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HomeBlogBoss Lady: Challenges of Heading a Cohort of Men at the Workplace – by Wangari Maina

Boss Lady: Challenges of Heading a Cohort of Men at the Workplace – by Wangari Maina

boss-lady

While undertaking university, I got an internship within an IT company. As it was voluntary, what I agreed to forego in monetary terms, I got it in form of experience.

While working fulltime during one of the long holidays, the boss decided that I was the best to carry out his devastating plan of laying off staff who had served him for years. It wasn’t because I was cold hearted but it seemed he thought I was the one with the least emotional investment. He was wrong. That process left me wounded. It was my fire baptism into the guerilla world of corporate. I still have the emotional and psychological scars which fuel my drive towards better corporate transitions.

After graduation, I changed jobs to a department within a multinational where I was the only female in a team of nineteen. The rest of the company had a good ratio of men to women.

Years on, I was promoted through the ranks to be head of the same department. By this time, the team had grown to a whooping 45 people with only 5 ladies (me included); but the imbalance was not deliberate. The company just couldn’t find qualified and willing female ladies to fill the available vacancies.

Evaluating this situation with hindsight, I realize that any woman with the desire or mandate to manage/ lead a project, team, company, industry or group of men needs more than academics, work and industry expertise.

That’s what this article is about. The men-folk mainly characterize the history of the corporate world. In recent times, as women venture into spaces presumably reserved for men, they find challenges and opportunities awaiting them in equal measure. So, what are those challenges and how does the “boss lady” deal with them?”

False Narratives and Stereotypes

While sad and sometimes unwarranted, men at the workplace often receive a female boss with a lot of apprehension. Even if she is promoted from within them. There is a perception that women leaders are power-hungry, self-entitled lionesses out to do nothing but dominate the jungle with “women liberation” slogans. This perception is sometimes accentuated by the way women in positions of authority address the challenges and opportunities that come to them while in those positions or on their way up the corporate ladder.

The single most effective way of negating a false narrative is by truthfully and consistently living out the opposite of the narrative. Allow me to explain. It is said that women are very moody and you never know when they will be approachable or not. This moodiness will also cloud their judgement and objectivity. What such a narrative does is that it makes the team members walk around as though on egg shells. A good leader wants his/ her employees to feel free and safe in their workspaces. If one forms a habit of going around each team members’ desk every morning with a smile and genuine question of ‘how are you this morning?’, she will be setting the tone of the day as far as her space is concerned. It becomes reassuring and the team slowly begins to know that one will barely catch the boss lady in a bad mood.

Work and family

Both genders handle the work-family combination very differently. Most women will not be afraid to put a family picture on their desks for the world to see. Many men on the other hand will build a brick wall around their family, sometimes to the extent that they will not bring them to company sponsored family events.

Men may not visibly bring their issues to the office like female folk do BUT that doesn’t mean they don’t have family struggles and moments of celebration. In my era with the 18 male colleagues, I realized that getting details about their families was like pulling teeth. Only with their guard down or when a pressing family matter came out did they feel obliged to release some family information. I remember once when a team member requested me to approve two leave days for him, he looked worn out so I asked if he was okay and he said he was fine. In wisdom, I chose not to prod but it was obvious something was amiss. A couple of weeks later I was going out for lunch in the staff canteen and I asked him if we could share a table. I bought him lunch and when we sat down, I asked him if the children had settled in school. That one question revealed that one child was sitting a national exam that year (hence the financial stress because she couldn’t take the exam with fees balances), the other child was just joining high school which was a big burden because they hadn’t even secured a good school.

It is true that what happens at the family front affects one’s output at the office. That is why when dealing with men, a boss lady needs to understand how to introduce a safe space at work to help team members deal with this core aspect of life. Men deal with their family issues differently. They carry them every moment and if pressed too hard to deal with them, the quality of work and decisions taken will be very poor.

Extra Evaluation Criteria

Renown Country singer Dolly Parton’s song ‘Just Because am a Woman’ has never made more sense than in the corporate world.

Allow me to extrapolate on this point with an experience I had. Being promoted through the ranks in a male dominated department was not easy. But when the opportunity to head the department came, I put in my name for consideration alongside with two others. I distinctly remember being informed that I fulfilled every item on the evaluation checklist. The two gentlemen under evaluation had integrity issues surrounding them which were too glaring to ignore. It was therefore obvious who would take on the responsibility. The shocking news that came through from senior was that they had decided to put the recruitment on hold to allow time to assess whether I was a right fit for the department head position. Later on, I was called and given a letter to say I was head of the team but the management never out rightly told the team. I also never got the benefits that came with it. Of course, it was painful but by then I had learnt to take everything in stride. That for me was a sharp indicator of the coming glass ceiling – just because am a woman.

As a boss lady, you will have those moments when extra evaluation is applied and even when you pass it, you are still denied. Don’t take it to heart. Fulfil what your heart aims at which should be two things: the success of the company and a dignified work environment for your team.

The Exchange

When it comes to managing people in the workplace, men and women call for different sets of soft skills. As a way of comforting, you can hug a female junior staff when her wedding is called off last minute. For a man, a hug may not only confuse his thoughts but it may also suggest that you can be a temporary source of solace.

The fact is, managing people in the workplace is about managing relationships. To that end, men primarily understand three types of currency – respect, space appreciation, money. These will buy you prime real estate in a man’s heart and mind.

Respect. A man who is not respected at home by his wife will come to work with an attitude that almost says, “I can only stand one woman pushing me around. I can’t have it at home and have it at work.” Such attitudes are no dealt with by an iron fist. You need to wear a heart of compassion and respect for the man no matter his job description for him to also have respect for you without referring to the employees’ code of conduct. Respect for you should come from who you are as a human being before it is forced out of your team by the company rules.

Space Appreciation. Remember the team member I had had lunch with? At the time, he was a driver and by the time lunch was done, I discovered why they loved long distance deliveries (extra income), why they did not like spending the night outs in company preferred hotels and even what it felt like when I called them to ask their location while they were on the road. The fact that I did not prod at the time bought me some currency to have lunch. The wait proved beneficial because I got more information about how I managed them. I learnt that being on the road doing deliveries is hard. Having a boss who keeps calling you every 30 minutes while you are driving to tell you that a customer is growing impatient and that there is another delivery waiting on you so you should hurry back was not endearing at all. I remember the man telling me, a driver who does his job well needs to know when the day is beginning what his deliverables are and the more you look over his shoulder, the more he will slow down and become inefficient.

Money. The bottom-line for many working men is money. They justify their absence from the home by the income they bring. That is why boss ladies should never contemplate downplaying the remuneration of their male staff e.g. by denying them their pay when it is due, by seemingly undercutting on a promised bonus or raise etc. This was a first-hand discovery for me when I decided to review the promotions of well deserving gentlemen in the team. I was deeply shocked to discover that someone had worked for 10 years at the same job grade and never with a salary increment despite the increase in responsibilities. I negotiated with the human resource team and the anomalies were corrected. To date, the gratitude of those gentlemen has never waned towards what I did.

This article can grow longer but it is wise to halt at this point with a general conclusion. The 5 Rules of Thumb for being a boss lady heading a cohort of men at the workplace:

  1. After a difficult conversation, never leave a man feeling undignified
  2. Do not get into a situation of “I or someone else can do better than you”. He will drop it and let you
  3. Do not ride the wave of success based on their sweat without them having a share of it
  4. Don’t lord over them
  5. Capitalize on their strengths while giving them private challenges to develop their areas of weakness
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