While talking to several women about their work experiences I realized that I forgot to list my top female balancing characteristic – Discipline. I grew up learning that female discipline is one of the most important foundations of society and civilization. The balancing male characteristic to female discipline is playfulness.
Discipline and playfulness conjure up visions of the wild, wild west that was tamed by women and the Lost Boys of Neverland that Wendy mothered . We also think of wives who produce “honey-do” lists for husbands who if left to their own devices would spend all their time watching sports or playing video games. Our discipline is critical to getting things done on time and to high standards.
Female discipline is tied to the thoroughness of women which together often results in women cleaning up after men. I was recently reminded of this when I was in a new work environment with 4 men and 1 young woman. Watching their interaction I saw discipline and playfulness in action and became very aware of the pitfalls women fall into. We may think that our discipline and thoroughness is a good thing but this natural behavior moves us to the sidelines, if not completely out of view.
Discipline brings out the mother in us. Many women I talk to relate to being motherly at work. In many cases women work in the office while men leave the office to do their work. The men create a bit of a mess and are not well organized. They get their work done to a level of thoroughness but not as thorough as it should be – they don’t finish the job 100%. That is where the mother in us comes out. We see the mess, the incompleteness, the lack of organization and we clean up after the men. Sometimes it gives us a sense of satisfaction to clean up after the men.
In my new work environment, the 4 men did their job but didn’t quite finish the details. The young woman then took all their unfinished work and completed it. She took the list of clients and organized them, made sure the results of each client contact was properly coded and the code noted in the system. Her actions caught my attention because she fell into a stereotypical administrative role – even though she had the exact same job as the men! But she was comfortable with what she was doing.
What were the guys doing while she was sitting off to the side quietly working? They were “playing.” They were talking, telling stories about what they did the night before and what they did months ago with common friends. While watching them “play” I realized that my perception of them wasn’t that they were childish or goofoffs but that they were guys who did things. These were men of action! I knew I could rely on them to get the job done.
That’s when I caught myself! WTF?!?!
How did that perceiption happen? I clearly saw that the woman was working and that these guys weren’t. I should be thinking of her as the harder worker and the dedicated one but I didn’t.
I’ve read many articles that talk about women doing more work but the men being seen as the ones who make things happen and who therefore get the promotions. This is the first time it happened to me and it was soon clear to me how my warped perception was formed.
What I noticed about the guys is that even though they were talking about drinking and partying everything they said was action oriented. “I did this….he did that…” I got the vision of guys in action. These were guys who couldn’t sit still. They weren’t sitting around talking about their feelings or their family situations. They weren’t discussing sports. Listening to these guys over the next few days I noticed their conversations did not change. They never talked about anything of substance amongst themselves and it was always about what they did (usually while partying). These guys always talked in ACTIVE VERBS!
Listening to these conversations continuously I understood how these guys will get much further ahead in their careers than the woman who worked all day. Being around these guys I was constantly bombarded in active verbs. Their noise level also got my attention. The woman on the other hand didn’t bombard me with anything. I didn’t hear anything from her. She didn’t talk about the extra work she did. She freed up the guys to bombard me with their tales of action.
This is the dangerous situation women fall into. They become too motherly in the wrong way.
I think a lot of women can take a lesson from women in construction. Most women in the construction industry work are in traditional jobs but that does not mean they are push overs. They create their own power.
Out on the construction site, there is typically only one woman who works in the construction trailer and believe me, you do not mess with her or her rules! She understands that the construction site if full of action oriented guys who can be quite undisciplined. She does not want that undisciplined behavior in her environment so she has a set of office rules. One of the most common rules is – wipe your feet before entering the office – do not track in dirt or mud. Another rule is that men are not allowed to use the female bathroom. I knew one woman who put up strategically placed signs in her bathroom to remind the guys that if they could read the sign, they were in the wrong bathroom. A lot of women have rules about using the copier, office supplies, making coffee and when she is available to help them with paperwork. And she always lets them know that she is not their secretary!
The bottom line is that she makes it clear that it is not her job to clean up after the men. She makes it clear that she has a job to do and the men are not allowed to add to her responsibilities or her workload.
If the men see her as motherly, it is as the mother who set the rules and rules the household.
I love these women because they understand how to achieve the right balance. They are seldom accused of not working hard or of not having a critical role in the project.
So how do women make the transition from being the invisible disciplined doer to being seen as someone who makes things happen?
The young woman in my office however, didn’t notice that the work she completed was part of an established process. And because the guys don’t follow or complete the process we don’t know which clients have been contacted and which haven’t. As a result, we routinely contact clients who tell us they were contacted only a few months earlier. This lack of follow through degrades the integrity of the system and makes us more inefficient. This problem is well known but the upper level male management doesn’t know how to make the predominantly male staff follow through.
What could the young woman in my office have done to make me see her differently?
First, she has to stop seeing herself in stereotypes – even if she is comfortable doing the administrative aspects of the job and gets a sense of satisfaction from getting the job done well she can’t do her male counterpart’s work. If she finds herself cleaning up after her male colleagues she needs to stop. Just stop. Put down the pen and back away from the desk.
Secondly, she has to understand that what she is doing is completing the work in an established process. The process has to be complete. The process is broken down into tasks and she knows which 2, 3 or 4 tasks the guys are not completing. She understands and figures out how to assign the tasks to the guys.
Third, she goes up the guys and tells them that there are a few quick tasks that need to be completed and it will only take a few minutes. She can also tell them she needs some “help” finishing up the few tasks and then they can all be done for the day. She then assigns a task to each of the guys and supervises them getting the tasks done.(This is why I like working with women who have been stay at home mothers – they get this part!)
If she sees herself as the manager of the process, then she changes her perspective and her manager’s perspective of her. She is now a leader!
And if you are wondering if the guys will fall for this tactic – well, they are the ones who told me about it!! (I can’t take credit) And asking for “help” with a positive, not needy, weak or whiny voice will make them feel good – remember these are men of action and you are giving them something to act on!!
This is the opportunity for women. “Men of action” need direction and a leader so seize the opportunity and distinguish yourself.
If you think you are too passive or shy or not strong enough to control the “men of action” in your office, then draw on your motherly instincts. Instill discipline by assigning chores and ensuring they are complete before you let the men go back to playing.
Empowered women do not clean up after men – they take charge and make the men clean up after themselves.
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