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I was trying to figure out how I could take my child to the dentist without using any of my precious vacation time. My plan was to use a sick day, but my boss was adamant that sick days are for when you’re sick. I tried appealing to her as a mother who had somehow survived the double-marathon of raising children while working full-time.
“You feel my pain, don’t you?” I asked. “Couldn’t I save that vacation day for vacation?”
We seem to have an appetite for narratives that characterize women as terrible bosses.
“I missed out on plenty of vacations when I was raising my kids,” she said.
And that was that. She didn’t need to verbalize her rage over how hard it had been in her day, or how no one had given her a break. The full scope of the bitterness was in her tone, and while I vowed, silently, to find a new boss, I also vowed to be a kinder one.
Women Bosses = Dragon Ladies?
As a nation we seem to have an appetite for narratives that characterize women as terrible bosses. Last year The Atlantic ran an article that aggregates anecdotes about female bosses, suggesting that there are “types,” such as “queen bee,” “dragon lady,” or “emotional softie.” Gah.
These terms are so meaningless, but what’s worse is that they play into the double-bind that professional women have suffered from since forever: we disdain women who act too much like men, but, on the other hand, we disdain women who act too much like women. We’re Goldilocks, looking for that lady-boss who’s not too hard and not too soft, and we seem to think that somewhere out there, there must be a lady-boss who’s just right.
We disdain women who act too much like men, but, on the other hand, we disdain women who act too much like women.
I’ve been working for almost 30 years, and I promise you, there’s no lady-boss who’s just right. But also, there’s no dude-boss who’s just right. It boils down to something akin to a geometric proof: bosses are people; people have baggage; therefore bosses have baggage. Women bosses are not monsters—but they are human.
The Whole Gamut
My female bosses have run the gamut from wonderful to harrowing. One of my all-time best bosses was Eleanor, an Irish-Catholic who narrowly escaped the convent by getting married (and divorced) and pushed our little New York City nonprofit organization—in 1991, mind you—to become more inclusive. “Why are there only white people working here?” she asked, and she led the charge to recruit women of color. She had high expectations, exercised empathy, and respected her protégés. She also seemed to possess a sixth sense when to step in and when to stand back.
One of my all-time best bosses had high expectations, exercised empathy, and respected protégés.
My all-time worst boss was an insecure, tyrannical, and paranoid woman who threatened her employees with lawsuits if they said unpleasant things about her or her husband. At night, she read our emails. She bullied her lawyer into writing illegal contracts for us.
There was also the department chair, a woman who clearly preferred the company of handsome young men and, once besotted, blatantly promoted their work over that of us women. In the end, though, she seemed like just another workplace hurdle among thousands of workplace hurdles.
And then there was the hard-ass boss, Stephanie, the woman who wouldn’t let me use a sick day to take my child to the dentist. I can still work myself into a lather thinking about all those evenings I snuck out of my office on time at five o’clock sharp and tiptoed the long way around to the elevator so Stephanie wouldn’t see me leaving so “early.”
And What About the Men?
Have the men bosses been any better? Not really. Have they been any worse? Not really. I’ve had that man-boss (haven’t we all?) who cut me off in meetings, or explained things to me that I already knew. I’ve had the man-boss who made inappropriate comments about other young women in the office (as I assume he must have done about me). And the man-boss who completely ignored interpersonal conflicts that, as the manager, he should have been mediating but didn’t, because interpersonal conflict was too boring and too hard to deal with.
There’s also the fastidious man-boss whose story I tell the most often because it’s so baffling and egregious. A female co-worker and I were kvetching about how hard it is to go home at the end of the day and leap into mom duties before you even change your clothes: you have to pick up kids, or get dinner on the table, or manage crises, or all of these things at once. Our boss, whom I’ll call Hugh, rolled his eyes and sighed an enormous sigh of empathy. “I know,” he said. “It’s chaos. It’s exhausting. It’s awful. It makes my stomach get really upset every time I go through it.”
From that day on, every time I heard the click-click-click of his fussy little dress shoes walking down the hall toward my office, my stomach would turn.
For a moment, my co-worker and I thought we had found a kindred spirit, and we were surprised because we had not expected a sympathetic ear from Hugh. Then Hugh said, “That’s why I make sure to come home on the late side, after my wife has already fed the kids and gotten them ready for bed. My stomach just can’t handle all that other mess.” From that day on, every time I heard the click-click-click of his fussy little dress shoes walking down the hall toward my office, my stomach would turn.
But there’s also the man who gives Eleanor a run for her money in the good-boss department. He’s a dad, and when I say that my child just ran into a wall in P.E. and has to go on concussion watch, he says, “Go, do what you have to do, take your time. Nothing that important is going to happen here today.” Like Eleanor, he, too, has high expectations, exercises empathy, and respects his protégés. He knows when to offer a hand and when to let his people figure things out on their own. These are the qualities you want in a boss—and they’re available to anyone of any sex who wants to cultivate them.
What’s your story about women bosses? Do you find them better or worse than male bosses? Please share in comments.