Whether I’ve worked in a traditional office, held a retail job, or worked remotely for a startup, most of my bosses have been men. With time I’ve found I have a limit for the bullshit male managers inflict upon female employees. I’m not alone. Most women have more than one cringe-worthy story about a male boss who treated them poorly--and in a way he'd never treat a man.
This story is long overdue, but I’ve been up to my elbows in emotional labor for basically… my whole life. Like most women. Sorry for the delay, guys! That said, let's look at five ways men in management belittle women--likely without even realizing it.
1. Telling us to smile.
What is it about men telling women to smile, anyway? All my life, men have complained that my natural (and neutral) look is too aloof.
Well, I am a decidedly introverted thinker. Getting lost in thought is not a female or male thing, yet men--and frequently, male bosses--are so quick to tell their female employees to smile at all times. Smile more! Smile bigger! You look so good when you smile. It's bloody patronizing.
And it’s not even an issue of bosses telling employees in customer service or those who face the public to be friendly. I’m talking about the flippant instruction men constantly give to women and women alone. "You should smile more..." as if all a female's problems in the workplace might be solved by her own image and (perceived) attitude.
Does it matter how others see you? Sometimes. But why does it matter so much more for female employees?
Men are not told to smile more--and they are certainly not expected to be “smiley” in general. But we also don't chastise them for appearing too aloof. There’s a reason why resting bitch face is typically used to criticize women but not men.
Telling women to smile is only the beginning of promoting this notion that we females were born to be excessively compliant. It also sends out the message that our value rests upon our ability to please men visually. Rather than the actual work we do in the workplace.
2. Assuming we’re overreacting if we voice a concern.
As a conscientious employee, it’s sometimes necessary to relay information your boss doesn’t want to hear. But good luck being the bearer of potentially bad news if you are a female employee speaking to a male boss.
Years ago when I still worked in an office, I made a lateral move within my company to get out of a call center. My three-person department managed third-party collections accounts, and my role handled all client bankruptcies for North America. Since this company is a “global provider of water, hygiene and energy technologies and services to the food, energy, healthcare, industrial and hospitality markets,” we're talking about many, many clients. At the time of my transition, we had recently acquired a wastewater management company along with a pest elimination services business.
Our single corporation was effectively multiple companies, and we were just beginning to take on SAP ERP with the intention to retire the old Mainframe. That meant I worked in three systems, required two screens, and received a new stack of bankruptcy paperwork more than a foot high every single day.
Two things became quickly evident. First, our department was understaffed for the amount of work coming in. It was impossible to process every bankruptcy and not get blindsided by some write-offs. Since management had recently changed, I brought this to the attention of the new manager. He did nothing but authorize me to work overtime on the backlog.
Neither he nor the next boss would grasp that I wasn’t simply overreacting or getting too emotional about my job. I wasn’t just overwhelmed. I hit my wit's end. Although I repeatedly came to management with a reality check about how behind we were, and I made great strides in automating processes and going electronic whenever possible, neither man took me seriously about the inherited backlog.
The other issue was that the scope of the daily work outmatched the actual job description and pay grade. The other female on my team was at the same grade level, and together we petitioned management to consider bumping our grade up to reflect our actual positions. Crazy, I know.
Our manager scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter all together, but when we sat down with him we discovered he had made a list ahead of time. It outlined all of the reasons he believed we were wrong and how our roles reflected the proper pay grade. Rather than discuss the matter and hear from us, he read off the list right off the bat.
Essentially, he listed everything he thought every “Grade 6” person did that we didn’t do. Except that every item on his list was something we did... and we told him so. Our boss reshaped his argument. “Well, those must be exceptions and not the rule,” he insisted. He was not only clueless about what we did every single day, but determined to prove us wrong without listening.
When my coworker finally said she could see he was going to refute everything we said so she had nothing else to add, our manager paused, jotted a note to himself and proudly announced, “I just thought of another one. Professionalism.” He looked thoroughly pleased with himself as he droned on about how Grade 6 employees were more professional than Grade 5s--insinuating that none of the daily work we did mattered because we would still never be professional enough.
I get it. Male managers love to tell a female employee that she's unprofessional every time she tells them something they don’t want to hear. We're not supposed to disagree, discuss our pay and worth, or bring up uncomfortable issues.
It happened to me again earlier this year even though I'm now a remote contractor for an internet startup. After being with the company since the beginning (nearly four years now), I brought up some concerns. For one thing, I asked why I wasn’t getting new accounts assigned as usual and what I could do to change that.
I kept getting the runaround from my male manager, so I went to the owner. I was upfront about my awkwardness to bring up the issue, but that it was causing me sleepless nights worrying about the future of my position so I hoped to get to the bottom of the matter. Was I doing something wrong? Could I improve my work somewhere in particular?
The owner set up a meeting with me where he laid out a list of reasons why he believed I was wrong and making a big deal about nothing. I could taste the deja vu from my previous male boss. Nothing I said was remotely taken seriously. Everything was assumed. And once again, I discovered this guy was completely out-of-touch since his "proof" wasn't even factual.
Of course, to top it all off, he too brought up professionalism. The message was clear--it’s unprofessional for me to question anything. How dare I be assertive of my rights in the workplace!
When a man asks unpopular questions, speaks up about why he deserves a raise, or suggests a more effective way to handle a process, we don’t call him unprofessional. It’s different when a woman does the same damn thing. Ugh. She's a nag or squeaky wheel. So unprofessional. As a result, too many male bosses are dismissive of anything their female workers say.
Hey, don't mind me, boys. I'm just being overly emotional. Again.
3. Downplaying our knowledge and experience.
If you want to make your business better, it makes sense to collect the input of your people who are doing the actual day-to-day work. Yet I’ve found that I can work at a business for years and still not hold the same weight as a man who’s been around less than half my time.
It’s rare for me to work with a male manager who genuinely respects a woman’s experience in her own field. Most of my male bosses have not only mansplained day in and day out, but they've also taken the credit for a woman’s idea after first ignoring it fifty times.
Trying to simply be heard in the workplace is a challenge for far too many women, all because of a gender bias that still flourishes today. And no, that's not to say that all male bosses do it, nor does it mean that men don't experience gender bias themselves. But this bias is still prevalent and hurting women in the workplace.
Women are supposed to have the same rights as men at work. Yet men who speak their minds, stand up for themselves, and value their own contributions are applauded as leadership material, while women who do the same things are viewed as troublemakers.
American workplaces are still affected by the boy's club. Even when you work remotely. A male coworker has been late on his weekly tasks for more than a year. Last Thanksgiving I finally brought it up and explained how it impaired my ability to deliver my piece of the product. Management replied that they knew he was busy because he had a new baby.
You know, as the single mom of a four-year-old who's never been in daycare and doesn't go to pre-school (because I can't afford it), I am keenly aware of the fallout if I were to become that working mom who misses her deadlines. Again, we expect that moms are going to get their shit done. Dads get an entirely different set of standards. We set the bar lower for men.
4. Suggesting we should be “sweet.”
People often describe me as an incredibly sweet person. Trust me, that's no humblebrag--it's simply because I'm shy and introverted, and do my best to be polite to others. I'm doing nothing special, but I dislike conflict, and especially hate being the instigator, so I try to pick my battles. That means two things.
First, if I'm bringing up an uncomfortable issue, it's been on my mind for a long time. I'm not too hotheaded, so I think a good deal about my position and typically ask others for advice before starting something. That also means I'm pretty damn awkward--hello, asperger's--and I'm honest about my trepidation when I do have to begin a tough conversation.
It turns out that I can't seem to properly pad these conversations to the liking of any male boss. No matter how much I avoid accusatory statements and ask if I'm doing something wrong, men above me can't seem to help themselves from responding to my concerns with the suggestion that I simply adjust my attitude to be sweeter.
Women who bring up concerns at work are more likely to be considered Negative Nancies, while men who do it are proactive. Nearly a year ago when I asked the male boss why I wasn't getting new clients, he had nothing negative to say about the quaility of my work. He claimed that if there had been a problem, my manager would have said so.
Something that was a problem? My disposition. He brought up the fact that months earlier I had talked to my manager about a pay cut for blogs. As kindly and gently as possible, I explained that the 60% pay cut didn't help any writer create a better blog post. I pulled research from industry regarding typical starting pay and the time it takes to research and write a blog of a particular length. I explained it was tough to even hit minimum wage with the decrease.
At the end of the day, I was pretty nice about the whole thing because I merely brought the issue to management's attention. I made no demands. I ran past every email by a fellow writer to check my tone before sending my replies. And I told my manager that I understood if a change wasn't in the budget, but I felt it wrong to say nothing and pretend like the decrease didn't impact quality.
None of that mattered. Months later, the owner brought it up and suggested I need to be more unaware of the way I sound when I communicate. "You know, It’s true that you catch more flies with honey," he said. And then he went on to posit that my manager might hesitate to give me new accounts if I don't think they're paying me enough.
Like no dude in the history of work ever asked for a raise or contested a pay cut. Sure...
Taking the idea even further, the owner said if I'm going to be in the communucation business, I should accept that it doesn't matter what I mean in any given situation. The only thing that matters is how others interpret my meaning. Therefore, I owed my manager an apology for even bringing up the blog pay.
Apparently this communication rule doesn't run upstream, since it hasn't mattered when management comes across as rude or nepotistic.
Ugh. All of this dribble extends from the sexist mentality that women in the workplace are supposed to be syrupy sweet. We're there to be pleasing--not to make waves. It's deemed completely appropriate to tell a woman she needs to be sweeter, more approachable, and friendlier in the workplace--and all of that means only one thing. Don't complain. Don't say there's anything you don't like in the workplace. If we don't like it we can work elsewhere.
Men aren't told to be sweet at work. Nor are they told to apologize for telling an employer or business that their services are worth more. They aren't penalized for agreeing to disagree. But of course, men also aren't expected to be 1000% compliant. The standards are different for men and women, with the latter being expected to not only comply, but to bend over backwards if need be.
It's not too different from the way we expect mothers to be more selfless than fathers. Enough people believe it's the natural order of the universe.
5. Using our personal lives against us.
This one is a little bit more insidious, I think. But time and time again, I've seen male bosses treat men and women differently by making a work issue personal for women. It's one more way to invalidate our experience and feelings. Of course, feelings never have a place in the workplace, right?
Oh yeah. It's only a woman's emotions which are unacceptable at work. Shoot, men can get offended by a woman's attitude or demeanor every damn day. HR will support that.
Back when I had my last office job processing bankruptcies? My female coworker and I went to HR about issues with our manager, including the fact that he refused to listen to any of our actual experiences on the job.
We were more than willing to agree to disagree. We were even alright with our manager telling us a raise simply wasn't in the budget. But we weren't okay with thinly veiled insults about our professionalism because we dared to begin an uncomfortable dialogue.
There were men around us in the next pay grade who streamed movies all day in their cubicles, sound on. Men who made up answers on the fly to any given request instead of researching the correct answer. Management didn't question their professionalism. Meanwhile they fired a top performer in the call center for surfing Facebook from her phone on downtime.
In the end, HR was clear that my coworker and I were making "serious allegations" against our boss and it wasn't a favorable position. Luckily, the manager stepped down and according to our male team member, had "vowed to never take a management position in the company again." Good. We were glad. With the way he treated his people--especially women--he had no business in management.
Years ago when I was looking for new work after an early divorce, I applied for an administrative assistant position for some aircraft-related R&D office. The hiring manager liked me as a candidate, but during the interview said he hesitated to hire me because of my age (early-twenties). "You're going to be around a lot of salesmen," he warned. I don't recall his exact words but he explained I'd have to be alright with bad behavior. Inappropriate jokes. Boy's club stuff.
This was before Mad Men was even created, but I still remember my shock that I was being asked to overlook potentially illegal and unethical behavior from men if I wanted the job. But hey, it's easier to subject women to shitty treatment in the workplace than it is to expect better behavior from men. A woman's wounded feelings are a real pain in the ass, right? Women take things personally. We don't need to set the already low bar any higher for men... just tell the ladies to chill the fuck out.
And last year, when I spoke to the male owner in an attempt to find out why I wasn't getting new clients? He couldn't help but bring up my personal life--namely, my feelings. In an effort to convey that I was making a big deal about nothing, he brought up an Instagram post I'd made about 6 months earlier. A purely personal post where I admitted my move from Minnesota to Tennessee had been very hard and lonely. I said I was tired of thinking I was on my way to finding my tribe but realizing I was back at square one.
It was a personal post I had every right to make, and I had legitimate reasons to be frustrated, but I wasn't insulting anyone. I simply spoke of my feelings and circumstances. His wife, however, clearly took offense to the post and chastised me in a public reply. She basically called me ungrateful, and suggested I was a bad friend. And I of course, like a doormat, bent over backwards to apologize for hurting her feelings.
I didn't invite her to go out for coffee because I don't have a car or reliable transportation. And I don't invite people to my house because I work all the time at home, and my place isn't set up to entertain. I admitted my fears that I was just her pity friend, so I was always worried about bothering her. I didn't mention how she routinely canceled plans without rescheduling and seemed to have no time for me. Nor did I bring up any of the nice gifts I'd given to her and her family in lieu of being able to drive. I sure didn't mention the fact that she seemed disinterested in quality time with me.
My boss brought up that post as if I'd done sonething terrible, when I'd simply been vulnerable and honest. More melancholy than they like. It had nothing to do with my job--I've worked for them in Minnesota and Tennessee. But he said, "Shannon, you think you're so alone when you're not." As if my perception was anything but real.
Male bosses think nothing of blurring the lines between what is professional and personal if it means using a woman's personal life against her. Oh look, she's emotional. Or depressed. Hormonal. Her experiences can't be trusted.
Maybe they can't complain about the quality of a female employee's work when she ruffles some feathers. So they can make things personal instead. More reason to claim instability or unprofessional conduct. It doesn't matter that men get away with unprofessional behavior all the time. Lighten up, ladies, it's just locker room talk.
There's a lot of discussion today about women in the workplace and the pervasive theory that we hold fewer leadership positions because we leave the workplace in favor of raising families. Yet there's a definite luxury to even have the option to stay home. Many women get no choice because their family can't make it on one income. Others are single moms like me who have to work to provide for a child and herself. And plenty of women choose to juggle work with family in her personal quest to have it all.
To understand the gender bias in the workplace we only need to look at the fact that men aren't asked to juggle. We don't feature men on the covers of magazines which ask how they manage to have it all.
The disparity is palpable, and in my experience it only gets worse as you head South. I routinely shake my head and ask if we're really living in 2018. Because yes, there is a systemic problem with male managers treating female workers like crap.
And some women are guilty of perpetuating the problem themselves. They'll criticize another woman for being difficult when she's displaying perfectly reasonable behavior--and accepted when carried out by men. Some women will even excuse all of the bad behavior by men at work. It's just a part of the machine. Women are supposed to be overly compliant--at least that's how the story goes.
What can we do about it? Well, we can go with the flow forever, or make waves knowing it will give us a certain reputation. Nasty woman, SJW, snowflake, bitch... speaking up doesn't make us popular. But a woman shouldn't have to apologize for voicing rational concerns or for speaking to her honest experiences on the job.
We're not coming into work to stroke the male ego. We're there to be taken seriously--just as seriously as most any man.
Yet we can't do it alone. We also need men on our side who can recognize the problem and see their own role in today's boy's club. We need men who won't take undue credit from their female coworkers. Above all, we need men who expect more of themselves than the tragically low bar society has laid out for them.