COVER

WHEN THE BOSS IS A WOMAN

MARY NEMETH October 4 1993
COVER

WHEN THE BOSS IS A WOMAN

MARY NEMETH October 4 1993

WHEN THE BOSS IS A WOMAN

MARY NEMETH

When Monique Filteau applied for a job with the Quebec government in 1971, she was asked whether she would rather work for a man or a woman. “I immediately said a man,” says Filteau. “I thought a woman who had managed to become an administrator must have been a slave driver. I also felt that a man-boss/woman-employee relationship was more natural.” Filteau got the job. She worked for government, and then the Quebec Civil Service Union in Quebec City, for 20 years, first as a secretary, later as a human resources technician. But along the way, she ended up working for women anyway. “I was pleasantly surprised,” says Filteau, now 40. “Women bosses are much more intimate with their employees, they’re more sensitive to feelings and we talk about female issues.”

The fact that two women are among the contenders for the nation’s top political office is, in many ways, a reflection of the society that they both wish to govern. For ever greater numbers of Canadians, the boss already is a woman. That is changing the tenor of conversations from the watercooler to the washroom, bringing the battle of the sexes into the boardroom—and forcing both sexes to rethink the rules of engagement. Of course, women still have far to go. They remain rare in the highest echelons: according to a recent survey by The Financial Post Magazine, only 0.7 per cent of the top executives at

Canada’s largest companies are women. But more and more women have become union leaders and corporate middle managers, gas-station owners and factory-floor supervisors. According to Statistics Canada, 39 per cent of all middle and upper managers were women in 1991, up from 25 per cent in 1981 and 16 per cent in 1971.

Women bosses still face resistance—both subtle and overt. More than two decades into the women’s movement, there are still men— and, surprisingly, women—who don’t like reporting to women bosses. Their growing presence has also provoked questions that, in the ideologically charged arena of gender politics, some feminists say should never be asked: do men and women manage differently, and, if so, is that a good thing?

Filteau’s boss, Danielle-Maude Gosselin, seems to think so, on both counts. At her first job as a secretary two decades ago, Gosselin and her co-workers sat facing their boss at two rows of desks that ran the

Do women and men manage differently? If so, is that a good thing?

length of the room. “It was like grade school,” recalls Gosselin. ‘To signal coffee break, he would rap the side of his desk with a pencil. I vowed I would never abuse a position of authority like that.” Now a 40-year-old mother of four, Gosselin was elected president of the 45,000-member Quebec Civil Service Union last May. “Relations with my employees are probably different than those of my [male] predecessors,” she says. “I know what it’s like to have to call and say my kid’s got the mumps so I won’t be coming in. I have a more flexible style—not soft, just more

understanding.” The man who is Gosselin’s aide agrees. “She tends to delegate more and is always looking for a consensus,” says 46-year-old Jean Laporte. “People are happy because they have an input into decisions. On the other hand, consensus takes longer.”

Obviously, not all male and female managers fit prescribed pigeonholes. In fact, whether gender has any impact on management style has long been debated in scholarly and popular literature. In the late 1970s, the first books on the subject looked at how boys learn useful business skills—competitiveness, how to take criticism, how to win— by playing such team sports as football. Women, that argument goes, have to learn later in life to play the man’s game. “The implicit assumption,” says Lorraine Dyke, director of Carleton University’s Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work, “was that women are deficient.” In the 1980s, research shifted towards proving that men and women doing the same job are essentially the same. Now, gender difference is back in style. The latest theory, popularized in Sally Helgesen’s 1990 book, The Female Advantage, suggests that men are typically hierarchical, goal-oriented and interested in power for power’s sake. Women, by contrast, manage collegially,

break down hierarchies and share power. Those feminine qualities, Helgesen and others maintain, are valuable tools for the people-friendly company of the 1990s.

Other scholars and some professional women, however, contend that the theory simply puts a positive spin on old, career-hindering stereotypes.

‘When I hear that women are more consensual, more caring, I wonder if that’s what businesses really want today,” says Maureen Sabia, the 50year-old chairman of the Ottawa-based Export Development Corporation. “I don’t think it’s the job of managers to be caretakers, but to expect standards of their employees.” Adds Sabia:

“Women will be promoted because they have spines of steel, not hearts of gold.”

Sabia’s view that men and women of similar backgrounds, experience and aspirations basically manage in the same way, is echoed by younger women, especially those who have encountered little gender discrimination. Marina Alexander, the 28-year-old manager of a West Vancouver gas station, says that, growing up,

"nobody told me I had to play with dolls and my brothers had to play with trucks." Her 10 male employees, she adds, "all have girlfriends who are in business or are going to school or have their own ideas"-helping to set a gender-free

tone in her workplace. “That’s the generation thing that is different from 20 years ago,” she says.

A man called the Calgary Herald late one night in 1977 asking to speak to the person in charge.

“You are speaking to her,” replied Catherine Ford.

“No, I want to speak to the man in charge,” the caller insisted.

“There is no man in charge,” she informed the caller. “I am in charge.”

“No, lady. I don’t want to talk to some f-lady.”

That was in 1977, when the lady in question was night city editor. Now, as the associate editor, Ford shares the second rung of the newspaper’s 600-staff hierarchy. A colorful character who first gained notoriety with a 1976 column headlined, “Hey Quebec, Go Suck a Lemon,” Ford is among those who agree that consultative management “fits in better with how women are socialized.” But stereotyping has obviously gone too far in the past. “This idea that if a woman is strong and intelligent, she is less female, that’s bullshit,” says Ford. “And it is plain lazy thinking to argue that if a woman is outspoken, she must hate men.”

Not all women, of course, are quite so blunt. Loma Shapiro, 43, now an associate dean at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, used to work at a computer firm where she supervised mainly men. She says that it often pays for a woman to act in a typically feminine fashion. “The most effective women in business speak deferentially to men,” she says. “It’s a woman’s strategy to build up their ego. I worked with women who did that.” She adds, “I didn’t, probably to my detriment.”

Even more common, however, is the pressure on women to act masculine within a male culture. Lynne Sullivan, a senior consultant with Towers Perrin, a human resource consulting firm, advises against it. “Nobody’s changed anything by just fitting in,” she says. “We saw women dress in blue suits and ties and it didn’t get them anywhere.” But Sullivan concedes that being yourself “is easier in some businesses than others. Any woman going into a highly traditional environment knows that there may be things you have to do to be accepted.”

That was certainly the lesson for Nicolette Novak. Her father died of a heart attack on the first day of peach harvest in 1987; the next morning, she drove from her home in Toronto to take over her family’s 160-acre tender-fruit farm near St. Catharines. While she was out in the field that first day, one of the hands called her sweetie. “It was in a cheeky way, he was trying to test me, to see how far he could go,” says Novak, now 34. “I turned around and I could hear a hush in the field. I told him, “You wouldn’t have called my father sweetie, you’re not going to call me sweetie.’ ” And if he did, she added matter-of-factly, she would fire him.

That incident was a foretaste of things to come. Depending on the season, anywhere from two to 60 farmhands, most of them men, work for Novak. “They have tried to do things they would never have tried with my Dad,” she says. “My father was a stern man, he would have intimidated you just to look at him. It’s like a rottweiler and a terrier; you’re going to be more worried about the guy with the big teeth.” Because of that, Novak says, “I think you have to assert yourself a little more, you have to prove yourself.” But she says that it is tough on her personally. “It’s not in my nature to be a total beast, but I sometimes have to be,” she says. “Lose your cool and use those bad words and then they know you mean business.”

When women work for women, a different dynamic takes over. Susan Mills, who tends bar in downtown Toronto, says that she has struck up friendships with some of her women bosses.

She can talk about her personal life, she says, or explain that she is feeling down because of menstrual cramps. While women may feel more at ease with a woman

boss, men often have to adjust. Jean Chouinard, an unemployed, 39year-old marketing agent who lives near Quebec City, says that “there’s a little more spice” in conversations between men. “It took me a couple of years before I felt comfortable enough to tell off-color jokes with a female boss,” says Chouinard. “And even then there was a limit.” Chouinard says that he did not mind. “I didn’t feel that because I wasn’t one of the girls, I was missing out,” he says. “In fact, my relations with my female boss were much more businesslike because there wasn’t as much time spent fooling around.”

Some of the male-female differences come down to language, argues Barbara Annis, who runs a Toronto firm that holds gender workshops for businesses. Executives from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, including Susan Julnes, a 46-year-old vice-president, attended a workshop that Annis helped organize earlier this year. There, Julnes discussed the time she burst into tears during a meeting. “Men think that tears are a nuclear weapon in a conventional war,” says Julnes. ‘When a woman colleague cries it is very disturbing to them, they think it means she’s unhappy, victimized. They look at crying as a weakness.” The men failed to understand, says Julnes, that what prompted her tears was not hurt but pure rage. “When we cry in that situation, it’s because we have all this rage that has no appropriate vent but tears,” she says. ‘Women cry, men vent by kicking or internalizing.”

'Men think that tears are a nuclear weapon in a conventional Well

In an effort to bridge such differences, Julnes and other executives have put on a series of theatre productions for staff highlighting cross-gender miscommunication. Such programs help sensitize employees, says the bank’s executive vice-president, Gwyn Gill. “I don’t think a lot of the

problems are intentional,” adds Gill. “Many men have certainly helped me along during my career. But some men just don’t understand.”

FORCEFUL OR JUST PLAIN PUSHY

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” asks a song from the musical My Fair Lady. But many female managers say that even when they behave the same way men do, they are judged differently, and often more harshly. Office mythology includes variations of these so-called male and female characteristics,

A male manager is firm.

He is good on details.

He loses his temper.

He is forceful.

He is in a bad mood.

He speaks his mind.

He is human.

He is close-mouthed.

He makes decisions quickly. He is a team player.

He is a strategist.

He is a taskmaster.

A female manager is inflexible. She is picky.

She is bitchy.

She is pushy.

She must be having her period She is overbearing.

She is emotional.

She is secretive.

She is impulsive.

She is indecisive.

She is a manipulator.

She is a ball buster.

Deborah Sawyer, president and founder of a Toronto firm called Information Plus, says that even if men do understand, they some-

times react differently to the same information, and to her collegial management style. With the women I get reasonably good results,” she says. “But with the men, at times, I’ve had problems in that they’ve ignored direction.” On one project, Sawyer says, she told a young male researcher, who was assigned to interview corporate executives, that the best time to reach them was early in the morning. Still, he persisted in coming in after 9 a.m. “He would sit there at 10 in the morning when nobody was available, and he’d get very frustrated and the project would get pushed off schedule,” Sawyer says. “One morning I asked how it was going. He put this look of derision on his face and said, Well, nobody’s there. If this keeps up, I’ll have to believe that you’re right and I’ll have to come in earlier.’ He was trying to prove me wrong.”

Sawyer says that her authority is sometimes undermined by perceptions about her gender. “It stems from the whole social context of entrenched roles for men and women,” she says. “Mom would tell you to do things, but perhaps you wouldn’t take as much notice as when dad told you to do things.” Men also have a stronger urge to compete, she says. Women aren’t used to that competitiveness between ourselves so much, so when we feel it from a man we don’t want to play that game.”

But women do compete, often with each other—a touchy subject in some camps. “When the feminist movement calls on women to bond in sisterhood,” writes Laura Tracy in The Secret Between Us: Competition Among Women, “talking about women and competition feels like a general betrayal of all women.” Tracy argues that women must overcome what they were taught in childhood: that competition is unfeminine, even unethical. That upbringing forces women to compete secretly, she says—and leads to complaints of betrayal, cattiness and duplicity.

One former manager in Ottawa, who wished to remain anonymous, told Maclean’s about a female subordinate whom she trained and whose promotion she championed. “But she became jealous quickly,” the woman says. “Once she got a taste of what I was doing, she wanted my job.” While the manager was off recuperating from a car accident, the subordinate took over her work. ‘When I returned after a few weeks, I found all my personal belongings stolen or smashed,”

she says. “I started being harassed with phone calls; my car was damaged. I started to complain to my boss, which made it seem like I was the one who was jealous.” Eventually, the manager lost her job.

Clearly, such extreme cases are rare. But there is no denying that rivalries may develop among women, just as they do among men. “Some female bosses compete with you if their own sexuality is threatened,” says Mills, the Toronto bartender. In one of her first waitressing jobs, she says, her fellow staff members often came to her with their job-related complaints, rather than to her woman boss. “It was because I was more approachable, they felt more comfortable with me,” Mills says. But her boss was not pleased. “She said that I flirted with the staff, that I was using my looks,” says Mills.

“And she was always critical, telling me to put my hair up or saying my makeup was too extreme.”

Some researchers argue that sexist corporate environments, not upbringing, shape destructive competition among women. “I don’t buy the sex-role socialization perspective, that because women haven’t been playing team sports they have learned to be catty, gossipy, backbiting,” says Robin Ely, an associate professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. In a survey of American law firms, Ely found that junior women in male-dominated firms were much more likely to say that women partners “act like men” and less likely to say they are “helpful to women” than junior women in more integrated firms. If there are only one or two senior women in a firm, Ely speculates, they may face impossible pressures to be role models to a wide variety of junior women.

For women bosses, the great expectations of some female employees is one more challenge. Marilyn Millar, a Toronto human resources consultant, says that junior women assume a female boss will promote them more quickly than a man would. But, Millar claims, they also expect women bosses to be more self-reliant. “I have had female subordinates ask me, ‘Why can’t you type your own stuff?’ Or, Why can’t you do

your own filing?’ ” says Millar. “They would never say that to a man.” On the other hand, two decades ago they would rarely have had a woman boss in the first place. Nina Colwill, a 49-year-old management consultant from Brandon, Man., points out that her daughter was born 24 years ago just as Ontario was passing legislation banning companies from advertising exclusively male or female jobs. “I’m the last one to say our problems are over,” says Colwill, who studies gender issues. “But I’m optimistic. I’m looking forward to a day—before I die—when we recognize that there are many management styles and we won’t use the terms masculine or feminine.” Well, she pauses, maybe not before she dies. Perhaps in her daughter’s lifetime.

With BRENDA DALGLISH, SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER and DIANE BRADY in Toronto, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary, JOHN DeMONT in Halifax, MARK CARDWELL in Quebec City and ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver