When you are a woman entering a traditionally male role you will be focused on your relationships with your male peers and supervisors. But you also need to focus on your relationships with your female co-workers in traditional jobs. You may assume that the women in the office will be cheering for your success however your presence may be as uncomfortable for them as it is for the men.
Don’t assume that women working in traditional jobs fall into stereotypes, meek or powerless. The office where everyone is in a traditional job has a balance of power. Roles and responsibilities have been carefully carved out. The power may not be exactly equal but the men probably don’t dominate. The women have found a way to be valued and be respected. They ensure the men are dependent upon them in some way. They are critical to making the office function and they know that if they left, chaos would ensue.
Your presence as a non-traditional woman will shake up that long established balance in power. You need to be aware of that. Therefore, one of the first things you need to know is where the women derive their power and ensure that power base remains intact.
As I said, roles and responsibilities have been carefully carved out. That means there are probably tasks in the men’s job description that the women do. Yes, the women do parts of the men’s job for the men because it gives them power and leverage. What everyone will be uncomfortable trying to figure out is whether on these tasks you will function more like your male peers or like a woman. I will give you an example.
I worked in a construction office where the male project managers “did” the project cost reports. The cost reports frequently had errors. The female contract administrators then went into JDE and fixed the errors, even though the male PM’s were responsible for the report’s accuracy. Everyone knew that if it weren’t for the contract administrators’ attention to detail that the company financial reporting would be screwed up. The contract administrators didn’t necessarily like cleaning up after the men but it was an unspoken source of power.
The question for me as a female project manager was: Could I turn in a cost report that had just as many errors as my male peers? Would the contract administrators clean up after me like they did the men?
I think you can guess that the answer was No. The contract administrators were not going to clean up after a woman. Could I argue that this is a double standard? Probably, but that would upset the balance of power too much. It may seem unfair, but in time it became a source of power for me too.
In time it became well known that I could do my cost reports correctly (thanks to the women spreading the word). I became the office expert, then the company expert. Even now I will put my cost reporting skills up against anyone else in the industry. As time went on, I began to train other PM’s and they were expected to produce correct reports. The contract administrators’ power base changed – they could now just advise senior management on which PM’s did not perform well. They had more power without having to do extra work.
The contract administrators and I changed the dynamics. We worked from the Purple Zone. A lot of women who work in traditional roles have mastered the Purple Zone. There is a lot they can teach you. Actually, I will credit one woman – a highly qualified secretary – for getting me started on this perspective.
Marian was the squadron commander’s secretary at my first Air Force assignment. Like all good secretaries she had power and she wielded it wisely. Marian was probably my first mentor even though she was a secretary and I was in a non-traditional role. She taught me how to leverage my female traits.
In an office full of engineers, the writing, well, it wasn’t the best. I believe Marian was an English major and therefore an excellent writer. Nothing left our building unless Marian proof-read it and corrected it. The first time I gave Marian something I wrote to proof read she discovered I could write well. She spread the word. Soon I was writing plans and award packages. In those days, those tasks were still considered “female” and I could have thought I was being put in a traditional role if not a secretarial role. But what happened was that my writing gave me visibility to the senior base leadership. (At the time there was a joke that the Air Force mission was to Fly and Write so my ability to write distinguished me as a more well-rounded officer.) While my male peers were struggling for “face time” I was routinely in meetings with or in the offices of the senior leadership who knew me by name.
The other thing that I learned from Marian was about perspectives. Marian attended many meeting to take short hand so she could write the meeting minutes. She had this uncanny ability to come out of a meeting and tell you all the holes in the plan the men just developed. Is it no surprise that things fell apart as she predicted? Since the men in the meeting all thought alike their solutions were fairly narrow. Marian seeing the problem from her perspective saw what they didn’t. She taught me to sit quietly at a meeting and just listen from my perspective – listen for what isn’t being said. When I took that skill and coupled it with using the Power Seat, I learned to command a meeting and emerge as a leader.
Even at my last project, I had the contract administrators attend meetings to solve problems that were not in their area responsibility. Their perspectives were valuable and they raised important questions and presented ideas that gave us more complete solutions.
As the non-traditional female in your office you need to work both sides of the gender split.
There is one woman you need to pay particular attention to – the “senior” woman. She may consider you a personal threat to her power and may become defensively aggressive. I’ve only dealt with one and call me naïve but it took several years for it to dawn on me that she was the source of many of issues I dealt with.
When it was decided we no longer needed “the plant lady” to come in and water the office plants – it could be done in-house – she made a schedule and distributed it. Only women were on the schedule – the admin staff and me. The other male project managers and the entry level male project engineers were not. At first I thought one of the men made up the schedule so when I questioned him, I learned she made the schedule.
I should have caught on. There were other clues such as not getting the same level of administrative support as any of the men, including the entry level engineers. She needed me to be seen as a Pink Project Manager.
Hopefully, the women in your office will be supportive. Just remember they are probably already in the Purple Zone, not the Pink. That means you can work together to move men out of the Blue Zone and into the Purple Zone to the benefit of everyone in the office.
Empowered women in all roles and levels of responsibility respect each other and work together. .
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