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Making Women’s History Now — Gendered Management Challenges and Fair and Equitable Workplaces

In honor of Women’s History Month, Shattering the Ceiling is going to be profiling a series of women who we believe are making women’s history now.  These are the women who we want our daughters, sisters, nieces (and selves) knowing about and being inspired by.  And we imagine that when future generations are celebrating Women’s History, these are some of the women they’ll be honoring.


Elizabeth-Brown-150x150In today’s Making Women’s History Now interview, I discuss the gendered management challenges women face, what good management looks like, and what we should all be thinking about when picking our next workplaces with Elizabeth Brown Riordan, the Senior Partner and Head of the Training Team at The Management Center.*

In this role, Elizabeth has worked with non-profit organizations and advocacy groups around the country (and world) to run their teams more effectively by implementing sound management practices.  She has trained hundreds (maybe thousands?) of social justice leaders.  Through her work, she has both indirectly and directly worked to improve the experiences of women, people of color and the LGBTQ communities in U.S. workplaces.

What are your thoughts on the “surveys” or opinion pieces we see from time to time that claim that people prefer to be managed by men?  Are those surveys accurate or reliable?  What’s going on there? 

I have seen those; I know they exist.  But I don’t know that they are particularly useful or reliable.  There are a couple of things going on there that, even if a survey was conducted well, are influencing the result.  One, any data about employee preference is tricky.  Currently, there are more male managers and more male mentors in management.  This means that for most people, they have far more examples of managers that are men.  So this creates this self-perpetuating thing when you go survey that.  It is a weird thing to survey because the raw data coming in is awkward, imbalanced.  If people have had a female manager, they might be comparing her to multiple male manager experiences.  So you aren’t measuring the same things at that point.

I also recognize that struggling organizations often turn to women as a last resort, and there is this really public discussion about how a high-profile woman has failed when she isn’t able to fix something that countless other professionals before her weren’t able to fix.  Basically, because women are perceived to be more nurturing, they can be brought in after lots of reorganizations or public discussions of failures out of the hope that their “different” approach will be the necessary touch.  Then they are still punished, very publicly, about the company’s continued failure, as though they’ve created the symptoms of what was clearly an organizational problem.

Plus, there are other things that compound the problem.  The best managers are the ones that don’t hide the ball.  They make the implicit explicit.  They say what is in their head and then seek feedback.  Overall, they are direct.  But women are more likely to be punished for being direct because of stereotypes that directness isn’t a “feminine” quality.  As a result, women, and particularly women of color, are being pushed into managing in less direct ways for fear of being punished.  Or they do manage directly and then get punished by their staff and their superiors for that directness.

And this is not a hypothetical scenario.  Over my six years working with organizations around the country, I’ve heard this countless times.  I’d hear from female managers that they were getting pushback for being direct, that they were getting accuse of being “mean” or “strident” or “harsh;” things like that.  And the first couple times I heard that, I really wanted to dig into that and work with these female managers to figure out what they were doing wrong.  But after 6 years of hearing the same versions of that over and over and over again, I realized it is often women being punished, both by supervisors and subordinates for being too opinionated or clear about their expectations and feedback.

On the flip side, there are those articles that claim women can or do make better managers than men?  Or that men are inherently or dispositionally better managers.  What are your thoughts on that?  Is it your experience that one gender, as a whole, is better or worse at managing?  

Either genders can be good or bad managers.  One is not inherently better than the other.  But we are viewed differently for engaging in the same management style.

For example, let’s take yellers for a moment.  I want to be clear from the outset that yelling is a bad management technique.  But the perceptions of what constitutes yelling, how serious that is, what it means for employees are very different.  So often when men do it, the response is that this male yeller just “has that style,” and most of the time, employees are expected to adapt by the organization or just do adapt on their own.  In contrast, if a woman does the same thing, they are harshly punished; there is real censure.  My experience is that what is really going on when you hear about differences in management between men and women, what is happening is that women are just being policed more harshly.

As a practical matter, then, should women manage differently to meet or account for those perceptions and expectations?

No, I don’t.  Look, my organization’s goal is to help nonprofits turn good intentions into great results.  We believe in the missions of the organizations we work with, and we want and need them to be successful.  That’s our overarching goal.  And we believe that good management is a key lever for better results and teachable.  We know that if you are a great manager, you can get better results.  We know the keys are that managers must be super clear about expectations, give timely feedback, set measurable goals even for hard stuff; they must brutally manage their time, and they have to delegate.  Those things are essential to running a successful organization, whether it is men or women managing. You can’t avoid those things.

So is the result that women just have to bear the burdens of the policing and punishment for direct management style?

If a woman were try to contort herself to try and accommodate the perception and punishment, that isn’t going to work in the long term.  Someone who does that is going to limit her own career and her team; the trajectory of both is going to be limited.  So, avoiding a direct management style just isn’t an option.

There are things that can work or at least help ease the fallout from a woman being direct.  A big one is learning how to successfully manage up.  What I mean by this is approaching interactions with superiors with a ruthless focus on getting solution-oriented.  It’s really asking “How can I make it easy for my manager to listen to me and do what I want them to?  How do I work around their styles to get what I need?”  And when women are managers, they need to double down on those practices.

Second, women should do what they can to surround themselves in the workplace with people on their team who are culturally competent, who are open to working in diverse environment across many lines (e.g. age, race, national origin, gender, etc).  So female managers need to be especially thoughtful and purposeful about hiring people who can make the team work.  Or, if they are inheriting people they didn’t hire, they need to sit down with those people and talk about the kind of team they culture they want to cultivate.  They need to be transparent about how and why they make decisions and need to be ready to give regular and honest feedback, and ask for the same back from their teams.

Which is tied to the third thing, which is about going about the hard work of setting the culture.  This involves naming what is happening; that is just so important.  If gender-based things are happening, name that.  If other things are coloring peoples’ perceptions or interactions, that needs to be named.  Managers set the culture of their team.  They set the tone for everyone else; it trickles down from them.

A pushback on this might be that it sounds like some of that advice would only work for a woman who is highly-positioned in the organization.  What about those women who are entry-level managers or who are managing at a lower or middle level in the organization?  Can culture “trickle up”?

It can.  I have seen organizations where women have said “My focus is on my locus.”  And what this really means is that they build a high-performing team with what they have right there in front of them.  They commit to building a machine of drama-free high-performers.  Essentially, they say “we’re going to put our heads down and outcome the shit out of this.”  If they deliver the amazing results that good management can yield and at the same time, their team is a model of good culture, that can spread. Good management can infect an organization.

But it is much harder than being in a position where you can have the culture trickle down.  That’s why at The Management Center, we tend to work with people at the top to set the tone.  Because changing the culture from the top is easier.  But it is possible for women at lower levels to still effect change.

Switching gears a bit, how often, if ever, do you get questions from the organizations you work with about managing across gender difference?  And I mean those questions where the organization itself recognizes that it needs to make sure it is managing effectively people who are different genders?

Honestly, in my first 3-4 years with The Management Center, we didn’t get any of those questions.  It wasn’t something that the managers were thinking about on their own.  That’s partially due to the fact that the non-profit world is disproportionately managed by women, so gender is less of a point of difference than it is in the for-profit world.  There are a couple of sectors where, historically, men have dominated the scene.  But we just weren’t hearing managers thinking about that on their own until about two years ago.

Then there was a shift about 2 years ago. There was this moment, and I’m not sure entirely what instigated it.  It may have been attributable to the Movement for Black Lives or to the demands of funders? Or maybe I just started paying closer attention. Whatever happened, white people started getting more woke and thinking about managing across differences like racial lines.  And when you think about managing across race, then you also think about managing across gender.

As some organizations started to think more about building more diverse teams they often start with hiring.   Organizations first step is to hire people of color, particularly women of color but don’t have a culture to support them.  So then the organization has to try and figure out why they are losing people.  And that goes back to culture and managing across difference.  These are necessary but sometimes really tricky conversations, because some of that is about being better managers and some is about white-dominant cultures and how we go about changing that.

What are some of your top tips for managing across difference and building supportive cultures?

My number one thing is you have to make the implicit explicit.  So often, the complaint from non-managers is that they feel like they are expected to guess at what success looks like, that they are supposed to guess about what is in their manager’s head and make that happen.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  I’m an almost-forty, white woman with a college education from a small liberal-arts college.  Someone who is also an almost-forty, white woman with a college education from a small liberal-arts college is  more likely to guess correctly what is in my head, or at least approximate it pretty well.  But then someone who is a twenty-something black man with education from a large, state University is less likely to guess right.  His experience might give him a very different picture of what it is that I might have in my head.

When I hear managers tell me that they have a “go-to person” who “just really gets me,” that can be a big red flag for me.  Because that sounds to me like they aren’t being explicit about what it is that they need from their team, and there just happens to be one person who is better situated to guess at that.  That isn’t good management, and that does a disservice to the entire team and their results.  As a concrete example, imagine that a manager says to her team, “I want us to put our best foot forward, be super professional, and have a really tight meeting with these potential funders tomorrow.”  That could be interpreted in a million different ways!  As managers, we have to train ourselves to provide all of the necessary definitions.  We have to be clear and direct: by “professional,” I mean showing up X minutes early, wearing Y, bringing Z, etc.  You have to make those implicit things in your head explicit for your team.

The second thing is that diversity benefits don’t come from just getting gophers – a set of diverse people who nonetheless are simply tasked with just implementing your vision of how it always has been/ought to be done.  You’re going to benefit from diversity, and retain a diverse team, if you are committed to seeking out more perspectives, if you’re committed to the internal work on pushing yourself as a manager to really hear and consider them. I used to run meetings where I wanted everyone to hash out concepts in the meeting in a sort of free-fror-all.  Some people thrive in an environment like that, but others don’t.  It isn’t everyone’s communication style to have this rapid back-and-forth debate.  And often, that sort of interaction will end up breaking down on gender and race lines.

So we have to ask how can we structure meetings to hear everyone’s perspectives?  And I’m not talking about consensus building.  I’m still the decision-maker.  This is about making sure there is a process that is and feels fair to everyone.  I want to make sure I’m getting input from all of my people.  There has to be a variety in participation modes. For example, maybe you break into small groups and then report back to the whole.  That ensures I’m hearing from everyone.  And then it is on me to being really open to those new perspectives.

That sounds incredibly time-intensive.  What if there is pushback about the feasibility of investing that time?

Let’s look at Uber.  The recent NY Times article about Uber’s culture.  That shows they are suffering the consequences of building a culture that is top-down a survival of the fittest.  When you don’t invest the time to get managing across difference right, you lose high performers who don’t want to be there, and you get a very homogenous staff.  There are very significant costs to not doing this, and retention is an enormous time-saver.

But also, you don’t make every decision that way.  You reserve this more intensive process for the bigger decisions you have to make.  If you set the tone that when you have important decisions and can take the time, you do, then when you have to make decision on the fly, your team will trust you. There are some times when you can’t actually get everyone else’s input.  In those circumstances, it is about transparency and trust.

Are people still talking about management and child-rearing as a “mothering” issue?  Or have they shifted to view child-rearing as the gender-neutral “parenting” issue?  From your perspective, are non-profits doing a good job on de-coupling challenges of parenting and working outside the home from gender?

There has been a policy shift but not attitude shift yet.  Parental leave that provides equal time for men and women is becoming the norm, but attitudes aren’t there yet.  The problem is that in practice, there are fewer men out there who are taking leave or taking it at the same amounts.

And this is also partially men are not doing the smaller labors of childrearing like scheduling appointments and worrying about snack days.  There are exceptions, but a true culture shift has to come from all of us – men and women.  We’re all enacting these internalized gender roles when it comes from parents.  I know I have all these ideas about what a “good mom” is; I haven’t given them up.

So what do we do with all that?

When women talk to men about how important it is for men to take leave as well in one-on-one conversations, that really matters.  It really helps.  I’ve seen that be effective.  There are a lot of men out there who want to be equal parenting partners, who want to be supportive on this stuff.  They just don’t realize that their individual choices have these much larger social/political implications.

Also, I worked while I was on leave and then realized I was setting a terrible example for my team.  We women all have to do a better job of not setting unreasonable expectations for ourselves and, in turn, for others.  And it took me 3 tries to really get to a point where I didn’t do work.  And I named it for my team when I returned, that I had to really work at not working.  I made it clear to them that it is hard, but that it is an important value that when you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation; when you are on medical leave, be on medical leave.

Senior management has to do their part as well; they need to assertively refuse to allow work during leaves.  First maternity leave, I had an organization ask me to come in 4 weeks into my leave to help with a board meeting.  So I was there, crying in bathroom with milk leaking out of my boobs.  And I left that job.  At my current job, I have a boss that really protected the leave I took.  He really respected it.  He also models it himself; my boss is a smart guy.  He has his password changed when he is on vacation so the only way he can get contact is through a phone call.  That really sets the tone.

In your work, you get to learn about a whole host of different organizational cultures and structures.  From those experiences, have you been able to identify particular things that women should seek out when picking a job? 

  1. Are there clear measurable goals that start at the top? This isn’t a perfect proxy, but it is a way to know that an organization has their shit together.  It’s also a way to know that your evaluation is more likely to be built on something objective.  It means it is more likely to be meritocratic and more likely that your hard work will be recognized and rewarded.
  2. Are there women and people of color in leadership? If not, that means something is off.  At this point, the workforce has been diverse for so long that there really isn’t pipeline problems.  So if leadership isn’t diverse, that says something about their culture and the actual experience of working there.
  3. What are the articulated values of the organization? Is there explicit commitment to anti-oppression?  Or do they just use language about building equitable and diverse workplaces?  The latter are easy buzzwords, so you have to be able to dig down into how they live that out.  You have to make sure they thought about it beyond just saying it.
  4. What are the existing structures for mentorship? Keep in mind that the research says the gender and race of your mentor doesn’t matter.  But having someone who will look out for you, look for stretch opportunities, act as a guide to the organization?  The best workplaces have that.
  5. Finally, what is the hiring process like? The hiring process can tell you a lot about the organization.  If it is just you talking to people, then you are getting hired based on your ability to talk to people – your ability to be a good interviewer, not to do your job.  That should be a big red flag that they don’t invest time in making sure their management is good.

Are there particular aspects of the subordinate/manager relationship that they should try and find?  In other words, are there any hallmarks of a good manager?

If you can talk to other people managed by your potential manager, look for managers who ask for and are open to feedback. Is there a process for upward feedback?  360 reviews?  Do they engage in what we call “two-by-two’s,” where the manager and the subordinate have private, informal regular meetings to go over 2 things I’m doing well, 2 things I could do better, 2 things they are doing well, 2 things they could do better.  It’s a little awkward at first, because trust takes time. But those are the kinds of management relationships that let both people shine.  Also, consider what does the manager’s team look like.  Are you going to be an only?  If so, ask about that.

What is your approach to management?  Do you think it is a gendered approach at all?  

As a younger manager, I over-compensated and worried less about building relationships and more about being direct and clear.  That was an overcompensation, swinging too hard away from stereotypes of touchy-feely ness.  It is important that my team know I care about them.  And I originally overcompensated based on gender and age to be all about business.  But I think I’ve balanced that out better now.

I suspect that as a working mom, I am way more sensitive to family and home stuff than some male managers may be.  I understand what it is to be a primary caregiver and have to deal with things like kids having a puking virus.  So it is a priority for me that my team knows they have a boss who appreciates the importance of life outside of work.  And this benefits retention. They know I will do what I can for them.  That trust goes both ways.  If I need them to suck it up and do something, even if stuff is going on at home, they will.

You’ve built an impressive career and you also are the mom to three young children.  What are the tricks you use to juggle everything?

Three things:

One, if you decide to do it with a partner, choose wisely. I chose very wisely the second time.  My first marriage was a mulligan that came in handy because I got an awesome daughter, and I figured out what a great partner would look like.

Two, be really organized. Your head is a terrible home for remember what you need to do.  Calendars are your necessity.

Three, let stuff go. Like the cleanliness of your house or living out of a laundry basket or your children’s hairstyles when they go to school.  You have to be pragmatic about what things make the time cut.  I used to look super cute for work, and while I would argue I still look stylish, I’m more functionally fashionable now.

Is there anything you hope will be very different for your daughter than it was/is for you?

I hope she doesn’t have to deal with anything like this Administration.  I hope there don’t have to be nonprofits fighting for things like maternity leave.  That should be a given.  If she decides she wants to have children (a choice that she truly could make – not be pressured into because of ideas about what a successful woman looks like), I hope that she gets adequate time off and isn’t punished for it.  I hope she doesn’t have to worry about being harassed in the workplace or not being given certain jobs because she’s a woman.  If she wants to go into tech, I want that for her.  If she wants to be a manager, I don’t want her being policed for being direct.  All the bullshit that women have to deal with.  But honestly, I hope there is still a world when she is an adult and we haven’t been blown up because of some international conflict that resulted from a lack of diplomacy.


And, full disclosure, Elizabeth is my platonic life partner and has been since we became freshman-year debate partners at Vassar.  

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Katherine Kimpel

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

  • Courtney Ruark-Thompson

    I love so much of this! Kate, thanks for having a place like this on the internet, and Elizabeth, thanks for being real and making me laugh at the same time (as per usual)!

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