Dear Mr. Molloy:
I just found out that my new department head is going to be a woman. Since I’ve been married for 15 years to a professional woman I understand that women think differently than men. Before I go to work for this woman I wonder if there is anything I should know before I meet her. I’m sure women supervisors have different expectations of male employees than men in the same position.
Des Moines, Iowa
Since your wife is a professional woman I’m sure she knows how professional women think and since she has been married to you for 15 years I’m sure she knows how you act and behave. I think she would be a far better consultant on any problems that arose at work on a day to day basis. However, since I answered a letter similar to yours when I was writing a column I thought I might be helpful also. Your situation reminds me of my son when he was in the fifth grade when the teacher announced she was going to teach the class how to write. He sat with his arms folded. The teacher naturally asked him why he was not writing and he said his father was going to teach him how to write. When she suggested that both of us could teach him, he thought it seemed like a good idea and went to work. I hope you agree two perspectives on the problem might be more useful than one
Years ago when I was writing a column I received a letter similar to yours. Though I don’t remember the exact content of the letter I do recall the advice I gave to the gentleman who wrote the letter. I told him to treat his new boss, who happened to be a woman, the same way he would treat her if she were a man. That is my advice to you because department heads all have the same goal, to manage their departments successfully and they promote people who contribute to their departments and their success.
But since that letter was written several decades ago I felt obliged to interview a number of women department heads. In the last two days I interviewed 12 women department heads and ran a focus group with seven women managers two of whom I had interviewed.
They unanimously agreed that my original piece of advice was valid and that is exactly the way they wish to be treated. During the discussion of the focus group I told them that in the past I advised men who work for women to pay more attention to the way they dressed because women brought their own perspectives to the workplace. One of which is upper middle-class women which women managers are dress well.
Many of the women in our focus group objected to my assertion that they paid more attention to the way their male employees dressed than male managers. At the same, they said if you are sloppy and you work for them your chances of succeeding diminish dramatically. In fact three said that no matter how talented they were they would never consider putting someone like that in charge of others or the position where they have to interact with other departments, clients or the public.
At the same time, several of the women took umbrage at the idea that they paid more attention to image than their male counterparts. They said it implied they were shallow and made decisions based on factors that did not affect their department’s efficiency. Others got around this point by insisting that a person’s image did impact their efficiency. They thought slobs were usually disorganized and poor workers and they destroy the professional look at their office. I think the reason for the disagreement was in part due to how we define terms. When I showed them pictures of very talented high-tech people who were so casual they looked sloppy, lower class and unsuccessful even though all of them earned a six-figure income most the women said they would be a lot less likely to put them in charge of anything. So my advice still stands particularly for high-tech people who have to interact with women executives who are not techies themselves. Women technical executives generally not only accept males who dress very casually, but as one woman executive said they treasure them and promote them. So the impact of dressing very casually depends on where and for whom you work.
The focus group generally agreed that women when they were first put in charge were often nervous and reacted negatively if challenged by a man. They said that women had to be better at their jobs than men to move into management. Nevertheless when they first become managers it is not wise to challenge them. If you disagree with your woman boss and she’s new on the job do so privately and in a low-key manner.
I know this advice in not very definite but the women themselves varied dramatically on what a man should do differently if he has a woman supervisor. While years ago women executives were a rarity now they are in every section of the country and in every industry. As a result their opinions on how a man working for them should act or dress differed dramatically.
At the end of the focus group, one woman asked what advice I would give to a man working for another man. I thought about it for a minute or two, and said be a team player, as productive as you can, one of the better workers in your department, and dress appropriately for the job. And finally and most importantly when dealing with your boss, remember that person is the boss and often holds your business life in their hands. When I finished most of the women clapped and said that was the advice I should have given to men working for women. When I pointed out that is what I advised in the beginning they said they thought this version was better. So here it is.