Anne Litwin

Author, Keynote Speaker, Workshop Trainer and OD Consultant

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The Double Bind Facing Female Bosses – Part 2

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.

Could Subtle Gender Bias Be Holding You Back? How to Recognize and Overcome It

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.

The Double Bind Facing Female Bosses

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.

Next Steps

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.

Don’t Discuss Friendship Rules

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:

How Friendly to Be When You Are the Boss

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.

Tears at Work: Natural but Taboo

I have never really understood why it is so taboo for women and men to shed tears in the workplace. Yes, I know that most workplace cultures tend to reflect masculine workplace values, as Joyce K. Fletcher describes in her chapter “Relational Theory in the Workplace”in The Complexity of Connection. As one of my research participants explained, in most workplaces where masculine workplace values dominate the culture, you are expected to “leave your feelings at the door” when you come into the workplace.


The friendship rule of self-disclosure is similar to the rule of airing problems. One additional dimension to this friendship rule is the expectation that emotional expression will be supported by other women. As I’ve noted elsewhere, masculine workplace values say that we should leave emotions and personal matters at the door when we come to work. It is unlikely that anyone can really do that, woman or man, but you can show emotion at work in limited ways in the masculine workplace. While men can show anger by banging on the table or raising their voices, other emotions are supposed to be suppressed. Tears, in particular, are considered unacceptable at work and are seen as a sign of weakness. One of the study participants explained,

Who Am I?

Differences Make a Difference—Part I

Women are not all the same. I write and give talks about women in organizations, but I know that generalizations about women are inaccurate. Of course, we are all different, but I agree with Joyce K. Fletcher and other researcherswho say we also have experiences in common as women in organizations. I believe we may all benefit from better understanding our commonalities as well as our differences. However, it’s complicated. Our individual experiences in organizations are influenced by how gender interacts with race, class, ethnicity, level of employment, sexual orientation, nationality, and even personal history—just to name a few possible variables. One concept that has helped me visualize the ways all these differences interact is the metaphor of a hologram or prism offered by Evangelina Holvino, a scholar on this topic. Holvino suggests that we imagine a prism with gender at the core and many intersecting sides representing race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality. The prism is transparent, and as we turn it we see not only all the differences simultaneously but also each angle displaying a particular combination. Placing gender at the core helps us focus on how gender influences many of our experiences in organizations. Gender is central, according to Dr. D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, because “women have been systematically devalued and excluded in all capitalist patriarchal systems.” Rotating the prism can help us explain ourselves to others and understand one another. For example, to tell you more about who I am, I would rotate the prism to focus on aspects besides gender that are important for you to know about me:

Competitive Contributions

In a masculine workplace culture, ideas are often put forward in team settings in a competitive manner as independent contributions, and in fact, individual contributions are what get rewarded in most organizations. Many organizations talk about valuing teamwork, but very few of them have team-based reward systems. In situations where women are in the minority, women often say that they have trouble getting their ideas heard by their male colleagues in team meetings and that often male colleagues will repeat what a woman has just said and get credit for the idea. In a situation where there are only two women on a team, it seems likely that the need for loyalty and support from the only other woman colleague increases when it feels difficult to be heard—yet as women, we have to play by the men’s rules to be promoted. It is easy to see that if one woman colleague in this type of setting has an idea that is in conflict with the other woman colleague’s, or if playing by the men’s rules means that the loyalty expectation is betrayed, it can feel like a personal betrayal.