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May 04, 2006

Gals at Work

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There's an interesting column by Jeffrey Zaslow in today's Wall Street Journal. (It doesn't seem to be available online, darn it.) Zaslow's theme is the differences between working American women of different ages. Our work force now harbors four generations of women: women born pre-WWII; Boomers; Xers (born between 1965 and 1980); and, now, Yers (born after 1980).

Surprise, surprise: They don't all play together well. 36-year-old Alison Brod, who runs a p-r firm, finds that she has to order her 20something gal employees to cover up their bellybuttons when they meet with clients. She also has to tell them to spellcheck their writing and to be sure to use capitalization too. "Their mindset is completely casual in every single way," Brod says.

60-year-old Nina McLemore, who runs Liz Claiborne Accessories, is struck by the way her younger female employees expect to leave the office at 5 pm. "They've seen their mothers do it, and they don't want that stress," McLemore says. Meanwhile, young women often find older female colleagues a pain. One shocker comes from a survey conducted by Susan Shapiro Barash of 500 working women. It turns out that 70% of them feel that male bosses treat them better than female bosses do.

The article also contains a lot of blah-blah about "mentoring" that might interest some but that I certainly can't make sense of. I seem to be genetically unable to understand the fuss that women have made about mentoring. What's the big deal? I never expected to be taken on by a male mentor, and I never was. As for the only woman who ever gave me a little work-guidance, well ... About half her advice was pretty good, while half of it was very bad. I find myself figuring that "mentoring" means a lot to many women for symbolic reasons. I just can't figure out what's being symbolized.

Still: a provocative article. I'm dying to know what the partyline feminists will make of these findings, of course. There has got to be some way of blaming this state of affairs on Da Patriarchy. But I'm much more curious to hear about visitors' experiences at work. Do gals find women of other ages hard to take? How and why? Do guys notice that younger and older gals have different attitude-sets? Me, I'm very struck these days by the way a certain old assumption -- that women share a lot in common where work is concerned -- seems to have evaporated. And hallelujah for that.

Susan Shapiro Barash has put her findings into a new book, "Tripping the Prom Queen." An archive of Jeffrey Zaslow's columns can be found here.



posted by Michael at May 4, 2006


Was there ever an assumption that women would all get along at work? Maybe during the first wave of feminism. My wife certainly has never harbored that illusion, and also has noticed she gets along better with male bosses. I don't find this all that notable, I tend to get along better with female bosses.

The generational thing happens with guys, too, particularly regarding work schedules and newer technology such as tele-commuting. The male senior vice president where I work cannot wrap his head around telecommuting. When I brought it up as a possibility for me part-time (my commute SUCKS), he rejected it as he "wouldn't know if I was working or not." An increasingly archaic view.

Certain issues may differ between the sexes (the bellybutton thing, for one), but we all have in common that fact that we dont' get along with everybody.

I have to say, I found this post kind of condescending, and I'm no "male-feminist" or anything like that.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 4, 2006 12:29 PM

My generation is missing from this -- b. 1939. My best mentors have been male bosses: a remarkably humane school superintendent on the rez in 1961, a brash old Kojack-type cop who ran Animal Control in Portland, and a soft-spoken Vietnam veteran geo-engineer at the City of Portland. The VERY best mentor was my ex-husband, who taught me to do most of the things I really understand. One of my failures in the ministry was finding a mentor who could interpret what the hell was going on.

Women of every social type and level have been nothing but competitive, trying to control and suppress me. The head of the Bureau of Buildings, a strong woman to say the least, used to stop by my desk to chant, "Mary, Mary, quite contrary!" I finally asked her to refer to me as Ms. Scriver -- or maybe Reverend Scriver. She said she meant the practice to be a joke, that she was treating me as a mother would. I pointed out that I was older than she and that she was NOT my mother. (I thought it was too cruel to point out that she was not anybody's mother. Her children were adopted.) Then I mentioned the Union. I don't last long in jobs that aren't Civil Service.

Women who don't compete try to attach to me and make me responsible for them. I don't know what kind of vibes I'm giving off, but it's a great relief to be retired!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 4, 2006 12:36 PM

Patriarch -- Condescending, moi? And sure, there was a long stretch when women were assumed to have a phenomenal amount in common. A "working woman" had to, just had to feel, think, experience in the same ways other working women did. If pressed, I could Google and come up with tons of articles and books reflecting this kind of p-o-v. I remember that there was supposed to be a female bossing style, for instance, and it was always supposed to be superior to the male bossing style.

P. Mary -- I like your attitude of having-had many different mentors. A bit here, a bit there. God knows I've learned a lot (in bits and pieces) from a lot of different people. I suppose in modest ways each was a mentor. That's very realistic. Is it realistic, though, do you suppose, the way some women expect to find a single mentor? It always seemed to me like they were looking for a benevolent Daddy figure at work, and getting upset that the world didn't deliver. And if it isn't realistic, where on earth did the expectation come from? Built into the female system? Drummed into them by schools and counselors?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2006 12:48 PM

Not surprising -- females are judged mostly on looks & youth, so older females will be more jealous & resentful of younger upstarts. Imagine you're a male boss, and that the new guy is 6 inches taller than you and went to a better undergrad / grad school than you did -- same thing would happen.

So, we'd need to see historical data to tell whether or not today's 20-somethings are any more casual / shocking than 20-somethings were in the '80s, '70s, etc.

I find it cool that I just made the cut-off for Gen X, btw.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 4, 2006 12:51 PM

I'm a Boomer, and share the Boomers' general dislike of Gen X and Gen Y but I'm unable to see why that old lady is so upset by the young women who want to leave the office at five. I want to leave the office at five, too. Some of us have lives, grandma.

Posted by: Bilwick on May 4, 2006 12:51 PM

Perhaps this is more of a generational than gender issue. The mentor thing is completely foreign to me, I've heard none of the women in my life, friends and/or family, ever mention it. As you say, Michael, there apparently was a time when women were all supposed to get along. I'm not denying this, but I think that time has been over for awhile.

I'm proably way off base, I'm just going on my own experience.

Posted by: the patriarchy on May 4, 2006 1:48 PM

MB -- Yes, I think the father dynamic pertains, as well as the mother dynamic. ("Surely you're not going to wear THAT!") But also I've made it a point to look for the biggest and most powerful person (male, female or indeterminate) and make sure that I'm their friend. It's more like having a Patron than a mentor. But if you FAIL, run for your life.

In this village and on the rez, if you don't have good connections or a big family, you are vulnerable to a host of small damaging acts.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 4, 2006 1:57 PM

I second Bilwick.
Correction, though: that request to display eagerness to work after hours and not to be paid for it (or, alternatively, being offered overtime pay and reject it in favor of personal time,unpaid) usually comes from male bosses, who used to rely on their wives for domestic matters and discount the work that goes into maintaining a home and healthy children. It's seen by majority of bosses as un-loyal (is that a word?) to the company to care about your family more than about work - and the reality being there are more male bosses than female ones (at least in commercial architecture), the shock and disbelief usually come from men.

I can't say I've had miscommunication at work due to female bosses (incidentally, all 3 were called versions of Anna...hmmm) and the horrible bitchy and vindictive ones. But I also had a back-stabbing lying SOB male bosses, although generally I find it easier to deal with men: they are easier to keep concentrated on work matters (exceptions allowed).

An mentors..what mentors? The only occurence I recall that comes close to the definition, was when a new hire (a man 15 yrs me senior, who lied on interview about his fluency with CAD-2002 program) clung to me like a fly to a tape, requesting me babysitting him in simplest commands and cheering up every time he pushed the right button. After a week of that I got him fired.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 4, 2006 2:01 PM

I am in favor of gals at work.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 4, 2006 2:04 PM

Second paragraph got mangled somehow, sorry.

I wanted to say:
I didn't have specificly female-boss problems of male-boss problems. I did have a bad-boss problems, for sure.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 4, 2006 2:05 PM

Agnostic -- I'm always looking forward to more studies.

Bilwick -- A 9-5 job sounds lovely, doesn't it? A 9-5 three-day-a-week job sounds even better. Whatever happened to having a life? I wonder if the fact that young gals want to leave at 5 is a sign that the whole romance of "having a career" is over. I sure hope so. Any hunches?

Patriarchy -- It may also be clearer out your way than where I hang out. Feminist partyline thinking is dying a very slow death in NY media/culture circles, darn it. People in the rest of the country are probably a lot more down to earth.

P. Mary -- That's a lot of hardwon wisdom! Thanks for doing that bit of mentoring.

Tat -- Good bossing and bad bossing can come from both men and women, ain't that the case. I've actually had more female bosses over the years than male. Some of my faves have been gals, but some of the worst were gals too. (Ah, the princess behavior I have seen ...) The worst one, come to think of it, was a lesbian who had an awful knack: she somehow combined the worst parts of maleness (curtness, tendency to provoke fights, irascibility) with the worst parts of femininity (backstabbing, overemotionality, neediness). A real prize.

Jonathan - But let's not overlook the pleasures of women at play too!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2006 2:16 PM

A few musings:

- I've never gotten the point about "mentoring." Methinks it's basically a corporate-speak buzz word like "leverage" or "synergy."

- In my experience, and based on things I've heard, female bosses + female subordinates = friction, quite frequently. None of the three other combinations (male boss/male subordinate, male boss/female subordinate, female boss/male subordinate) seem nearly as problematic.

- WRT age, women seem to remain productive longer than men, once again I'm speaking in general terms and acknowledge many exceptions. Men are more likely to slack off once they hit middle age while women frequently remain valuable workers right up to retirement. As for why this is so, my theory is that men have a hard time dealing with the realization - which often comes along with middle age - that they're not going to make it to the corner office, while women are more accepting of the fact. Or maybe it's just that after age 35 most men are thinking of nothing except cartball :)

Posted by: Peter on May 4, 2006 2:16 PM

Just last night IFC showed The Business Of Strangers, which is about this very same issue. Julia Stiles (hubba hubba) and Stockard Channing play corporate women of different generations who hate each other:

Middle-aged executive Julie Styron (Channing) takes a limo to her business pitch, sporting Prada and pumps and firing off edgy retorts on her cell. Her administrative assistant Paula (Stiles) cabs over after a delayed flight, sporting bitch-streaked hair and an Ani DiFranco chest tattoo and schlepping armloads of audiovisual equipment. When their paths finally collide -- in the middle of the presentation, which tanks -- Julie fires Paula on the spot, then cools her heels with a Valium, a phone session with her therapist, and Dewar's with a cheesily slick headhunter named Nick (Weller). But it's then that the story of this character-driven psychodrama really begins...

People who like psychological knife fighting of the Albee/Mamet variety should check it out when it comes on again. (May 22 says the schedule.)

By the way, in my shockingly unsuccessful stint at having a real job, I'd sneak in the back door at around 9:20 and usually split by 4:45. The hour after lunch was spent snoozing in the file room. (Oddly, I didn't get fired until a full week after I stopped showing up altogether.) My boss was a woman, fifty-ish, thin, fragile, workaholic, in a world of her own. Valued quantity of input over quality of output, as such bosses often do. We got along pretty well though, seeing as she never saw me, nor I her.

I'm late-X/early-Y, BTW.

Posted by: Brian on May 4, 2006 2:55 PM

I've noticed something similar with amny of my young femal co-workers in their 20's - they are often stylish, smart, hardworking, and blessedly free of the previous generation's obsession with "sexual harassment" but the often seem to lack any sense of what was once described as "professionalism". I've had young women come to important meetings in sweats and other workout clothing, and I seem to have a hard time making them understand what the big deal is. On the flip side, some of these rather casual young ladies are my very best, most dependable workers, so I really can't complain. But as recently as 20 years ago, young women would often overdress, wearing "Wall Street" style power-suits to informal meetings. Go figure...

Posted by: tschafer on May 4, 2006 3:24 PM

About "The Business of Strangers," Michael Blowhard says check it out.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2006 3:24 PM

Oops! Lots of typos in my previous post - I have no business complaining about anyone being too casual...

Posted by: tschafer on May 4, 2006 3:26 PM

Boomer professional women, especially the older ones, were pioneers who had to bust into a male world. They had to work twice as hard and be twice as tough and not girly at all to be taken seriously. Then, things shifted. Women lawyers, doctors, etc. became normal. The old-timers who were chauvanistic without thinking about it retired or died. It was no longer quite so necessary for a woman to be hard as nails or always be the last person to leave the office every night. And the younger women accordingly moderated their behavior and treated their careers as something less than an ideological mission, and dressed in a more feminine way, and did not think it was weird to leave at a reasonable hour from time to time. It is not surprising that this caused a certain amount of resentment. Pioneers who break the frontier always despise the soft people who settle down where they had to struggle.

I am not sure what the mentoring thing is all about either. I think that there is a hardwired kind of male bonding that we guys all have and that women generally do not. The feminist myth of a "sisterhood" is not something that seems to have a real-world analog. So, the mentoring thing may be an effort to create a formal system of female friendship and cooperation, where informal ones are not emerging spontaneously.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 4, 2006 3:54 PM

The most problematic part of a mentor or patron relationship when the Big Fish is male, is keeping it from slipping into a father-daughter ("You must do what I say!") or a marriage or an affair. My old cop/kojack friend coped by always taking TWO of his female mentorees with him for a drink or otherwise recreate and bond. He said he was frankly grooming us to take over his job so that he could be promoted. Otherwise, he would be too valuable to be moved. And he said the guys were mostly too much lunkheads to be considered -- though finally we got a worthy guy (animal control officer is not exactly most men's ambition). By that time, we two likely women had split, so that was the person who took on Animal Control -- and did it very well -- for the next decade. Then my boss went to clean up Seattle AC and the mentoring became a network and an association of managers.

Aren't we -- in the best of cases -- talking apprenticeships?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 4, 2006 5:04 PM

I believe that feminism isn't done yet. As long as there's money to be made and attention to be gotten about women fighting with each other 1) over men (primarily), 2) physcially fighting, and 3) in our careers, we're going to keep seeing this. It's apparently good entertainment for some and self-interest for others.
I'm a feminist, and I like nearly all the women I am in contact with in the work place. Why wouldn't I? Sure, there have been a few that are just awful, but there have been a few awful men, too. I just don't get the hype about all this.
It will remain true, that as long as women don't have their own money, they will succumb to the fear entertained by these fights. If you have money and your career is as stable as anyone else's these days, you're really lucky, so why would you care about the rare, cranky woman? If you have your own money and someone tries to steal your husband and succeeds, you don't have to worry about survival. If you have your own money, you can make more of your own choices. That's the biggest part of feminism I try to impart to people who are still wondering about its purpose. In a time when women were totally dependent on men (and there have always been a few who weren't)was was absolutely dire to lose your man - don't even think about a JOB (and today in many circumstances still is) That's why recipes were kept secret, devious behavior became associated with women, and that sort of thing. It was a competition, not only to get a man but to keep him. It's unhealthy.
I have no argument with women or men who work at home as career parents, or career spouses (if they dont' have kids). It's not my choice. I want to work for my own money, and thankfully I can.
There are all kinds of people in this big wide world - women as well as men just need to try and "be excellent to each other" - wouldn't that be nice?
As to the mentoring thing - I like Mary's word "apprentice" - where did that word go? Mentor will do. It means pretty much the same thing. I don't believe I'm owed a mentor, and I don't know anyone who does, but most people, men and women who have come before me have helped me. I hope I am doing the same with the younger workers (female and male) and I hope I will continue.

Posted by: bridget on May 4, 2006 6:39 PM

For what it's worth, my wife, when we worked at the same drug company, always said that she'd had the worst treatment from other women as supervisors. She also tended to be leery of labs which were all-female, feeling that at least one man in the mixture added a certain stability. (Well, depending on the man, of course, but that was usually the idea.)

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 4, 2006 8:58 PM

I get along pretty well with just about everyone, but I have definitely had the experience mentioned with the younger set. I'm in my 30s, and the twentysomethings are indeed ultra-casual in their writing--not a good thing when they're on my technical documentation team. I remember telling one young'un at my old job that she really needed to use correct capitalization and punctuation (no rampant ellipses between sentences) in correspondence to clients. (Duh!)

Posted by: Waterfall on May 5, 2006 9:57 PM

I agree that women bosses are much worse than men. The very worst thing is to try to work for one of your friends. Best way to lose the friend.
But as far as "letting it all hang out" in the workplace, I'm all for it. I think you should be able to be the same person on the job as you are off it. And for me a large part of that is wearing sneakers and sweat pants.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 6, 2006 12:07 AM

These discussions always leave me gasping. Does anybody besides me remember that the Great Depression occurred in the 1930s, when my parents were growing up? Does anybody besides me remember that 8,000 young men died on the beaches of France in one day during World War II?

My mother and father, like almost everybody in their generation, grew up in poverty.

This fake history of a time when white men all had great jobs and lorded it over the women, gays and blacks... folks, it's completely phony. It's silly propaganda.

The reality is that almost everybody was dirt poor until after the Second World War, that almost everybody worked at dirty, dangerous and unrewarding jobs.

The themes of these comments... what can I say? It's all unreal. The dominant theme of the past 30 years in the office is fags and fag hags taking revenge for a past that never existed. And, we see that theme repeated over and over.

The politics of envy have contorted the past into something that it was not.

Women have been deadly in the workforce, because they have brought this insane distortion of the past with them. They've imagined, as Michael so adeptly points out, that men were involved in a conspiracy to benefit one another.

Such are the fruits of paranoia. Since the period from the end of the Second World War to the era of racial and sexual quotas was roughly from 1945 to 1973, the period of revenge for the grace given to the veterans of the WWI now has lasted longer than the era of that grace. For 18 years we gave those veterans first choice because they bled and died. We've now exacted revenge against them and their sons for 33 years.

How much revenge is enough?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 7, 2006 3:59 PM

FYI, the article is now online in the Zaslow archive linked above.

Posted by: Dave Munger on May 8, 2006 6:00 AM

"The dominant theme of the past 30 years in the office is fags and fag hags taking revenge for a past that never existed."

Huh? I can think of many things that could contend for title as the dominant theme of the last 30 years but that just isn't one of them.

Posted by: jult52 on May 8, 2006 1:59 PM

I was born in 1973, so essentially smack-dab in the middle of Gen X. What bothers me about the way the "kids today" dress or write is that it bothers me in the first place! I feel like such a fuddy duddy when I "tsk tsk" at someone's unprofessional work wear. Shouldn't I be "cooler" than that? Alas, no.

As for mentors in the workplace, the only time it made any sense to me was when I was an officer in the Navy. As one of a very few women in my profession, I really did want to see a woman who managed to succeed in her career, with her family, and as a person in general. I never met one who seemed particulary happy or healthy. Not having a role model, or at least someone I could look at and say "See it can be done!" had a lot to do with me leaving the Navy.

As for now, in the "real world," having a "mentor" in the traditional sense doesn't seem to be a necessity. There are so many women in the work world and I can see how they all balance lives, careers, families, and take a little bit of wisdom from everyone.

Posted by: big al on May 8, 2006 3:51 PM

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