in the driving seat
"She throws things (her coat, her purse) at her assistants, rattles off tasks to be done immediately, and demands 'the new Harry Potter' in 'three hours.' No, not the new book in the stores. The unpublished manuscript of the next book. Her twins want to read it. So get two copies."
Anyone who's seen The Devil Wears Prada would instantly be able to identify the woman in this rant by Roger Ebert as Miranda Priestly, the cold-hearted editor in chief of the fashion magazine Runway.
The character is supposedly based on Anna Wintour, editor of the fashion magazine Vogue, although Lauren Weisberger, author of the book by the same name vehemently denies it.
Meryl Streep's sparkling portrayal of Priestly soon became the standard image of tyrannical female bosses everywhere, even though it actually made Anna 'Nuclear' Wintour look good by comparison. Suddenly, any female authority figure, particularly in the media or fashion industries would be labelled a 'Miranda Priestly' just for being assertive. As if things weren't already hard enough.
Women have been in the workforce for a few decades now, and their roles have wandered far from the Kinder, Küche, Kirche paradigm, and yet, the dust is yet to settle. Even with female heads of the state for the past fifteen years or more, there's always talk on corners about female protectionism.
When we asked Shaheen Anam, Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation, about her views on the common theory about women being under the protective shade of positive discrimination, she replied, "I do not think that is true at all. Women have entered the workplace primarily seeking financial independence, aspirations for a career and the need to contribute to the family income. They have come on their merit. Positive discrimination is not working as 15 quota has still not been filled up for government positions."
Luva Nahid Choudhury, Managing Director, Abashan Upodeshta Ltd, and Director General, Bengal Foundation, qualifies the sentiment by adding, "A great deal depends on the management policy. Some companies are clear about providing equal opportunity. Others, even if they do not have clear-cut policies, appreciate that they need to employ the best and that necessarily excludes any discrimination. State policy also matters greatly.
"In recent years, Bangladesh government has actively endorsed the inclusion of women in the workforce. Non-government agencies are decidedly pro-woman. Because of all these, perceptions have changed (I would also like to assign that largely to the garment industry revolution that lent visibility to the preponderance of a female workforce). I hold it to be generally untrue that women enter the workplace through any means other than demonstrating their eligibility."
Wilhelmina Slater, the boss from Ugly Betty, is famous for her lack of morals. She's by no means the first female boss in fiction to get ahead, using less than fair tactics to get ahead. We've all seen or read stories about the "climbers" who use their looks or feminine wiles to move up the corporate ladder.
Rupali Chowdhury, Managing Director, Berger Paints Bangladesh Ltd, comments on the stereotype by saying, "Exploiting image to get ahead is a general human tendency for all those who do not have much substance within; it can happen irrespective of gender. There may be some instances [of women doing so] but they are not representative of the entire female workforce who have shone by their performance."
Luva Choudhury further says, "It's the same thing as a man using his status, family connection or political clout for gains. If you needed to push your way up by any means other than using your skill, knowledge and capability, it would only indicate a weakness, a lack of security and confidence. In the end you always get found out. More than anyone else, the person who does that knows how s/he got there."
That said and done, it is hard to ignore the prevailing feeling that women do get judged more on the basis of their physical appearance.
Shaheen Anam argues, "To be honest I have not felt that way. However I once had a boss who was very condescending but I did not stay in that job for too long. On the other had I have hand male bosses who have treated me as a professional and nothing more.
"Women have to be very good, in fact extra good, especially in a male dominated environment to be respected professionally. Once they get that message over, they don't encounter too much problem. Discrimination, sexual harassment etc., are all about power. Women face these when they don't have collective bargaining power and when men know they can get away with it."
Boys and girls
If one is to ask an employee about the effectiveness of the boss, the answers will depend on the respondent's sex. There is a difference in the way male employees and female employees perceive their female bosses, although this may not always be the case.
When asked about this, Luva Choudhury responds "Most of the time there isn't, but I can't deny that at some level it exists. Women seek empathy a lot more than men." Shaheen Anam adds, "I am very lucky to enjoy respect from my colleagues, both male and female. However, female colleagues see me as a role model and therefore their attitude towards me might be slightly different. There is a slight formality with male colleagues, but that is purely cultural. I call my female colleagues “tumi” while I call my male colleagues “apni”.
Good Women, Bad Bosses?
Not too long ago, Oprah Winfrey's 'O Magazine' ran the story "When Good Women make Bad Bosses" which outlined some of the common pitfalls awaiting female employers.
Author Suzy Welch goes on to talk about how bad management principles adopted by women actually stem from the best of intentions.
Shaheen Anam expands on this view by saying, "There are many issues regarding women managers that I want to address. First, women are still not comfortable with this position. They feel insecure and because they have struggled so hard to come to where they are now, they try to hold on to it no matter what.
In so doing they tend to behave in ways that goes contrary to sound management practices. Often they emulate male behavior and characteristics thinking this will take them ahead. To be honest, few women go very far professionally just by exploiting their woman image if they are not substantive and well rooted in their profession."
This is how we do it
Our respondents for this story all have different mantras for handling employees. Rupali Chowdhury takes an open approach, where she remains accessible, isn't afraid to look for help when she doesn't know the answers, and also delegates tasks according to abilities.
Shaheen Anam says, "I believe in complete openness with all my colleagues and encourage them to ask me anything they want. My door is always open, they are encouraged to come and talk to me about any problem, professional or personal.
"I believe in fairness and try to treat everyone with the respect they deserve. I have a very strong gender bias and go out of my way to support a female colleague, however I make sure that while doing so I do not discriminate against any male colleague. All the decisions I make is first discussed in a team and then shared with everyone.
"I encourage difference of opinion and take time to hear the logic of their difference. My colleagues excite me as they are so professional and so committed so great to work with. Every morning when I come to work I feel happy that I will spend the day in their company."
Luva Choudhury's outlook is a little different. "My position in the management demands that I look into everyone's problems to ensure smooth functioning," she says. "The realities of life and society in our country often demand the office's engagement at some level with the employee's personal life. In the case of women, that happens more often, and they are more inclined to come out in the open with their problems.
"Men are generally withdrawn and less likely to talk. Sometimes, if I sense a loss of interest in work or recurring distraction, I have to draw out their crisis through conversation and counselling."
With new avenues opening up for women in the workforce, one can expect to see an increase in female bosses. Will they prove to be effective? There is every reason to believe so. Are they better than their male counterparts? The debate over that one rages on.
5 Mistakes a Good Boss avoids
In her article in 'O Magazine', "When Good Women make Bad Bosses" Suzy Welch talks about common management mistakes women make, and how to avoid them. Here, in brief, are the five traps, and how to avoid them.
#1 Mismanaging Emotional Distances: This can go either
way; either the employer tries to emulate her male counterparts by being aggressive or remote, or she goes the other way by being too caring and lenient. Although each approach has its merits, in the long run, both can tarnish one's image as a leader. The remedy lies in striking the right intimacy balance: close enough to know your people, distant enough to lead them.
#2 Avoiding conflict, pain, suffering: The strong mothering instinct in many women lead them towards being altogether too empathetic about their employees' problems and complaints. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to meet the professional and personal needs of employees, but such a dynamic can spiral. Employees need to remember that the organization is not primarily about them, it's about customers, competition, new market opportunities, and productivity. It is important for the boss to prevent the entitlement culture, or if the damage is done, to engage in candid conversation with employees about the way things must change to refocus the company away from the internal Garden of Eden and onto the outside world.
#3 Holding on to Hiring Disasters: A candidate can look great on paper and in the interview but upon arrival just can't do the job or fit in with the team. When that happens, effective bosses cut their losses and let the hire go. Many women bosses linger, avoiding confrontation, or worry about the employee's future. Basically, women bosses try to minimize hiring mistakes rather than eliminate them. It is important to remember that while firing someone is never an easy task, sometimes it's better for the company as a whole, and maybe even for the employee.
#4 Believing that you need a mentor: Everyone needs advice. And we get it from different sources; friends, colleagues, former teachers. Women tend to fall into the trap of believing that they need to find a one-stop solution to all their questions, thereby limiting their own views. The remedy is to keep an open mind, look for inspiration from a variety of places, and most importantly, to believe in yourself.
#5 Thinking it's all about you: By the time they are promoted, women have spent more time as individual achievers. They keep trying to look good for their bosses. They keep thinking it's about their individual results. There is nothing individual about being a boss. Many women bosses take too long to find that out, but they shouldn't. It's just a realization away.
By Sabrina F Ahmad
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
Models: Prof. Dr. Nashid Kamal, Singer & Lecturer (Independent University, Bangladesh)
Luva Nahid Choudhury, Managing Director, Abashan Upodeshta Ltd, and Director General, Bengal Foundation
Nighat Haq (Chhanda), General Manager, Farzana Shakil's Makeover Salon Ltd.
Lipi, Designer Virgo
Makeup: Farzana Shakil's Makeover Salon Ltd.