“If I was a man, would you still have asked me that?” – A lesson in managing women

Early in my career I learned an important lesson about gender biases, the hard way.

At the time I was working on major projects in a growing organization, and I was struggling to keep up with business as usual activities. I discussed it with my manager, and I was given opportunity to write a position description and source a candidate to pick up the slack.

I ended up hiring a very bright young woman who interviewed brilliantly and whose credentials checked out. The position was offered and accepted with mutual optimism.

We got along famously. She was very talkative, very intelligent, and we hit it off straight away. It was all going well… at least for a while.

After some time in the role I started noticing that her performance was not at the level that it should be. The reality was that she was struggling in the role, and despite my best efforts to support her, my boss eventually pulled me up and told me that we needed to start the performance management process.

So I started fussing over her. I was still a relatively inexperienced people manager and I wanted her to succeed for my own benefit as much as for her own.  I paid much closer attention to her day to day work and offered support over and above what I would normally do. I worked longer hours to cover for her.

I unintentionally began asking her “are you ok?” on a frequent basis. I was anxious about the situation and I wanted frequent updates. My boss was expecting me to be on the ball and to handle the situation by the book. I was stressed out.

As the situation continued to deteriorate I became even more critical of myself. What was I doing wrong? I thought back to great managers that I’ve grown under, and I was desperately trying to pay forward the incredible kindness and patience I received early in my career.

One day I did one of my usual frequent visits to her desk, and again I asked her if she was doing ok. She looked me square in the eye and replied: “If I was a man, would you still have asked me that?”

My gut instantly answered the question. No, of course I wouldn’t have asked. I would have managed a man with greater accountability for their actions, and I would have put the responsibility for completing work onto their own shoulders without trying to save them. I would have expected a man to ‘man up’.

I knew all along that I was being too soft on her, but her question forced me to face my bias. The tables had turned, and I knew that we had a greater chance of achieving a better outcome if I had held her to the same standards to which I would have held a man.

She resigned shortly afterwards.

Maybe the role just wasn’t for her. Maybe it was me. I’ll never know.

We still keep in touch, and I’m glad that she considers me a friend. The nagging doubt of what I could have done differently has made me a better manager, but I regret that it was possibly at her expense.

Not all lessons learned have happy endings, which makes it all the more important to appreciate the lesson learned.

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