As I See It: Women
April 10, 2006 Victor Rozek
There were rumors that Margaret Thatcher was actually a woman, but they were never proven to my satisfaction. She wasn’t called “The Iron Lady” for nothing. She often seemed hard and unsympathetic, and stubbornly belligerent as only people who are convinced of their own superiority can be–sort of like Ronald Reagan without the aw-shucks charm. I recall being disappointed, but this was the 1980s and I was naive and actually thought that having women in positions of political power might soften the world.
I felt the same disappointment in the workplace. The ascendancy of women to positions of corporate power would, I had hoped, bring new sensibilities to a domain often defined by greed and cut-throat competition. But somewhere during the long, hard climb to the top, women lost something and–at least the most visible ones–often ended up acting like mean, quaffed men in pumps. The workplace was rich in females but, at least at upper management levels, women suppressed the essential feminine.
Women, of course, were caught in a bind. Men made the rules, they argued, and the male-dominated workplace left them little choice: if they wanted to compete with the boys they had to compete like the boys. Besides, their native temperament was neither valued nor rewarded at work.
They were, I think, half right. Certainly such virtues as kindness, cooperation, compassion, and sensitivity are seldom recognized and poorly compensated. No job description lists them, no performance evaluation honors them. But the disdain and neglect of the feminine in the workplace overlooks the reality that these qualities operate like gravity; unseen and unappreciated, yet with an impact that is pervasive and enduring.
After all, not all women are clawing their way through the glass ceiling. Most, like their male counterparts, toil at unglamorous jobs and, for the duration of their careers, remain anonymous, non-voting members of the corporate culture. But while qualities reflective of the feminine are irrelevant to the bottom-liners, I believe they make a profound difference to the quality of day-to-day corporate life. It is a regrettable male failing that the many acts of female generosity are so often taken for grated and so seldom acknowledged.
Let this, then, by my clumsy salute to the women IT professionals who transform the workplace not by the force of their position, but by the force of their presence.
I’ll start with a small daily ritual vital to all of us who arrive at work in assorted states of jet lag: the making of the morning coffee. In every office I’ve ever worked in, men were Mr. Coffee challenged. The complexities of disposing of yesterday’s grounds, of finding a fresh filter, filling it with coffee, and figuring out where to pour the water, were simply beyond us. Almost every day, a woman graciously took the time to prepare coffee for the IT department, and some even cleaned up after thoughtless people who left dirty cups in the sink. As far as I know, no one received recognition or credit for this daily act of kindness, so on behalf of those of us who were regularly too lazy, too busy, or too self-important to make coffee: Thank You.
Kindness, I believe, is at the center of what women regularly bring to the workplace. Many practice what Alison Stein Wellner calls “kind ambition;” aspiration devoid of jealousy and ruthlessness. For those rare people, promotions are less important than how advancement is achieved and at whose expense. They look for win/win solutions. For them, getting the job done is important, but no less important than how the job is done. Respect and inclusion are valued, as is the sharing of credit. I have worked with women who were gracious under attack, patient with boorish behavior, genuinely pleased by the success of others, and helpful to colleagues without thought of recognition. Thank You.
There have been many times in my career when I received a compassionate smile or felt a comforting hand on my shoulder that made a huge difference to me. When computers crashed and users became impatient; when deadlines were missed and management was displeased; when everyone was stressed by too much work and too few resources; when software failed and data was lost; when colleagues left for greener pastures taking critical expertise with them. When the sky was falling and I needed an umbrella, more often than not a woman colleague was there to offer a small expression of kindness or encouragement. For all of the times I failed to convey my gratitude: Thank You.
Women, in my experience, value cooperation over competition and focus on process as well as outcome. They are the unofficial inter-departmental liaisons and the de facto peacemakers. They tend to relationships as well as tasks. An IT manager I know, a brilliant woman with superb technical skills, realized she had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with all the people issues in a large, dysfunctional IT department she had been hired to transform. She knew enough to know relationship building wasn’t her forte, and since the demands of hardware replacement and software design required all of her considerable focus, she hired someone to tend to staff issues. That person was me. What was surprising, and perhaps unprecedented, was that–before and since–I’ve met any number of IT managers who gladly hired people with the technical expertise they themselves lacked, but not a single one recognized a deficiency in their interpersonal skills. But this exceptional woman did, and cared enough to invest resources in support of her staff, and for that: Thank You.
I have seldom seen a woman lose her temper at work; I have seldom heard a woman savage a fellow employee. Generally, I found women more willing than men to ask for guidance or assistance when they were unsure of something, and less likely to shoot from the hip. Women actually read and understand the code before changing it. They will take the time to trace the wiring back to its source before beginning to unplug things. For those times when their thoughtfulness and native caution avoided downstream problems: Thank You.
And to all those women who brighten the office with flowers, decorate it for the holidays, organize birthday lunches, pass around cards for signatures, bring coffee cakes, and make sure there’s always a little carton of half-and-half in the fridge: Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. You bring beauty, playfulness, and treats to an environment starved for joy.
And since worrying about quarterly profitability, dealing with a craggy, jaded board of directors, a ruthless back-stabbing top management team, and screaming shareholders will only guarantee to leach all of the joyous, gentle humanity out of you, I offer this self-serving wish.
May none of you get promoted.