Why women managers need their colleagues to back them in

Why women managers need their colleagues to back them in

women managers
New research shows that when women managers critique employees, staff respond more negatively than if a male manager delivered the same criticism.

It’s more evidence that women managers continually straddle a tough reality which expects so much of them.

The reality, on the ground, in workplaces for men and women at work is easily forgotten.

Between the excitement and the eventual despair of watching the politics of parliament and corporate Australia, it’s easy to miss the real-world for women at work.

What goes on in the media very often goes to the extremes of good or bad when our realities lie somewhere in the middle.

I have just finished reading new research by economist Martin Abel, who analysed the 2700 responses of staff to criticism from male and female.

It is confronting work.

Fundamentally, workers did not like receiving criticism to begin with, but when criticism comes from female managers it doubles the number of workers not interested in working for the firm in the future and leads to a 70 per cent larger reduction in job satisfaction than criticism from a man.

This is because the staff associated giving praise and positive reinforcement with female managers.

But that is not the reality of most workplaces. Few things always run smoothly: feedback and criticism are inevitable, especially at work.

Abel’s research shows men are more dismissive of criticism from women even when the feedback is identical. It is, as he says, “a clear case of gender discrimination”.

When this sort of situation arises the solution that is often put forward is that these people need more experience working for women or need time to adjust. The idea is that if more people see women as managers and receive criticism from them then they will realise that women managers can do the job (which is probably why they were hired in the first place, but that is an issue for another day).

However, 86 per cent of workers in the sample previously had a female supervisor. And workers who have had positive experiences with female managers are “not less likely to discriminate against female managers”.

And it isn’t that they think women managers are less competent than men: the workers rated them similarly on their ability.

These workers, a nice big sample, are plainly discriminating against women. And it’s depressing.

So, what’s the solution? Abel says more unconscious bias training is required but requires more from the peers and superiors to women.

He points out that gender discrimination in management begins to reverse when women receive a positive public evaluation, either from their peers or higher up. People respect a female manager when she is presented as more highly skilled and with the trust of her equals.

Those below will respect women when those above do too.

It makes sense when you think that staff want to see that your colleagues have confidence in you. The reality is that people will assume that some women got their job because they are a woman, what this research tells us is that there is a responsibility in the person who hires a woman (ideally women, plural) to give her the credibility amongst her staff – to really back her in.

If you’re like me, this research poses only more questions, like “why are people like this!?”

But there is something hopeful here because building the stature of all women at work and in management starts with one woman and with her peers and superiors giving her the backing she deserves. This, in turn, helps strengthen her standing with her staff.

The march toward gender equality remains slow, and that is deeply frustrating, but the role of your peers and supporters becomes important in achieving that in your own workplace.

Conrad Liveris is a corporate adviser on workplaces and risk. He has long worked on gender equality issues, particularly women in leadership.

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