For a recent article in the New York Times, Adam Bryant interviewed four women CEOs about how to thrive in the workplace. These leaders described “headwinds” or challenges they have faced as women leaders and tips for how to overcome them. Examples of their headwinds included
- Receiving feedback during performance reviews that they dress too sternly or smile too much or too little—thereby making other people uncomfortable
- Receiving promotions without adequate resources to do the job
- Feeling they needed to downplay their accomplishments to fit in
- Being underestimated or not given the benefit of the doubt
People often ask me why I study and write about friendship in the workplace. The importance of friendship outside of the workplace has been written about extensively since the time of Aristotle. David Brooks of the New York Times recently agreed with the ancient writers that friendships bring out our better selves, radiating social and political benefits that we all need.
A number of scholars have written about the way adult women’s friendships outside of work help us stay upright in the face of life’s challenges. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver wrote about the benefits to women’s mental and emotional health that result from having the support of other women in the workplace.
Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, makes the point that women cannot ignore the many double binds they face in the workplace if they want to be successful, however they may define success. She makes a strong case and cites solid research about the importance for women of being likeable if they wish to succeed and the double bind this creates for women. One of the studies described by Sandberg was conducted by two professors who used a Harvard Business School case study that described a real-life entrepreneur. They gave the case to business-school students to rate on several factors. Half the students got the case with the name Heidi, and the other half got the same case with the name Howard. While the students rated both Heidi and Howard as competent, they rated Howard as a more appealing colleague, while Heidi was seen as “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”
A recent Gallup survey confirmed that both women and men prefer a male boss. While the percentage who prefer a female boss has increased since 1953 when Gallup began asking this question, women would still choose a male (40 percent) over a female (27 percent) boss by a 13-percent margin. If almost half of the women in the workforce do not want to be led by women, this could pose a significant challenge for us as female leaders.
The topic of the double bind facing female bosses raised a lot of hackles among a group of women participating in this study in Spain. When one of the participants, Graciella, a financial services manager in her forties, described her approach to being a boss, an uproar erupted from the group. Graciella explained, “If I’m the manager, I don’t care about your personal problems—whether you are a woman or a man. I don’t want to be involved in your life. It’s not part of my job.” The objections were loud from the women in the group, and a lively discussion ensued about how being friendly makes it easier to get things done at work and having good relationships creates a better work environment. When Graciella was asked to say more about her professional experience, she acknowledged that female staff don’t stay long on her teams and that she had been told she was hard to work for—although she had never thought about the possibility that female staff had different expectations of her than of her male colleagues.
Most of the women I talk with as a coach and consultant believe that gender bias does not affect them at work. They believe that if they keep their heads down, work hard, and produce results, they will prove themselves and be rewarded and promoted. They have usually heard the statistics about the gender wage gap, which indicate that women make somewhere between 62 percent and 77 percent compared with the wages of male colleagues who do the same work (and the wage gap is much worse for women of color), but they don’t think the same could be happening to them. But gender bias can be subtle and hard to recognize. Are any of the scenarios below familiar to you? If so, gender bias may be working against you.
Shantel, a white American technology supervisor in her forties, explained that she has a natural masculine style that can create problems for her with female employees. “If you come in and seem too cool and not interested, that can be a disadvantage,” she explained. She has been told by her manager that she has to do more to increase morale among her female team members because they complain about her style and don’t like working for her. Shantel feels that she will have to chat more with the women to raise morale because they “value chatting,” which she isn’t thrilled about but she will have to take the time to do—something not expected from her male peers.
The exercises below are designed to raise your awareness about your organization, your friendship rules, and your own mind-set about conflict. We suggest some action steps you can take to get others around you to start thinking about these issues and to begin a dialogue that can lead to change.
1. Assess your organization’s culture.
a. Describe your organization’s culture. Which values are rewarded? Which values are discouraged? Which values best fit your own orientation to the world?
b. Share your perceptions with other colleagues and, possibly, with your boss.
2. Identify your friendship rules. Talk to your friends, coworkers, and family members and bring these rules into your consciousness. Write them down. Continue to notice your unspoken expectations.
The last friendship rule is the “mother of all friendship rules.” An unspoken taboo says we cannot name our friendship rules. While it is true that our relationship expectations, or friendship rules, become unconscious by the time we are adults, it is also true that for many of us, when another woman does not behave in the way we expect, our reflex is to stop speaking to her or withdraw from the relationship rather than to talk about what happened. We become distant or cold without explaining why. Or in relationships outside of work, we may stop returning calls and just disappear without an explanation. I have heard every excuse in the book about why women withdraw rather than confront an ex-friend (and yes, I have done this myself). The excuses sound something like this:
Where is the line for female bosses about how friendly to be with their female staff? Many women in my research and in my audiences have expressed confusion about where to draw that line. In fact, one of our strengths as women is that we are often comfortable having fluid boundaries with both bosses and colleagues at work. Scholars agree that women tend to emphasize the fluid nature of the boundaries between personal life and work life. But fluid boundaries can also cause confusion. One research participant, Penny, an administrator in higher education, explained, “My female staff will come to me and say, ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ They feel like a relationship with me should be all access.” Penny wanted to be friendly but was afraid of undermining her authority as the boss. She wondered whether she should just keep a distance and stay aloof.