So far in my career, I’ve worked for half a dozen men, many of them hard-driving and lacking the warm fuzzy gene. In volunteer and freelance assignments I’ve worked with at least a dozen more. I’ve gotten along famously with all of them.
In that same time span, I’ve worked directly for one woman and alongside a couple others. These relationships are the only serious professional conflicts I’ve experienced.
Sometimes only a member of the group is permitted to generalize about its members or talk honestly about its failures, so I’ll share something a man would be tarred and feathered for saying—women in leadership do not play well together.
I’m not sure why. Does the salary disparity and glass ceiling still experienced by modern career women allow only the most politically-skilled or aggressive to find success—and then inevitably cause conflict when they start managing others?
Is it generational? I’m sure the women before me had more to prove than my friends and I do today. It could be threatening, infuriating, or both to see my generation climbing the ladder without quite as many male feet stomping us back down.
Or is it culturally learned behavior? For millennia women without muscle or means have been taught to find our power more covertly, from the relatively innocuous (“Honey, just let him think it was his idea”) to the more damaging (you remember Delilah, right?). Although the workplace’s job descriptions and more blatant power structure theoretically eliminate the need for such power games, do we still play them instinctively?
Or is it the mothering instinct? My experiences with women in leadership over me were positive as long as they could be framed as adult/child relationships, with these women teaching me or directing my work. When I wanted to relate as adult/adult—still respecting their authority, but with my own strengths and ideas—things took a turn for the worse.
Or maybe it’s just me—I am, after all, the constant among these situations, so perhaps the log in my own eye is divisiveness and insubordination. Except that no one else seems to think so, and a lot of other women I know—when pressed—will admit to having the same experiences.
In fact, when the guys are in another room, my girlfriends and I discuss these issues. In a way, we’re searching for answers to determine our own options. If only the pushy or manipulative woman can succeed in corporate America (or the corporate megachurch), that means we can either achieve our goals or like who we are. It seems an unnecessary choice.
There are wonderful women leading out there, too, several of whom I consider friends as well as colleagues. But it is interesting that my heartburn and headaches can all be traced back to women. Ladies, this is bad branding for all of us. Our mothers and grandmothers worked hard for appreciation and respect in the workplace. We can’t blow it now that we have some corner offices.