Early in my career, I read an article which said men generally cast women into 1 of 5 roles in the workplace.
Those 5 roles are Mother, Wife, Girlfriend/Mistress, Sister or Daughter.
- Mother is expected to coddle and comfort and cover, even when you’re not doing what you should. Sometimes they nag or punish you — but not too severely because mother never wants to see you suffer.
- Wife is expected to help and support the men they work with, no matter what. They nag more often than mothers — but they don’t press too hard because they care for and rely on you. The wife is all bark but no bite.
- Girlfriend/Mistress is expected to help and support the men they work with. Because there is chemistry and affinity, the girlfriend/mistress often receives reciprocal help and support. However, the length and level of loyalty is limited because commitment to the relationship is missing.
- Sister switches from collaborator to competitor and back again with the men they work with. Because the relationship feels familial, there is reciprocal help and a level of loyalty in the relationship.
- Daughter needs to be looked out for by the men they work with. She needs coddling, comfort, cover and coaching. She yields loyalty and commitment and is treated with kindness.
On the surface, these roles are harmless.
In fact, men are often cast into the same roles (father, husband, boyfriend, brother, son) … However, men have 2 additional roles rarely attributed to women — coach and boss.
For men and women who participate in sports or other competitive activities at some point in life, they see men in coaching roles more often than they see women. When they encounter a person at work who is demanding but caring, they put them in the coach box … If they’ve never had a woman coach, they won’t view women at work thru this lens and they’ll put a demanding but caring woman in the mother or wife box instead. Same applies if they’ve never had a woman as boss previously.
Again, on the surface, this seems harmless … But what happens when a man’s relationship with these roles are not positive? For women, we can switch up and view thru the lens of coach or boss — where we know those roles must be respected and revered, even when our personal feelings about the individual isn’t positive. For men, they often can’t get beyond the familial lens to see the woman thru a lens that commands respect. The relationship becomes peppered with resistance, defiance, insolence and passive-aggressive behaviors that can damage a working relationship beyond repair.
When men encounter women of color in the workplace, it can be even worse.
If a man has not encountered women of color regularly outside of work, they often cannot see them thru any of these lenses. When this happens, women of color are relegated to stereotypes and caricatures instead. Stereotypes and caricatures are rarely worthy of respect or loyalty.
These roles and lenses create a minefield of issues surrounding gender in our workplaces. From the outside looking in, no one really understand why the relationship isn’t working — and the woman is often blamed for the persisting problem and the lack of resolution.
The article from all those years ago essentially told women there was nothing they could do to break beyond the confines of these roles. It advised women to position themselves to be placed in the roles of sister or daughter to avoid being viewed as nagging or coddling … Early in my career, I tried to follow this. It worked. In some ways, it still does. I’ve watched enough women and men cast into these roles to believe this is true and operating in workplaces all over.
I’m ready to turn the page on this. I’m ready to see women break free of these roles.
We cannot do this without help and change by men. Men have to push and force themselves to see women as coaches and bosses in addition to the other roles.
- Recognize and talk about male entitlement. Examine your workplace and your co-worker relationships to see which roles exist. Where the roles are having negative impact, speak up about it and support the women in making things better. Make it right.
- Expose yourself to women coaches and bosses. Attend their seminars. Read their books and articles. Watch them on television shows and documentaries. Not just the ones on women talking about women stuff — but especially the ones where women are talking about the stuff of life, work, leadership and success. And when the opportunity arises, hire or promote women. Make it right.
- Admit and understand subtle sexism is a real thing. So often when women point out subtle sexist behaviors at work, their point of view is dismissed because there is no clear evidence. Gone are the days where women are openly grabbed or called vulgar names (for the most part). More often the sexism is much more nuanced and complex. If a behavior displayed would be accepted and/or celebrated by a man but is condemned in a woman, sexism is at play. If a behavior displayed would be rejected and/or corrected in a man but is expected from a woman, sexism is at play. Make it right.
Discrimination of any kind in our workplaces hurts all of us. It is up to us in positions of influence and authority to stop it. Let’s use the benefits of our privilege and entitlement for the good of others. Let’s stop these ridiculous gender roles. Together. Let’s make it right.
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