Working for the Woman

To succeed in the modern workforce, men need to learn to play well with others—and forget our outmoded expectations of leadership.

In the 11 years since I graduated college, I have worked under three chief executives. All women. This would be a unique situation in the corporate world, where women make up only 2.5 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies, but in the non-profit sector where I work it’s far more common. According to the White House Project, 45 percent of the CEOs of non-profit organizations—and 73 percent of the non-profit workforce—are women. While there is still a glass ceiling (a persistent wage gap exists in non-profits and women are far less likely to hold leadership positions at non-profits with larger budgets), it is still a field where strong female leaders are a recognized presence.

So what’s it like being a man in a field where women make up the majority of your colleagues?

The first thing to realize is that a female-dominated workplace does not make institutionalized sexism go away. To some, that may be a pretty obvious thing to say, but it’s something many of us don’t realize. Some believe male privilege vanishes in the presence of a female supervisor, and that men become oppressed because a woman has some degree of authority over them. I’ve seen it up close: men still expect to be able to talk over female peers and dominate discussions—and then resent the women who won’t tolerate it. I can tell you that these attitudes exist in largely female workplaces, but I can also tell you that they aren’t productive or sustainable. The men who could not play well with others—who couldn’t learn to work with female colleagues as equals—were not my colleagues for long.

Being aware of privilege can be difficult, but being aware of internalized sexism can even more challenging—I was interested in feminism at an early age, but I was still unprepared for this. Collaborating with female supervisors and colleagues who did not line up neatly with societal expectations threw my internalized expectations of gender roles into sharp relief. The women with whom I worked had enormously varied professional styles and philosophies. “Feminine” and “masculine” traits lost all meaning. My coworkers were simply coworkers—peers, committed to the same goals.

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Gender is part of who we all are, but it alone is not a predictor of our actions. Learning this is not just about seeing what women can do, but also what we ourselves are capable of. Men don’t just internalize ideas about the gender roles expected of women, but also what is expected of us. Men are told to be aggressive and competitive; we’re judged on our ability to live up to these ideals. Sure, there are professional environments where these traits are desirable, but they aren’t universally good, nor are they exclusively male.

The reverse is also true. Men can employ “feminine” traits to great advantage in their own work lives. It’s important for men to look beyond our internalized expectations of ourselves to find what really works.

Working for non-profits definitely requires assertiveness as well as the work ethic to put in long hours. Most non-profits get things done with far fewer financial and personnel resources than for-profit enterprises, and they make up the difference with the determination of their staffs. This also requires a high degree of cooperation; both with your coworkers and with “rival” organizations. A community where multiple non-profits in a particular sector can thrive is stronger than one where only a single group can exist.

Success also requires sacrifice. No one gets rich doing non-profit work. You put in long hours for low pay. To make it, you have to feel that your sacrifice is worth it. Women have found success working for non-profits not because of their “feminine” professional traits, but because of their capacity to look past these sorts of gender roles. Men in this field need to do the same; they can draw inspiration from female leaders who have done it. You don’t often hear about men having female role models, but I hope that can change.

The reason my workplaces have been so productive is in large part due to the women steering the organizations. All were unique in their approach to leadership, but the key to their success is how they fostered environments that granted opportunities to all employees, and insisted that their team respect one another and the organization. Each manager defied expectations—not simply of what’s expected of women, but what’s expected of those at the helm. In a society where “leadership” is often defined to presume maleness, the female leaders for whom I’ve worked realized their potential without any nod to expectation. Their professional styles did not fit snugly into convention. They exhibited what people—not just women—are capable of, and I’ve been profoundly inspired by their passion, commitment, and perseverance.

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Read more Men at Work:

Dacus Thompson: Career Changers

Tim Donnelly: In Defense of Dating Your Coworker

Ted Cox: 11 Rules for Working Out of a Coffee Shop

Hugo Schwyzer: The Myth of Male Inflexibility

Mark Oppenheimer: Life Lessons From My Alcoholic Boss

John Olympic: What It’s Like to Work in Walmart Hell

Tom Matlack: The Illusion of Success

Morra Aarons-Mele: How to Work From Home

Ryan O’Hanlon: Meet America’s Oldest Minor Leaguer

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About Brian Stuart

Brian Stuart blogs about fat acceptance at
Red No. 3 and is an arts administrator living with his wife
in Boston. He was once called "dangerous" by an anonymous internet
commenter and considers this the highest complement he has ever
received.

Comments

  1. Anonymous Male says:

    No denying there are men with unrealistic and outmoded expectations when it comes to working with women. Aggressiveness and competitiveness can get in the way in any organization even if everyone there is aggressive and competitive.

    Part of the conflict, though, is in communication style, not necessarily a problem with respect. People who interrupt, male or female, are not necessarily trying to shut down someone else, even if it feels like it. Often they are acting the way that they assume everyone else is acting. Men are more likely to see a discussion as a kind of freewheeling auction of ideas, where the whole point is to come to a decision, whereas women are generally more likely to focus on building the consensus to make the decision. (I know, these are gross generalizations, not immutable gender laws, but I know I’ve seen this difference quite a bit.)

    Men and women in groups tend to arrive at collective decisions very differently. I’m not prepared to say one way is superior and the other gender(s) better get on board before they get left behind.

    Men who may have never worked with a female boss before do need to know that there may be more than one valid way to make a decision, have a discussion, or communicate information. It’s good to be self-aware about which kind you prefer or which one you’re good at. It’s a great job skill to be able to say, “I’m the kinda guy who works best with a _____ approach; I know there’s more than one way to do something. This is a little new to me, so bear with me.”

    • I think attributing it to poor communication is too easy of an explanation coming from a privileged group. The problem is that this dynamic isn’t happening in a vacuum. These are trends that men often are not asked to think about, but will stand out quite starkly to women. Its not always about an active disrespect, but also all the things we feel entitled not to even consider. Working for women, though, demands that the man think about these things and adjust accordingly. I don’t think that behavior is a biological imperative or even considered hostility most of the time. It is what men are often taught through ingrained social structures. That men are empowered to not consider these things, though, is still a problem and men need to be part of the solution by striving for an awareness of those things that get taken for granted.

      • Anonymous Male says:

        I think I see what you’re saying:

        When working with a male employee, a male boss would likely put up with a certain behavior that a female boss would not tolerate. (In the examples you gave, this would include interrupting the boss and dominating discussion.) Many male employees don’t realize that it’s a different situation with a female boss. The fact that they never realized the difference is a kind of male privilege, because it’s a privilege to be free from worrying about something that other people do have to worry about. Being able to be clueless about sexism is a kind of male privilege, and that privilege gets challenged when a woman becomes the boss.

        Is that it in a nutshell?

      • Privileged group ? This isnt 1973. I graduated from college 30 years ago…and went to school with women equally represented, worked with women and for women and had women work for me. This is the norm. For every rude male that talked over people, I have experienced the same in females. You can always find sexism and gender issues where you want….if that’s what your looking for.

  2. Is this the good mens project as defined by women? I see we’re starting with the assumption men are “privileged” and women are “victims.” Lets set the record straight, women we’re never oppressed. For every woman who was “locked in the home” in the past there was a man who was risking his life or actually dead from working in dangerous jobs or fighting in a war either not of his choosing or to protect the woman who was supposedly locked away. The women of those days were privileged and they knew it, they were grateful beyond belief to their husbands for the sacrifices they made. How anyone could equate being in a safe home as oppossed to working or dying in a job or war as oppressed is laughable.

    The reason why men have invented all art, music, literature, inventions, ect. is because they are biologically good at it. The reason why all history is filled with men of genius is because of biology. So if you want something to blame for womens oppression, biology is the culprit. All womens gains in education, socially, politically and financially in the past 50 years is due only to the guns of the State artificially enforcing advantages and privileges that do not exist in reality. How any man could possibly support a site that degrades and despises men is beyond comprehension.

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