Who’s the boss? Female managers on dealing with sexism

Dec 03, 2020

5 mins

Who’s the boss? Female managers on dealing with sexism
Madeleine Crean


Women are slowly filling more and more managerial positions, but is it getting any easier to be a man’s boss? Leading a man with a chip on his shoulder isn’t always easy, and the chip might not even be that obvious. Studies show that women score higher in leadership competencies, yet a female manager is not always well received.

A paltry 8% of women hold managerial roles in the UK while nearly double that figure, 14% of men, are managers, directors or senior officials. Studies show that women score higher in most leadership skills categories, so they have the skills. What’s holding them back? There is one issue that female leaders have to grapple with that men do not, one that may stop perfectly capable women from rising the ranks—sexism.

The dangers of subtle sexism

“My eldest daughter worked in a senior position in the government. She would always sign her emails as ‘Alex’. She called a meeting with management she’d never met face-to-face. She walked into the boardroom to conduct a meeting she’d called, and the guys around the table, they said, ‘Can you get us a coffee?’ When she said, ‘I’m Alex,’ their jaws dropped.”

It’s the subtle instances such as this one, recounted by executive coach Gail Heney, that make sexism so hard to address. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was understated, but experiencing a situation like this still seriously undermines your authority as a female boss. Outward sexism in the workplace may get you a one-way ticket to HR nowadays, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all sexism has disappeared.

Nadia Edwards-Dashti, the co-founder of the fintech recruitment company Harrington Starr, explains the way sexism in the workplace has evolved. “We’ve got policies and procedures against sexism at work, and you can’t have the aggressive sexism of the past. However, there’s a sort of rise of passive sexism, which is the real danger for me,” she said. “It’s the mansplaining, it’s the casual undermining, it’s the not listening in a boardroom. It’s not understanding that perhaps different personalities will talk at different times within a leadership meeting or management setting.” Heney, who has spent over 20 years managing men, notes that this subtle undermining can affect your confidence.

Benevolent sexism is more insidious than meets the eye. It downplays women’s roles in the organizations they work for, and experts note that it can cause a strain on mental health, which leads women to waste valuable energy worrying instead of concentrating on work-related tasks. Even when the sexist remarks or behavior are completely devoid of malicious intent, a recent study published in Biological Psychology revealed that women show “cardiovascular responses consistent with the threat”.

It might take a bit of effort, but calling out subtle sexism creates a strong foundation for the future of management in your workplace. Edwards-Dashti says: “Anybody in any management or leadership position will leave a legacy for the next managers and the next generation of female leaders, and it’s important that we set the standards and work hard to ensure that that standard is met.”

Giving feedback to men

A research paper published by the Institute of Labor EconomicsStudies revealed that people don’t expect women to dish out criticism in the same way as men—and when women violate that expectation, they often receive a negative reaction. The stereotype is for women to be nurturing leaders and for men to hand out the criticism. As a manager, it’s part of your job to give feedback in all its forms. There is no easy fix for someone else’s bad attitude, but tweaks in your approach can help.

Edwards-Dashti says that it’s essential to speak as a boss first. “Whether you’re talking to a man or a woman as their leader, you’ve got to be aware of your audience and how you communicate with them. When I look at issues, and issues in management, I try to put gender to one side.”

The research paper also showed that younger employees, who have grown up with more gender diversity in the workplace, are more receptive to female bosses than their older counterparts. And among those in their 20s, gender discrimination disappears. There is undoubtedly work to be done—but the younger generation shows hope that these stereotypes can be broken down.

Too soft… or too bitchy?

Knowing when to take a step back and when to go in guns blazing is difficult. It’s something we all get wrong sometimes. But as a female manager with a male colleague who doesn’t quite appreciate your authority, it might seem you can never get it right. When you are struggling to be heard in the boardroom, things can go two ways. You might end up letting out that pent-up frustration by speaking with authority and confidence that demands attention. Or you might just shrivel up and keep quiet.

Heney says that sometimes when you don’t get the respect you deserve, you might end up overcompensating. “I was going to be meeting a person that I did a lot of business with over the telephone for the very first time,” she said. “When we met he chuckled because he’d never seen me before. He said, ‘Oh, you’re just a little thing! I have to tell you now that I know you, a lot of people find you very intimidating.’ A woman sadly has to act a bit overly confident to battle those who want to undermine her.”

However, we don’t all have it in us to exude this confidence. Edwards-Dashti says she’s heard of many women who have thrown in the towel. “There is a percentage of women who decide they don’t want to go into management because it is just not worth it, the aggravation, the fight,” she said.

How to earn respect

Subtle biases that men execute towards women often mean that respect is something earned by female bosses. Heney says it’s essential to build a bond. We don’t always have a lot in common with colleagues, but a bit of humor can go a long way toward building a connection. “Use some humor and find commonalities. When trust builds, so does the acceptance of you as the leader. Even a man to a great degree has to do that, but women tend to have more trouble because they don’t know if they can find a common ground,” she said.

Will this problem ever go away?

Sexism isn’t over. Skin-deep promises to banish misogynistic tropes may be a start, but there is still a lot to be done. Edwards-Dashti says that if women work together, and support each other on professional journeys, it can work wonders.

“Within the fintech community, there’s been a huge rise in female leadership mentoring. I introduce a lot of people to one another across the industry to make sure that no one feels alone,” she said. “I think that we have a great ability to network with fellow leaders within our respective industries, and doing that has improved my journey massively.

“When I started to go to women in leadership networking events, I remember standing there with a glass of Champagne in my hand listening to somebody speak, and I was absolutely gobsmacked because she made me feel I wasn’t alone. I think that once you have that penny drop, your confidence grows.”

In the end, the future of female leadership is not about rising to the standards of men, but about smashing implicit biases and creating a working world that values quality management and work ethic, no matter who it comes from.

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