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.
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,
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:
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.
Just the other day, another woman client started our executive coaching session by setting a new goal of learning to smile more at work. I coach both women and men clients, yet only the women seem to get developmental feedback from their supervisors that they need to smile more. This feedback comes more frequently as they move up the ladder to senior levels of responsibility. And, in my experience, women get this feedback a lot.
Let’s take a look at how these rules can clash with workplace norms through a story from the research.
Alice, an Asian American engineer in her fifties, told the story of a woman coworker who was a very good friend and how their relationship did not survive:
My colleague Teressa Moore Griffin and I have facilitated dozens of women’s leadership workshops. A few years ago, we began to notice something: the session had ended, but the workshop wasn’t over. The women who had participated had stayed after and were making plans to keep meeting.
In fact, one group of women who attended this workshop ten years ago still meets twice a year, even though they live all over the United States. They host each other in their communities, do service projects together, and even help each other out in times of illness and crisis. And this group was not an anomaly, so Teressa and I began to ask ourselves, “What is going on? What’s driving this behavior?”
The participants in my study confirmed what scholars have found about women’s friendship expectations: there is a core set of rules or expectations. The table below shows that these expectations include unswerving loyalty, trustworthiness, and the ability to keep confidences. Friends share gossip and air problems, are good listeners, offer self-disclosure, practice equality and unconditional acceptance, affirmation, sympathy, and healing—and they do not discuss or negotiate their friendship rules or expectations.
Recently a female client sent me an urgent e-mail message that said, “I need to talk! I just found out that a good friend and I are both applying for the same promotion, and I’m afraid this will ruin our friendship. What should I do?” I understand her concern and have heard it many times from other women. In fact, I remember when, earlier in my career, I almost did not apply for a position in my company that I really wanted because another woman I knew also wanted it. I did apply, I got it, and the opportunity changed my career trajectory. I did not know how to salvage the friendship, though, and it did not survive. Fortunately, I now know better how to handle this situation and will share some tips later in this blog. First, though, we need to understand more about why this situation seems to raise concerns and challenges for many women.