I’m used to being around guys. I grew up alongside five brothers (and two sisters, a mom and a patriarchal father). I work in the very male dominated aerospace industry. I serve on two boards with a majority of male members and I occasionally teach yoga to a D1 college football team. I’m married to a wonderful man and have raised a son. So you could say that I maybe, kinda, sorta get them. Or maybe at least I’m used to them?
In any case, I like joking around with the guys, I’m not intimidated by them and (for the most part) I enjoy working with them. In the work environment I do appreciate their no words wasted, spartan approach to conversation – which sharply contrasts how we women can dissect a topic for hours on end. But there are those times when the long silent pauses in business meetings, the direct confrontations or demands or what may seem like lack of empathy for co-workers goes against the grain of my feminine thought process. Whereas women tend to soften their critiques, requests and disapproval, peppering them with compliments, men can be ruthlessly direct and often unapologetic about it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me wonder – when it pertains to business, is there a reason for this? I think there may be, but it has more to do with power plays and efficiency than feelings.
Case in point; I recently returned from an aviation industry trade show where the show attendance was at least 95% male. No exaggeration. During this event, there were several dinners, transportation to and from the venue and other event logistics to coordinate. So being of the nurturing type and not wanting to ever exclude anyone, I found myself texting grown men to ask if they preferred sharing a car ride or taking the complimentary shuttle from the hotel to the convention center, or asking if I could bring them back a sandwich from the food service kiosk, or checking if they needed a ride to the social event sponsored by xyz corporation. In other words, mothering.
My male counterparts on the other hand, had no qualms with not worrying about how the others got around or if they were adequately fed. Answering my concerns with “Don’t worry, he’ll figure out a way to get to the booth,”or “They can make their own dinner plans,” or “We can just snack on the free candy from the booths instead of lunch.” Which are all completely reasonable responses – from a traditionally male point of view. “Why spend time worrying about whether Fred has a ride when we’ve got important meetings to get to?” And perhaps they could argue that women are overly sensitive, focusing too much on people’s feelings and when it comes to business, there isn’t room for that. But there is another side to this coin.
The flip side (can a woman be hard nosed in business without being perceived in a negative light?)
“I’ve worked with Peggy. She can be a real hard-ass.” These words were spoken about me by a magazine publisher to my brother (who is also my boss) at a trade event. A publisher of a magazine of which we spend thousands of dollars on advertising. As the media buyer for our company, I negotiate the advertising rates and contracts. I do my best to ensure we are getting fair rates and also editorial consideration when applicable – and I’ve been doing this job for a long time – maybe I’m good at it and maybe that’s the problem. Either way, I spend a lot money with this publisher and it didn’t seem right to be characterized this way.
Of course, when my brother replied “that’s my sister you’re talking about” and then paused a beat and laughed (he has a very dry sense of humor) the guy laughed nervously, began back peddling (in my version since I actually heard the story third person) and said “of course, I meant that as a compliment, she’s a tough negotiator and, blah, blah, blah.” Obviously, the publisher did not realize we were related.
I actually felt kinda bad for the guy (because who hasn’t put their foot in their mouth on occasion) and give him kudos for fessing up in an email to me, explaining the situation and assuring me that his comment was intended as a compliment. I replied back something to the effect of “No worries, I’d rather be a seen as a hard-ass than as a pushover.” But I have to admit that it did bother me a bit because it seemed like a “good old boys” type of comment and perhaps an attempt at bonding with the alpha male at my expense. I ultimately let the comment roll off my back because (being 52 and not 25) I’ve developed thicker skin. To this day, I have a good working relationship with this publisher and with my brother – but I can’t help but wonder, would the “hard-ass” comment have been made if instead of a Peggy, I was a Paul?
My take-away from these experiences and many years of working with men is that while there are fundamental differences in the way men and women communicate, we should not generalize how we treat others when it comes to gender in business relationships. Sometimes you have to be tough and sometimes you have to be compassionate.
And, fortunately, times are changing. I notice the millennials have almost swung in the complete opposite direction to being incredibly sensitive to criticism of any kind. And I’ve worked with plenty of men who are complete gentlemen, professional and are more empathetic than some women I know. For every tough as nails businessman, there is an equally “hard-ass” business women. The difference is, she’ll also make sure you have a ride to the show and won’t let you go hungry at lunchtime.
Here’s to being civil in the workplace. Striving and thriving in the middle years!