For many talented, hardworking women, the moment that someone treats you like a little girl in the room, your head nearly explodes. It comes out of nowhere and is definitely unwarranted, given your education, experience, and professional demeanor. Although it stems solely from that person’s own insecurities, it can be maddening. We expect to be treated as equals.
The frustration of not being treated as a professional literally elicits a low growl from me—no kidding, I just did that. I wish I could say that I don’t care if someone takes me seriously or not, but that isn’t true. I have a strong sense of justice that keeps getting surprised and discouraged by what I see happening in the workplace today. Maybe I care too much because of my own programming that directs far more of my thoughts and perceptions than I care to admit.
I had to look deeper into why women like me have a soft underbelly that still gets hurt by the dismissive attitudes we face among male peers and bosses. We’re never allowed to call it out, of course, but we feel the sting of failure when men appear to marginalize our experience, ideas, or opinions. It feels very much like being patted on the head and sent away to color.
What I found is a troublesome little thing I call paternal approval seeking. It starts when we’re kids and you can find it alive and well in almost every culture across the world. Where we tend to triangulate against female authority figures (see my last post), quite the opposite happens with male authority figures. We actually try our utmost to impress them. Even confident women fall into the trap.
Vying for the approval of men at work can disrupt teams as well. Compare the response to a new male boss versus a new female boss. With a woman, we might greet her pleasantly, but we don’t strive to please her as we do a new male boss. Instead, we shift into neutral in some cases, with a “we’ll see how she does” attitude. Watch for it next time there’s a leadership change at work.
This is a general theme that I found, so I’m not saying it happens all the time. But when women in the office begin to compete with each other for the approval of a male boss, it can get ugly. There’s just no other way to say it. Not only is it dysfunctional, it drags us all back fifty years.
How does this affect assertive, outspoken women? Well, the gentler women in the group can actually turn incredibly passive aggressive. Badmouthing, rumors, and direct attacks aren’t uncommon. It’s easy to point at the strong woman and declare her a “problem” for the team. I ask teams who are in turmoil to consider whether this dynamic might be contributing.
If you think paternal approval seeking is in play on your team—especially if it’s intended to push you out—I can help you work through it. I’d love to provide a quick, one-step answer here, but most of the women I work with need a fair amount of sanity checks and venting before they can approach it will a high degree of skill and patience.
Hope to hear from you soon.