Monday, June 02, 2014

Workplace Sexism: Poor Leadership is a Culprit

Much of my work in a religious setting involves learning how to successfully interact alongside women. They are the majority, as is the case with most religious groups, and if I didn’t know how to grease the wheels, I’d find myself constantly frustrated. Due to a variety of helpful factors in my upbringing I've written about often, I can honestly say that this has rarely been difficult. Personalities have, more often than not, clashed not simply because of gender differences, but instead because of the kind of irreconcilable problems caused when two or more people simply cannot get along.

Often I’m a passive observer, filing away new information, but not entirely sure what to do with the knowledge. Toxic bosses and co-workers have been male and female alike. Workplace culture is where I place primary fault. I recognize that those who have experienced discrimination rarely forget the treatment. It’s difficult, if not impossible to make blanket statements that summarize every person’s experience, and most certainly every woman’s. I’ve made it a goal of mine to strive to look beyond the immediate and the obvious.

A few things perplex me. In particular, I’ve noticed how some women seek to “out-nice” each other in a peculiarly competitive sort of way. This isn’t to say that men aren’t prized for being level-headed and easy to get along with, but that a very different type of man would rather be respected and even feared instead of being anyone’s hell of a nice guy. There’s room in acceptable male conduct and behavior for badasses and rogues in a way not always extended to women. Certain men want to be deliberately rebellious, and build upon this attitude regardless of whose feathers they ruffle along the way. The nice guys do it for their own reasons, but it isn't always to be the best out there.

Though I would never say that gender doesn’t create misunderstanding, I’m enough of a creature of modern times to say, with confidence, that I have not fallen prey to the worst offenses. The women in my immediate environment are most often kind-hearted dreamers who want to save the world. They genuinely and blamelessly look at the world through a rosy, optimistic perspective. I’m the skeptical pragmatist, seeing limitations in theories and pronouncements, but secretly believing enough in the cause of righteousness to feel that changes can and must be made.

Women with a strong rebellious streak, one not inclined to be kind and uniformly even-handed for every occasion, often end up as feminists. I’ll concede that I was raised by two plain-talking parents who never buried the truth under surface niceties. I’m blunt, but fair, and I can’t understand the need to spare the feelings of those who would be better served by honesty. This is what separates me from many women in my immediate orbit who might be derisively described as hippies and do-gooders.

I believe that women ought to have the right to even be tactless from time to time, if that conduct resolves problems and puts aside double standards. Better that than the passive-aggressive out-nicing that suffices instead. The problems I’ve seen are that no effective, tested mechanism exists for regulating problematic attitudes and resolving the crises caused by them. Feminists, beginning with the best of intentions, have eaten themselves alive in numerous situations for this very reason.

This is not to say that men always do an admirable and impeccable job of resolving grievances (file under: war, duels, physical altercations), but that there are rules of conduct that have been in place for eons. Call them barbaric if you will, but we have civilized our conflict and now fight over the results of the ballot box rather than with swords. I’m a member of a religious group that may well be centuries ahead of schedule, believing wholeheartedly that peace is the favored and most effective way to go.

Peace has not been what I have experienced from the world, which is what keeps me moving forward. At one stop in my work career, a loose cannon of a man wanted to fire me on the spot, simply for requesting my union representative to be present, which was my right. Quietly undermining him, my immediate boss, a woman, intervened on my behalf, saving my job in the process. The most prevalent conflicts I have seen have been between personalities and personal limitations, not gender. A statistic I am fond of quoting says that only 1 in 20 people are capable of being effective managers. I’m certain that sexism is a factor, but I question sometimes how much of a factor it really is.

Feminists have argued that a thoroughly unpleasant man might end up being retained at a job longer than a callous woman. That’s entirely possible, but I’ve had female bosses whose incompetence showed in a different way. They were indebted to a lack of backbone, one which meant they never fired problem employees, even when given chance after chance to reform their behavior. Tough decisions have to be made, and I’ve seen both men and women respond with no spine whatsoever. Blustering or incompetent, either way is wrong, but once again we must look for the best parts of ourselves and act accordingly, male as well as female.

The new female leaders soon to take charge can take a cue from their mothers. There’s no need to act like men to be successful. But what needs to happen is that behavior by women among other women and among men needs to pull from the successes of masculinity and femininity. The most successful leaders I have known have never needed to justify their behavior. They do their job effectively and go home. If we need to culturally psychoanalyze ourselves to reach those heights, then so be it. Activists have been doing that for centuries.

What I do know is that the two differing styles of leadership presented here are incompatible. I recognize that women in positions of authority may still be unfairly criticized for whatever they do or don’t do, but I’ve observed enough encouraging signs. I think the future will continue to bring to life real progress. While I admit that I know that I'm treated differently by a woman than a man, I’ve had enough female bosses and co-workers and beneficial experiences that we’ve been able to talk more or less as relative equals.

At high levels of achievement, at the top of the food chain, I recognize the pressure of the office may bring to light strong instances of sexism. Sexism isn’t simply the denigration of women by men, it takes the place of rivalry, jealousy, anger, hubris, and a thousand other problems not the fault of women. It is not justified for any reason, but men can act like jackasses if they want because they’ve been allowed to do so. Many people fail to see that acting like a jerk in any context is much the same as living an immoral life. You can do it if you want to, but it will eventually backfire and blow up in your face someday. Unpopular people eventually win enough enemies, enemies who will eventually pull them down with glee.

Cowardice and taking the easy way out are two evasive approaches that do no one any good. The stories of workplace problems I've enclosed here show two significant failures of management. Every human life requires risk, and taking risks means that you might not be the nicest person around in everyone's eyes. It could even mean that your employees do not respect you for unjustified reasons. Risk comes with increased confidence and self-esteem, variables that many of us lack. The cure for sexism is self-respect and understanding the perspective of every seat at the table. We’ve had enough of poor communication, now it's time to really talk to each other.

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