What Works for Women at Work: Answers to Common Questions-Admin Trouble?
I’m having a tough time dealing with my administrative assistant. She rarely responds to my emails, dawdles on the simplest of assignments, and on occasion has been outright rude to me. I’ve conferred with a few of my male peers, and they’re perplexed. They’ve always found her to be helpful, efficient, and cordial. What gives?
The first thing—always—is to see whether there’s an objective problem. Have a talk with her to find out what’s going on from her point of view. Then talk it out with someone you respect to make sure you are not making some Management 101 mistake—not setting clear deadlines, for example, or loading on a lot of things without making your priorities clear.
If you conclude the issue is not you, different steps are in order. Unfortunately, professional women do sometimes encounter pushback from their female coworkers. When women experience gender bias in the workplace, conflict between women can arise as a result, a pattern we refer to as The Tug of War, or gender wars. Your particular problem – gender wars across class lines – isn’t unusual.
A 2009 survey of legal secretaries (most of them women) found that a significant percentage preferred working with men – and not a single one preferred working with women. Some respondents described women attorneys as too nice, emotional, and reluctant to accept help. Others described women attorneys as too mean, self-important, and demanding.
In other words, admins may clash with the women who supervise them because another form of bias – The Tightrope – comes into play. In some situations, admins don’t want to work with women because—perhaps correctly—they perceive that the path to power lies with aligning with men. In others, admins expect women to be understanding, empathetic or undemanding—expectations they don’t have of men. Or the divide stems from the fact that you—as a professional—have chosen to play a traditionally male role, whereas the admin has works in a female-dominated field doing important work that is often devalued. It’s important for you—and all professionals, male and female—to signal that you appreciate and value her work.
In short, women professionals and admins often end up pitted against each other because they are experiencing gender bias in different ways.
Here’s how savvy professionals have mitigated conflicts with their fellow women:
- “I think you just have to refuse to participate. Say ‘This is silly. The fact that there is an issue to argue about here is just silly. I am going to embrace the person who is charging at me and smile and say we’re all on the same team.’”
- “I go to tremendous effort to downplay that I have an edge over someone. I go through tremendous effort to be a team player. I go through tremendous effort to be inclusive. Recognize that other people might be insecure about what your status is within a given situation and try to ameliorate that. Using inclusive words, signaling team player, team player, team player, you don’t need to be threatened by me, I’m a team player.”
- “You have to make an effort to engage in small talk conversations. Whether it’s going out and talking to the secretaries, saying hello to all of them, smiling to them, making a little joke, complimenting them on what they’re wearing. All that helps.”
- “One needs to be polite. Whenever I’m talking to my sales assistant I’m exceptionally nice and polite. If I was a man and I was a little more abrasive it would be okay, but I’m a woman and if I was a little more abrasive I would be considered a bitch.”
Experiencing your own Tug of War dilemma? Then Ask the New Girls!