Do men need a guide for women at work?

photo (1)The January 1, 1956 edition of The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors was dedicated to “Women in Journalism.” A full page was given to an article written by Thomas Collins, the feature editor of the Chicago Daily News with the headline “There are Ladies Present” and the subhead, “(Being an account of the working relations between men and women in the editorial department of the Chicago Daily News).”

The piece begins with caricatures of women in the newsroom in the mid-20th century including “a jolly, overweight lady who spent her days dreaming up dumpling recipes,” and “a precise, well-mannered lady who gathered social notes, drank tea, and got lacy handkerchiefs from the publicity chairmen at Christmas,” but quickly moves beyond these stereotypes to describe staff members at that fine Chicago paper:

Our food editor knows how to detect and to write for the front page if necessary the story of a picnic that poisoned 30 children … Our society editor can write leads, inserts and sidebars about a social figure who breaks into Page One. Our beauty editor can phone the city editor at 2 a.m., then come to the office and write the story, if some man shoots his girl friend in the apartment upstairs.

Collins notes that harmony is maintained in the newsroom because of the high quality of both male and female journalists and because leadership takes a path that values the contribution of all. “There is mutual respect between the men and women, and there is understanding. Everybody is a reporter. Everybody is a ‘newspaperman.’”

This was almost 60 years ago. In 1956, about one third of the U.S. labor force was female, and there were even fewer women in the newspaper business. It is little wonder that giving men some guidelines for dealing with women at work was helpful and appreciated. Since then, the proportion of women in the workforce has steadily risen, and over 46 percent of today’s American workers are women.

Given these numbers, it would hardly seem necessary, today, to provide working men with a helpful hints for dealing with that strange breed of creatures in the workplace.

WSJBut this past Saturday, here at the close of 2014, the Wall Street Journal decided that it was, indeed, necessary. In “Women at Work: A Guide for Men,” Joanne Lipman lays out eight bits of advice for readers of this venerable business publication because – as the subhead states – “even the most well-intentioned male managers can be clueless when dealing with women in the workplace.”

The piece draws on some contemporary research about communication, career development, stereotypes, leadership, and workplace behavior. I like that. But beyond this, there is much about this piece that makes me sad, frustrated, and generally pissed off. Here are some of the major things that rankle:

Lipman sees it as important to note that she isn’t trying to “blame men” because “there has been way too much man-shaming as it is.” Instead, her aim is to “demystify women.” Really? Women are almost half of the workforce. Women have been almost half the workforce for years. If we women are really still so mystifying to men, if they have been paying so little attention to us, I think a bit of shaming is in order.

Men are given advice about patterns of female speech including the use of tag questions and qualifiers, and the downplaying personal accomplishment. Lipman explains that “These verbal tics date back to childhood, when girls learn to play with other girls by collaborating, while boys learn to play with other boys by trying to one-up each other.” Men need to recognize this pattern, she suggests. What bothers me here is that male patterns of aggression and interruption are seen as the norm and female habits of collaboration are seen as deviant. Perhaps we could start valuing women’s ways of working and leading – there’s plenty of research showing that they’re more effective – and start critiquing the men for butting in and man-splaining everything to us.

Lipman opens one piece of advice with a story about a finance executive who referred to women in his firm as “girls.” She then explains that “this is one of the trickiest issues we face at work. It’s known as ‘benevolent sexism.’ It is the comment that seems innocuous or even complimentary but which unwittingly reinforces negative stereotypes.”

Really? Learning not to call women “girls” is tricky? This comment seems innocuous or complimentary to anyone? No, calling women you work with “girls” is not tricky, complimentary, or innocuous. It’s certainly not benevolent. It’s sexism, pure and simple.

Another suggestion for the male readers of the Wall Street Journal is “Don’t be Afraid of Tears.” One man admitted that he was too easy on women because, “I didn’t want them to cry, to feel bad.” So, women in the workplace, if you’re not getting adequate feedback about your job performance, it’s your own fault. You’re just too emotional to take it.

9 to 5There’s more, of course. One featured illustration in the article comes from 1980’s “Nine to Five” with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton standing over a cowed Dabney Coleman — just the picture we want highlighted in an essay about contemporary gender relationships in the workplace.  Readers are advised that the problem of women feeling a lack of respect in the workplace should be addressed by saying things like “That was a great job in that meeting” – rather than by actually developing respect. And the final suggestion in the piece reminds readers that “She’s your boss, not your mother,” apparently because the idea of a woman in a supervisory position is just so hard to fathom.

Have I vented enough here? Yes, I probably have. And I can take heart in the fact that even back in 1956, there were workplaces that understood that it isn’t all that difficult to maintain professional relationships between men and women. Indeed, the Chicago Daily News had three straightforward ideas:

  1. The professional standards of the newsroom were consistent across all people and all sections of the editorial department.
  2. The moral climate in the newsroom was consistent with the good taste of the community.
  3. Employees should discard the concept that women employees were somehow different.

If only writers and readers of the Wall Street Journal could follow these simple rules.

4 thoughts on “Do men need a guide for women at work?”

  1. I have mix thoughts about calling women girls:

    Referring to women in the women in the workplace as girls is sometimes endearing. For example Mr. Jack says to Mr. Tim “My girls are very important and special to me.

    On the other calling a woman ‘a girl’ may be a device to keep said woman in check. For example in one episode of The Newsroom, Charlie calls Sloane girl in that high pitch authoritative voice.

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