Do you remember those playground days, when the grade school rumor mill churned violently any time a girl and a boy were spotted together in the sandbox? I remember being a six-year-old with a heightened sense of justice, huffing over the discrepancies in attitude when I played with my friend Alex (girl) and when I played with my friend Alex (boy). The game was the same, the name was the same—but the attitude was so different.
Since I started working, I’ve found that, at times, the office can be frustratingly similar to the sandbox. Though we’ve come a long way in the last few decades, though women are now taken seriously as colleagues in nearly every field, it can still be difficult to navigate professional relationships with members of the opposite sex, particularly relationships with a superior.
Should a young woman’s behavior change when she reports to a man rather than to a woman? I posed this question to numerous young women and received myriad varying opinions. Many shared personal stories about times they had grappled with this very issue. Others felt that a woman should treat each colleague—whether peer or boss, male or female—exactly the same, and that to suggest otherwise was antiquated and sexist.
Like it or not, inherent differences between men and women exist, even in a supposedly “gender-blind” place like an office. And navigating these differences is essential for a young woman’s own comfort and success.
Unfair though it may be, the sandbox attitudes resurface: the same interactions between a woman and her male employer can be perceived differently than the exact same interaction between a woman’s male peer and that same employer. One young woman who worked in consulting recalls,
When I was a consultant, I saw many of my male colleagues get a drink after work with a more senior person on our team at 10 PM or later while traveling. Female colleagues couldn’t do the same thing—having drinks one-on-one with an older married man at a hotel would definitely start a rumor mill at best, and an uncomfortable situation with the superior if the drinks invitation was read the wrong way.
The double-standard can apply in reverse, too. At a previous job, my female coworker and I would often have lunch with our young, female boss. At meals, our conversation would inevitably turn to dating and relationships, and we became close with her in a way that our male coworkers never did. Unfair? Probably. But did it happen? Yes.
None of this is to say you as a young woman can’t work closely with a male supervisor. As a young professional female, however, you should be aware of these differences—and differences in perceptions—during your interactions.
If your boss invites you out for drinks with other men on your team, go—but remember to be yourself. Don’t like talking about sports? Don’t pretend to. Can’t go shot for shot with the guys? Don’t try. Ultimately, you want to be respected for the work you do and for the confidence you display, which you’ll best convey when you’re in your comfort zone.
In the office, act appropriately. In a private meeting with a male boss, avoid closing the door. Be aware of your office’s dress code and avoid unwanted come-ons by erring on the side of a more conservative work wardrobe. Exude confidence in your speech, your posture, and your body language to indicate that you are not someone who can be taken advantage of.
And if a boss invites just you out for drinks, make sure you know the implications of that invitation. If you’re uncomfortable, suggest re-scheduling the meeting for coffee. If your relationship is friendly, go to a well-lit bar and remember to drink responsibly.
Being cognizant and aware can only help you as you begin your career.
Now tell us what you think! Weigh in: do you interact differently with male and female supervisors?
Photo courtesy of alisdair.