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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: More on Women and Work Styles
October 4, 2009 - 7:59pm

I thought all of the responses to last week’s post were terrific. Differential treatment can be hard to talk about, but several readers managed to write eloquently about their impressions and experiences. All provided food for thought, but I was particularly struck by “Long Distance Mom”’s observation: “After serving as a department chair at two universities, I learned that the "Speak low and slowly, but smile frequently" advice is often a double bind. Faculty, both male and female, seem surprised by critical evaluations from female administrators. Freudian 'mother' issues aside ... this resistance seems to be due, in part, to the apparent contradictions of a friendly, 'feminine' administrator with a critical evaluator.”

This struck me powerfully because I am about to start a new supervisory position.

I am a fairly small, slight person. My speaking voice is soft, and I smile a lot. This presentation — which feels natural but is probably at least partly a product of 1950s and 60s Basic Girl Training — serves me well as a clinician. My clients tend to grasp immediately that I’m there to understand and help them, so that when I do make direct, confrontational statements, they are received as difficult but benign interventions, not judgments or threats.

But in my first supervisory position, things became more complicated. My immediate boss, who is still a good friend, had a direct and forceful management style similar to that of my client “Ellen.” She was effective, but not immediately well liked. It was, at first, a challenge for me to make it clear to my supervisees that it was not acceptable to make snide remarks to me about her on the assumption that I was on their “side.”

I also had to work to make it clear to some clinicians that I meant what I said, and was prepared to back up my directions with disciplinary action if they were not followed. Since all of the problematic interactions around this issue took place with male supervisees, I came to Long Distance Mom’s conclusion that there was some Freudian mother stuff going on, in addition to the difficulty of reconciling friendliness and authority.

Partly because we were all mental health practitioners, and thus spent a great deal of energy “processing,” we managed to work out most of these issues. The staff came to see my supervisor as the strong, fair-minded leader that she was, and to respect my judgment (with the exception of one individual who had to leave. He was shocked — I believe he thought until the last moment that I would back down). But it was a process that I don’t look forward to repeating. So, like Ellen, I’m in the position of evaluating my style, and possibly changing my presentation to conform to the popular conception of an effective supervisor.

I may have been conditioned to present in a classically “feminine” way, but my behavior feels natural to me. I prefer friendly interactions to direct confrontation. I believe I say what needs to be said, but I would rather say it in a way that goes down more easily, that saves the other person’s face. But to a certain segment of the population, this makes me a wimp, a pushover. My ex-boss and my client have nothing of the pushover about them, and therefore are aggressive harridans.

Again, I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s important to keep looking at the questions. As “Char” put it, “It would help, of course, if women saw themselves as a sisterhood that could demonstrate to the ‘boys’ club/brotherhood’ an alternative way of daily interaction, and we as a species could get more done rather than spinning in circles creating our own daily struggle.”


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