Emotional Health · Money & Careers

Women with Horrible Bosses

In all three cases, it was clear to me that the women in question were doing their jobs, and doing them very well, as evidenced by objective factors such successful projects, well-run departments and even independent reviews. And in all three cases, the bad behavior of the bosses was made more possible because the employee was a woman.

Obviously, men are also victims of bad management and horrible colleagues. But women’s sensitivity to the feelings and opinions of others make them especially vulnerable. In these examples, a good share of the reluctance the victims felt about quitting stemmed from not wanting to let down the other members of the team. Even though their self-esteem was wounded, understanding their importance to the group effort led them to perceive the ways in which they were key to the operation.

But self-esteem is central here. It is hard to imagine a man feeling much concern about being called the male equivalent of a “diva.” Is there even a male equivalent of the term? Such men are called domineering, forceful, brash, perhaps, but these words have mostly positive valences. In many areas, even tyrants are tolerated if they get the job done. And they don’t care as much about being liked or respected. Being feared is sometimes even a goal.

Women’s abilities to work with groups and foster alliances has been more valued lately and seen as a positive trait. But the same traits can be used against them. When attacked or undermined, women are less likely to adopt a fight-back stance. As we all know, displays of aggression from women are not well tolerated. Female political candidates, in particular, walk a narrow line trying to appear strong enough for the job but never so forceful that they are called “shrill,” (though that often happens anyway.) The employees who blow up the Xerox machine in “Office Space” are all men, of course.

A woman who gets “physical” is not feared; she is called crazy, of course. And dangerous. But boys will be boys, and though violence is usually taboo, men are sometimes forgiven if they can prove the other guy “had it coming.” A woman who is attacked or undermined is often at a loss for what to do. Doubling down on her skills, such as patience, empathy, and diligence is not a good strategy in wartime.

How do women fight back in such situations? The rules of the game are murky, and much less obvious than they are for men. Caught in a double bind of wanting the best for the team but needing to preserve their sanity, all three women in these situations suffered serious health consequences leading to brief hospitalizations during the period of their torment.

One strategy I recommend is documentation. Write down your impressions and memories of what is going on. When under stress our ability to recall facts is impaired, but if you have a record in black and white it will help keep you from feeling “crazy.” It also may be helpful to have documentation in case you want to take legal action later on.

While it is not wise to stir up the situation too much by talking to colleagues, if they offer helpful or supportive comments, record those too. And take them to heart. When undergoing negative experiences, they get magnified and we forget the positives in our track record. The people we work for have power over us, sometimes way too much, but do not let them have the power to decide how you feel about yourself.




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