment, bickering, and undermining that are said to be such a problem of women in the workplace goes on between the men. It’s just that when they do it, it’s “masculine competition” and therefore a virtue. Women can’t “compete” like men because the same behavior in women looks petty and snide. Why do we respect such behaviors so highly in men?

    March 24, 2013
    • Thanks Kathy. We need to start talking more openly about some of these things so we can have a fuller dialogue about these gender issues at work. I like to pull back the curtain and speak about what is really happening at the ground level.

      March 25, 2013

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