Confusion for Bosses

My women staff will come to me and say, “How’s your boyfriend?” They feel like a relationship with me should be all access, and I don’t want to set up a situation where I’m becoming this kind of friend with them—not just a friend but an intimate friend. We tell all. Then all of a sudden I’ve got to be the person who says, “Get that done. Get it done tonight.” Then that’s a betrayal of womanhood to assert my authority when it’s going to cost them something. In chapter 2, we considered the negative consequences for female bosses when they are too distant or aloof and do not meet the relational expectations of their female staff. Letitia, a white technology manager in her forties, explained the dilemma that Penny faces as the boss: “It’s as though they expect you to subordinate the boss-subordinate relationship to the woman-friend relationship. They would not ask that of a man.” What is the answer? Both scholars and about 25 percent of the women in this study propose that women learn to make a distinction between being friends and being friendly with women at work, especially when they are the boss. I would go a step further and say that it does not need to be an either/or option—that we can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name whether we are the boss or a friend in any given interaction, with a clear understanding of how the relational rules or expectations are different in each situation. Kathy, a technology manager, explained how this approach works for her:

I do have two women I was friends with before I was promoted to management. I think we do a wonderful job of saying, “All right, this is a professional conversation.” If it’s a professional conversation, they know there are some things I cannot talk about. And if it’s not a professional conversation anymore, we are also clear with each other about that.
When Kathy says the women are clear about when they are having a professional conversation and when they are not, this means that she and her friends have specified where the boundaries are for each of them in a professional conversation. In other words, they have specified what they can and cannot talk about in their professional roles so that the expectations are clear. More details about a tool to accomplish this type of successful boundary management will be described later in this chapter. But before we go there, let’s take a look at a type of boundary confusion that can be particularly destructive if not handled well: when a friend becomes your boss.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Do You Need a Thicker Skin at Work? Three Tips for Surviving Criticism

study reported by Tara Mohr in the New York Times shows that women have more need to be prepared to handle negative feedback. The study, conducted by Kieran Snyder for found that female employees were given more negative performance reviews than their male counterparts by both male and female managers. The nail in the coffin, though, is that this study also found that “76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was ‘abrasive,’ or ‘judgmental,’ or ‘strident.’ Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.” These numbers speak to the double bind that women find themselves in when they have to be competent—which includes making tough decisions and getting their ideas heard—while coming across as nice to everyone. Other studies suggest that for women to be perceived as both competent and likeable is probably impossible. Women don’t need a thicker skin at work because we’re somehow weak or fragile—an enduring stereotype used to justify why women are not promoted into leadership in greater numbers. Not only is performance feedback to women more negative, but we Western women also carry in our cellular memory the legacy of a not-so-distant past when our survival depended on being acceptable to power-wielding men. Not so long ago, Western women could not count on protection from the law, could not own property, and could not have bank accounts. Many women around the globe today still have no rights and are dependent on those with power to protect them. When others who are powerful at work are disapproving of us, we can feel like their criticism is the worst possible outcome—because, for a long time, disapproval was life threatening for us. Of course, we want to realize our potential at work and be seen as competent. What this means, though, is that we must, as competent women, learn to expect criticism and learn to manage it on our own terms, grow from it, and not let it undermine our confidence or damage our self-esteem. Here are some tips for how to deal with criticism at work:

  1. Be aware of the big picture. Read about recent research documenting the special challenges that women face in the workplace. Form a book group with colleagues at work, both women and men, to read and discuss several recent books about challenges women face in the workplace. Form a Lean In Circle. These are all good ways to get helpful context for understanding that negative feedback is part of the territory for competent women. Understanding the big picture will help you keep some perspective and sort out what is useful feedback from what may not be about you at all.
  2. Increase your awareness of your strengths. Being grounded in your sense of your own strengths is important. I often encourage the clients I coach to request feedback from coworkers, supervisors, family members, and friends about their strengths—not their weaknesses. We often don’t see ourselves as others see us, and we seldom get feedback on what we do well. Being grounded in your strengths will help you reflect on critical feedback. Feedback should always be considered for what might be useful, but being able to compare the feedback to what you know to be true about yourself and discard what doesn’t fit is crucial. Being self-aware is important, but, at the same time, remember that feedback is often more about the giver of the feedback: some people might be critical just because you are a competent woman.
  3. Build support, especially with other women. Create a “safe space” where you can share experiences and best practices for how to make sense of and cope with negative feedback. While our experiences are not all the same, of course, finding other women who have shared a particular experience in the workplace is helpful. Sharing best practices and hearing that you are not alone can help you stay focused on your career and your goals. Without this type of support, many women lose their confidence and their voice and then give up on their goals.
What has worked for you when you have gotten a negative performance review? Please post your comments, and let’s share best practices.]]>

The Negative Side of Fluid Boundaries

Confusion for Staff In the opening story of this chapter, Penny described one type of boundary confusion from a staff perspective when she told of women bosses who seem to expect personal disclosure that was then used against the disclosers. Her description included sharing of feelings in an all-woman space, where relationship matters, that was then used in a business or hierarchical space where “keeping score” is what matters. This felt to Penny like being tricked by her women bosses and left her wondering whom she could trust. Another example of boundary confusion from a staff perspective comes from a research participant in China. Jang, a human resources manager in her forties, explained that women bosses seem to use relationship as a standard for evaluating the performance of women employees:

With women bosses, we talk about kids, husbands, vacations, fashion, and more emotional things. With men, we only talk about work. With a female leader, things don’t depend on your performance; they depend on your relationship with her and her feelings toward you. I’ve heard other women say they prefer working for a male boss because men are more fair and objective.
It is worth noting that while Asian cultures are known to be more relationship based than is generally true in US culture, the Chinese participants in this study still ascribed key differences in boundary confusion to gender differences. It seems possible that both women’s friendship rules and feminine workplace values are being reflected in Jang’s statement. Both Ilena, in her twenties, and Angella, in her thirties, managers in Mexico, expressed similar sentiments about female bosses. They said that women are more difficult to work with than men because men are more task focused. Ilena also described another situation, from a staff perspective, where relationship expectations across role boundaries were confused because the boss didn’t manage them well. Ilena felt she had to pretend to be friends with a female boss because that is what the boss expected and the boss had more power. Ilena’s boss expected her to act like a friend, which included lots of self-disclosure and socializing outside of work. Once the woman moved to a different department, Ilena explained “I don’t have to be her friend anymore because she’s no longer my boss.” We can see in this case how the mixing of fluid boundaries and hierarchical status differences can create pressure for staff to fake a relationship when the awareness and skills for managing the boss-employee role boundary are absent. From a staff perspective, a lack of clarity about role boundaries, or the inability to name and negotiate them while staying in the relationship, means that women can experience disappointment or confusion about the behavior of women bosses. Female staff can feel tricked or pressured by women bosses or feel that their performance is being evaluated unfairly.  None of these outcomes needs to happen.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

When Talking about Bias Can Make a Situation Worse

recent New York Times article, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg shared this brain teaser: A father and a son are in a car accident. The father is killed, and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.” I confess that I felt stumped, but I could have kicked myself when I read on and saw the answer. Once again, I caught myself, in spite of all the work I have done on challenging gender stereotypes in myself and others, assuming the surgeon was a man—one of those enduring stereotypes about which gender belongs in a role. The doctor in this story was a woman, and the mother of the victim. This is a humbling reminder of how deeply embedded and unconscious the stereotypes we carry in us can be. Grant and Sandberg report that 40 to 75 percent of people today still can’t figure out the brain teaser above. I have previously written about the ways that gender bias might be creating barriers for women at work. In another recent article about the dearth of women in technology, Google was praised for instituting diversity-training workshops last year based on an emerging field in social psychology known as unconscious bias—the pervasive and hidden reflexive preferences that shape our worldviews and reactions to others. Grant and Sandberg point out, though, that the approach Google used can make the situation worse, if not handled carefully. They cite several recent research studies that show that making people aware of stereotypes about women actually decreased the likelihood that research participants would hire a female candidate or judge her likeable. Here’s the catch: we should not stop making people aware of stereotypes, but we have to be very careful about how we do it. Grant and Sandberg note that research shows that if we just say, “These stereotypes are deeply embedded and common in our society,” people seem to hear the message, “Everyone else is biased, so I don’t need to worry as much about what I say or do.” Instead, researchers say that what makes a difference is taking the additional step to be sure that we explicitly communicate the following messages about these biases:

  • These biases are undesirable and unacceptable.
  • Other people want to conquer these biases, and you should, too.
  • Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.
A lot of good news is coming out about the positive difference that gender balance can bring to the workplace and about the strengths women leaders bring. I suggest that we remind the people around us in the workplace of these positive facts to help motivate them, and ourselves, to move past gender biases:
  • Men are more confident, but women are more competent.
  • When women lead, performance improves.
  • Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed.
  • Innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable.
  • Companies with more gender balance have more revenue.
Let’s become aware of and point out gender discrimination and bias when we see it. I want gender bias to disappear. Shouldn’t your colleagues and your organization want this, too?]]>

Do You Have a Sponsor? (Not a Mentor)

experience of my clients and recent research show otherwise. Research conducted by Catalyst on 4,000 full-time employed women and men identified as “high potentials” found that women with the same education as their male counterparts, hired at the same time in the same roles, reported significantly less income, job satisfaction, and advancement within a few years of beginning their careers. The Catalyst investigation revealed that the men often received sponsorship, while women received mentorship. Sponsorship differs from mentorship because it goes beyond giving feedback and advice to using the sponsor’s influence with senior executives to advocate for opportunities for the employee. Catalyst’s research concluded that women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to male peers. A special report in 2012 by McKinsey & Company agrees that one of the important barriers to women’s advancement is structural because it is harder for women to get into the right networks of powerful executives. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in her book, Forget a Mentor: Find a Sponsor, explains the difference between mentors and sponsors this way: mentors give; sponsors invest. She explains that both mentors and sponsors give advice and make introductions, but the difference is that sponsors go out on a limb for you and then make it their business to see you succeed because you carry their brand. In return, protégés work hard, provide a diverse perspective, and help the sponsor realize their vision and goals.

What You Can Do to Find a Sponsor

Sylvia Ann Hewlett suggests the following:
  1. Look around and identify leaders with influence, power, and a voice at decision-making tables. Your mentor may also help you identify potential sponsors.
  2. Choose a sponsor carefully. The people you consider don’t have to be your role models. You don’t have to like or emulate their leadership styles. They shouldn’t be your friends. Sponsors should be two levels above you in a large organization or have the ear of the founder or president in a smaller organization.
  3. Get in front of would-be sponsors (but don’t ask them to be your sponsor):
    1. Ask your manager for stretch assignments that will get you seen by your would-be sponsor.
    2. Request a meeting with your target sponsor for career advice.
    3. Approach your would-be sponsor with an idea for how you can help with a project of interest to him or her. Be concrete about the contribution you want to make, and explain what you are looking for in return (some possibilities include introductions, stretch opportunities or lateral moves).
    4. Cultivate more than one sponsor—one inside your organization and one outside.
Push yourself! And don’t forget to “pay it forward” by being a sponsor to others when the opportunity arises.]]>

Where Are the Women in Technology?

number of women in computer science has dropped off steeply in the last twenty years, while the technology industry has grown dramatically, and technology companies are complaining that they cannot find enough workers. Here are some interesting facts:

  • In 1985, women made up 37 percent of undergraduates majoring in computer sciences. In 2012, less than 18 percent were women, according to the National Science Foundation.
  • In 1990, 34 percent of those employed in computer occupations were women. By 2011, 27 percent were women, according to the US Census Bureau.
  • An editorial in the New York Times on October 25, 2014, shared that a 2008 report published by the Harvard Business Review found that women quit high-tech jobs at twice the rate of men.
  • At Microsoft, only 17 percent of the technological positions are occupied by women, which is average in the industry.
No one factor can explain the poor representation of women in technology, but the unwelcoming cultures and biases in many technology companies have to play a big part. Consider these challenges women face in technology environments:
  • Being the only woman on a team or in a meeting can get lonely.
  • Masculine workplace cultures often value or condone very combative and competitive behavior that is uncomfortable for many women.
  • Women often feel talked down to or are given subtle messages that they don’t belong in technology.
  • Some women feel their male bosses give credit to male peers for work they have done. They feel invisible.
There is a general cluelessness among many male leaders. The chief executive at Microsoft recently told a room full of professional women that they don’t need to ask for raises. They should just trust the system to be equitable, and they will get raises if their karma is good. Really? Where has he been? My niece recently graduated from engineering school where she was one of very few women. She now has her first job with a large aeronautics company, and she loves her job. She was crying when she called me one day recently. One of her male peers had said to her, “Forget about advancing here. Just look around. You’ll see that women don’t make it as engineers, and you won’t make it either.” She asked me, “Is it true?” This conversation with her broke my heart. A spate of recent articles have put a spotlight on the gender gap in technology companies. This attention is causing some of these companies to admit they need to change and become more welcoming to women. This is hopeful. Women are just as talented in math and science as men, and we want jobs that pay well like those in technology. What we need is the chance to work in environments where we can thrive. Let’s keep up the pressure for change.  ]]>

Next Steps for Supporting Women

  • Make a list that describes the characteristics of your ideal boss, in general. Then make a list that describes your ideal woman boss. Once you have your lists, compare them. What do you notice? What friendship rules might be operating for you with your ideal woman boss?
  • Be honest with yourself, and put a check mark by the statements below that apply to you. We have all participated in many of these behaviors at some point. Notice them as you go forward and challenge yourself to stop doing them. Have you ever
    • Laughed at a joke told by a man at the expense of a woman?
    • Assumed a woman got promoted because of whom she slept with?
    • Assumed a woman got a job because of a quota?
    • Talked about other women with men to be accepted as “one of the boys”?
    • Said another woman was too sensitive about gender issues?
    • Been more critical of women leaders than of men?
    • Said, “I hate working for women”?
    • Consciously undermined a woman leader?
  • Use the following scoring guide to reflect upon your answers:

    1–2 checks = You are relatively supportive of other women. 3–4 checks = You are somewhat less supportive of other women. 5+ checks = You have a strong tendency to not be supportive of other women.

    1. Notice your reflex to be critical or dismissive of other women, especially if they are successful. Ask a buddy to do this exercise with you. When you each notice the reflex to be critical or dismissive of other women, mark it down in a notebook or electronic notepad. Share your marks with each other weekly to help each other see patterns and raise your awareness.
      An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Can I Be Your Friend and Your Boss?

    I really like one of the women I supervise, and we have become friends. We’ve started socializing outside of work, and I really enjoy her company. Lately she has been coming in late and leaving early. I feel she is taking advantage of our friendship, but it is awkward for me. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. I am really uncomfortable with confrontation, and I don’t want to damage our friendship. What should I do? Gladys needs to learn to handle two challenges in this situation: (1) dealing with conflict or confrontation and (2) eliminating boundary confusion to have healthy relationships with coworkers as both a boss and a friend. Women in my research and my women clients frequently report these as common challenges.

    Avoiding Conflict

    Paula, a nurse who participated in my research on women’s relationships in the workplace, sums up the theme of avoiding conflict with friends as follows, “We weren’t raised that way [to be direct and confrontational]. We were told that women didn’t do that … you were to be seen and not heard.” “Seen and not heard”—I remember being told this when I was growing up. I thought I had to avoid confrontation because it could damage a relationship and was not “nice.” But I eventually realized that damage to the relationship was much more likely to occur by avoiding conflict and not dealing directly with differences. By letting bad feelings pile up, I was creating distance and mixed messages. Dealing directly with misunderstandings or hurt feelings and clearing them up actually makes relationships stronger. Many of us don’t have the skills to be direct, but excellent resources are available for learning these skills.

    Boundary Confusion

    Boundary confusion grows out of one of our strengths as women—we are often comfortable with having fluid boundaries and developing friendships with 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. Scholars, and about 25 percent of the women in my research, propose that women bosses learn to distinguish between being friends and being friendly with other women at work. I would go a step further and say that this does not need to be an either/or option. We can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name our role—boss or friend—in any given interaction. We also need to have a clear understanding of how the relational expectations differ for these two roles.

    Use a Tool Called Role Hats

    Gladys can be the boss of her friend, and they can be friends outside of work. I say “outside of work” because it is important that Gladys’s other direct reports not see her showing favoritism in the work environment toward her friend. The key is for Gladys and her friend to learn how to discuss and negotiate their roles and relationship boundaries. Sharon, the CEO of a healthcare services organization, describes a useful tool called role hats: To be friends at work requires total transparency. I explicitly name the role that I’m coming from—boss or friend. And we are always clear about how the hats work—what I can and cannot talk about when I have my boss hat on and how I see my responsibilities. We can also be friends outside of work as long as we stay clear about our hats. The key, then, is to be explicit about your expectations. Gladys can let her friend know that as the boss she is responsible for managing the workload and morale of her department. Accordingly, her friend cannot come in late and leave early. Here are some steps she (and you) can take to clarify role boundaries at work:
    1. Start by sharing your desire to maintain your friendship and have a good work relationship as well.
    2. Name all the functional roles involved in the relationship, such as boss, friend, or colleague.
    3. Discuss each person’s needs in each role, and really listen to each other.
    4. Exchange suggestions for behaviors that could meet each person’s needs in each role.
    5. Establish ground rules for how you will alert each other to your use of a role hat, such as:
      1. Ask me which hat I’m wearing.
      2. Ask me to change hats any time, and I will tell you if I can and why (or why not).
    Good relationships, both inside of work and outside, are important for our well-being, satisfaction, and success. Keeping them strong and healthy takes some effort, but it’s worth it!]]>

    Women in a Man’s World

    New York Times in April 2013, entitled “Women in a Man’s World,” female executives on Wall Street were interviewed and asked why so few women had made it to the senior ranks. In interview after interview, the female executives blamed themselves for not trying to change the status quo. One of the executives, Irene Dorner, the chief executive of HSBC USA, explained that throughout her career she had “kept her head down, focusing on her own career.” She acknowledged that she and the other female executives in the financial industry had not been very good role models and had not spoken out or complained about misogynistic comments and discriminatory practices. The executive women interviewed for the New York Times article were usually the only women at their levels in their companies. Having limited spaces at the top means that the few women who are there can’t change things alone, so the status quo can continue undisturbed. The junior women in a company may believe a senior woman is choosing not to do anything to help other women when the truth is that the senior woman may feel that her hands are tied. The pressure for lone women who make it to the top to keep their focus on proving themselves to the men, while not being perceived as threatening, is intense. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Are Women Better Decision Makers?

    recent article in the New York Times by Therese Huston says yes!—women are better decision makers in stressful situations. Huston cites research by several neuroscientists that shows that in low-stress situations, women and men make decisions about risk in similar ways. When stress is introduced, however, women bring some unique strengths to the table that result in better decisions. Here are some examples of the positive impact women have had:

    • Credit Suisse examined 2,400 global corporations from 2005 to 2011, which includes the years just before and after the financial crisis, and found that companies with at least one woman on their board outperformed comparable companies with all-male boards by 26 percent.
    • Several studies show that investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperformed those run by male managers.

    Read moreAre Women Better Decision Makers?