NOT ANOTHER GIRL FIGHT!
Women in the workplace should be able to disagree without all the petty labels
Context: Black. Female. Late 20’s. Middle Manager. Financial Services. Regional organisation. 2011.
It was a normal Wednesday morning, I arrived at the office and I was introduced to my new manager. I didn’t know I was getting a new manager. I didn’t know there was a role to fill above mine seen as I had been working there for over a year with no mention of that. I was surprised, perplexed and full of questions however I took it in my stride mostly because she was female and black. I am proudly biased to put my questions aside to welcome a female leader any day — the rest we would have to resolve later!
I spend the first few weeks glued to her side keenly making sure she had everything she needed to take over the world. I did also enquire with my CEO about why I was not informed about her appointment, but for those weeks he ignored my meeting requests, and so I received no answers. Nevertheless, I focused on my project which was about to launch in the market and my new project, ‘Make the boss-lady look great!’.
What happened in the follow up months I could not have predicted! My new boss-lady kept asking me about the basics of the job, what does a plan look like, how do you write a proposal, etc. One afternoon, she asked me and a senior colleague to stay behind after hours to show her how to put together a powerpoint presentation — not the copy only, but the actual mechanics of powerpoint; an essential tool for our trade. We helped her, still perplexed and now also deeply concerned. It was clear she did not know the basics of the job. There was nothing on her background on the internet and professional sites and so my colleagues and I started to dig deeper, asking questions to people we knew in the industry. Nothing came from it.
When she initially arrived she had a calm exterior, didn’t raise her voice, however as the weeks rolled on I caught her screaming at my junior design team when I was not in the room. I was so focused on my launch at the time; I had missed all these signs before. For her first 3 months, I was still the ‘face’ of the department and so to the outside world everything seemed normal in our area. I tried to talk to her about her conduct with my team, and that is how I gained her as an enemy. She explicitly told me that I was not in the rank to tell her what to do. She also told me not to think that I am ‘all that’ as she was in charge of my career and where it goes. I took a while to digest this. I am not a natural fighter. I was now still surprised, perplexed and deeply disappointed. This was not how I envisioned this would go. I was now even more curious about her… where did she come from? Still no answers internally.
I started to get really frustrated when her gaps started to derail my launch. She began interfering with the creative agency, debriefing them incorrectly without including me. This resulted in lost time and money wasted. I thought for sure by now my CEO would react but no. Thee entire top team pretended they thought she was great, until she left the room, where they then complained about her incompetence. Weak. All my CEO did was come down on me to pull the project through at all cost. In private conversations, he would tell me he understood my challenges but in public forums, he would aggressively demand delivery. It was like dealing with a dicator and a friend.
By the fifth month, I was at a loss. My project was now very late and now off brief. My budget was cut. I was under pressure to deliver. My team members were crying daily, and I do mean tears. Grown men and women, crying. When they were not crying, they were fighting against each other. The top team were avoiding me even in corridors. The boss-lady had at this stage also told Human Resources that I was making her life difficult and so I was continuously called in for warnings for things I did not do or say. I was scared to talk to anyone. I started to doubt my decisions, my ability to lead, my thoughts on the work. I became increasingly withdrawn, I worked longer hours to prove myself. I reached out to other senior teams in the holding company however they too told me there was nothing they could do to help.
The weeks got worse when boss-lady would arrive at work after 10am and leave by 3pm. She looked a mess, was incoherent and reeked of alcohol all the time. Her personal assistant did everything for her, even sign invoices. I tried to report this to HR but they were closed to me. Still, I was not defeated, yet, until I received a call from an old friend about a job. She was enquiring about a role she saw advertised and wanted to get my advice on weather I thought she should apply. I told her I was not aware there was a role that needed filling. After she sent me the job spec, I realised it was my job! The boss-lady was now advertising my role in the market whilst I was still in seat. She had clear plans to push me out of the business. I would be out of a job soon! Not only that, job ads were approved at the time by HR and assumingly the exco. What did this mean? Did they also agree that I needed to go?
Something else happened that day, answers, finally! It came through that the boss-lady was actually fired from her previous two companies. And although older than me in age, she had only been working for 5 less years than me. She was now hired at my company directly by the CEO (no HR steps were followed), not sure why but I also found out that one of the members of the board at our company was her future sister in law. I think that might have something to do with it. Now I was defeated. That night, whilst working late, I collapsed at the office and ended up in ER.
When I think back on the experience, the thing that irked me the most was actually my CEO and his exco team. Not just for letting me down, but for compromising the business to hide whatever this thing was. I can definitely say that I lost trust from that experience and have only regained a small portion of it back. Yes, yes, I know people say it is part of the battle scars but I disagree. I do not believe the lesson was worth so much of me: my trust in myself, my trust in people and my sudden reckless disregard for authority. I left that job a few weeks after my recovery. I left a project I was deeply in love with. Deeply. I was publicly humiliated. I was now the poster child for the classic office girl fight — the feminist in me weeps. It took me almost a year to trust my gut again — maybe longer.
I don’t hate the boss-lady (I don’t even remember her name today actually). There are many like her walking the corridors of offices, insecure and lashing out. It is the bad leaders who allow their behaviour that I cannot stand. This was not another girl fight. This was the fight between ‘the quest for excellence’ and ‘blatant incompetence’. Women in business should be allowed to fight this one out without the labels. After working for an incompetent woman, I had to learn that bad leaders create other bad leaders. As a woman I learned to put my need for excellence ahead of my need to see women get to the top.
I sometimes wonder, if she was a man, what would they have called our fight…