A TechRepublic reader writes in to ask:
"I believe that my boss has a difficult time dealing with women. I am the 'project leader' on an installation project, but whenever there is a decision to be made, he defers to my coworker, who happens to be a man and slightly older than my boss and myself. My boss also directs questions to my coworker that should be directed to me. In meetings, he always directs his attention to this same coworker, hardly ever looking directly at me. This is really bothering me. I don't know how to handle it, without appearing to be too sensitive, but I feel I am not being respected as I should be. How should I handle these situations?"
I've actually been debating the best way to answer your question—and a few very similar ones we've received—for a few weeks now. The dynamic between female and male coworkers is at best tricky; when amplified by the pressures and strong personalities that always complicate managerial issues, female/male workplace relationships become exponentially more dicey, particularly in a male-dominated industry such as IT/IS.
What's your perspective on gender relations on IT teams?
Since the question of gender relations is so largely a matter of perspective, I want to ask our female and male members a few questions about their own experiences and points of view. We've created two parallel surveys, one for our female members and one for our male members. Please take a couple of minutes to complete the appropriate survey, which I'll use as the basis of future columns.
With that said, I'm no expert on the issue, but apparently there are lots of folks out there who are. You could spend several week's salary at Amazon.com on books that explore women’s evolving role in the workplace, and find a lot of different answers, ranging from suggestions on how women can adopt behaviors that traditionally have been viewed as "male" to how workplaces should change to more fully embrace behaviors that traditionally have been viewed as "female."
Frankly, I'm a little dubious of anyone or anything that tries to distill an issue as complex as female/male workplace relationships into simple rules. Clearly, conflicts like the one you described in your letter are driven largely on the basis of perspective, and perspective comes from our collected experiences. To put it bluntly, as a male, I'm probably not going to see this issue from exactly the same point of view as a female colleague—this is not a server performance issue that you can measure down to several decimals.
So, I asked two of my former TechRepublic colleagues, both of whom are female managers, for the advice they would give you in dealing with your situation. Here's the response I got from Veronica Combs, director of community content for TechRepublic.com:
"I would try two things, one of which depends on the quality of your relationship with your coworker. If you're not comfortable talking with your coworker about the situation, go straight to plan B.
"First, talk to your (male) coworker about the situation and see if he will help you to engineer a few situations in which the boss has to deal with you. Would the coworker feel comfortable skipping a few meetings or deferring to you on a decision when the boss turns to him initially (’You know, Marie has had experience with that. She's the best one to decide on that issue')? If your coworker can help you prove yourself to your boss initially, that may be enough to solve the problem. Then the colleague can step back into the meetings.
"If you can't talk to your coworker about the problem, then I would engineer some situations in which the boss has to talk to you one-on-one. Don't give him the option of turning to someone else. You may be able to convince him that you're capable of doing the job by discussing previous projects you've worked on (in context of the current project, of course, if a similar problem came up). Could you create other opportunities to work with him on the project, such as a special status meeting with just you and your boss, or go to him with a problem that's come up and run your solution by him?
"If you can get your boss to deal with you as an individual, instead of as a woman, that may ease his concerns about your abilities."
Sounds reasonable enough to me.
Next up is advice from Kimberly Henderson, director of e-mail services:
"This may not be a male-female problem. You must be more assertive in your relationship with your boss. In meetings, when the boss addresses questions to your coworker, you should offer a response without rudely cutting off your coworker. Even if it is an addendum to what the male coworker said, phrases such as, 'On this current project, my group is...' will let the boss know that he is directing his inquiries to the wrong person.
"Additionally, you must take the lead in scheduling one-on-one time with the boss. During the first one-on-one session, ask his assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. In getting those answers, you may stumble upon the reason why he is hesitant to address you directly."
Again, perfectly reasonable advice with an attached action plan that should get you to some point of resolution with your boss.
However, my first impression of your situation yields somewhat different advice, given my own perspectives on female/male workplace dynamics. My own best advice for you is (as Kimberly also mentions) to not immediately jump to the conclusion that you're facing a gender-based issue here. In your letter, you note that your boss often defers to an individual male employee and fails to respect your role on the team. I suspect that if your boss's missteps really were gender-driven, he'd ignore you in favor of other male employees as well. So it may be that your boss just has a high opinion of this other colleague and is disregarding what I take to be your new role as project leader.
If I sound a little defensive about quick assumptions of gender-based motives on the part of male managers, it's because I am. Jumping to such conclusions immediately puts us male managers on the defensive and complicates any resolution to the problem at hand.
That's not to say that gender-based discrimination doesn't exist; of course it does, and more frequently than most managers would like to admit. But my best advice to you is to just go to your boss as a manager—not specifically as a female employee—and describe your problems with some of the stuff he's doing. Most males (and I say this as a member of the club) like the direct approach, and if you can point to specific events or trends (males love details, too), you'll probably get the results you are looking for.
If the problem persists, I'd talk to the male coworker, as Veronica suggested, and establish your concern that while you don't want to stymie open team communication, you do want your role as project leader to be clearly understood and firmly established at team meetings. If you continue to feel dismissed or overlooked, I'd poll other employees—both female and male—about their impressions of how your role as project leader is being projected and supported by your boss, then ask for another one-on-one with your manager to readdress the issue.
If this approach doesn't yield results, you may well be facing a gender-based issue. My best advice to you in this regard is to discuss the issue with your boss once again in a gender-specific context, and then don't hesitate to loop in HR, if you don't see appropriate progress. These are serious issues, and deserve to be treated as such.
There you have it—three pieces of advice that probably will work, from three points of view. That's about as scientific as you’re likely to get when it comes to gender-driven workplace issues. So your best bet is always to be patient, assume (at least initially) good intentions, and get feedback from trusted peers with distinctive perspectives.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.