My Female Boss Was A Bully
And Some Thoughts on Social Justice
One of the much bandied-ideas in the world of business is that we need more women leaders. I’ll be the first to admit that there are real problems with how women are treated in our culture. Women in the working world and in every part of the world deserve to be treated with respect, both in terms of their bodies and of their ideas. Though I believe that the concept of “mansplaining” is far more nuanced and complicated than popular discourse suggests, there are simply too many problems in all organizations to ignore good ideas from women or to fail to give full credit for such ideas to the women who suggested them. In the same vein, while I support many of the changes of #MeToo, I want everyone to feel safe at work, and as a man I have felt unsafe from false accusations of sexual harassment at my job. We are horny humans who spend a tremendous amount of time at work. I think, within certain parameters, we need to make space for work-originated relationships.
But just because we need more women leaders this doesn’t mean that all female bosses are better than all male bosses. Political movements often serve to bring out key ideas and problems that hierarchical power-based organizations ignore in the service of achieving their own goals. At the same time, these same political movements nearly always overreact by seeing all organizational problems as based solely in the problem or problems they want to correct. We need better dialogue between the ideals of justice and the hard realities of life in the world. In that spirit I offer my own admittedly limited experience.
A Female Bully?
Not so long ago I stepped down from a leadership role at my job. I did so, because honestly, my female boss was a bully. I found out only yesterday that she’s been fired. Yay! The funny thing about this was that I was not aware that my boss was a bully. When I stepped down all I knew was that I was unhappy with that role. I didn’t have the word “bully” in my head; I only learned it from a mass email that went out a few days ago that began “Bullying at…” and that concerned many of the changes she had made.
I find the choice of words interesting because in the past “bullies” have always been men. No one, so far as I know, ever referred to my ex-boss as a “bitch” — which is the word we have always tended to use in the past about hard-nosed women in the working world. For those seeking feminist progress this is something to be happy about — “bully” has lost some of its gendered associations. At the same time, I think it’s really important that as we strive for equality in the workplace, we also make intellectual or conceptual space for the idea that female bosses can “bully” even a large number of male subordinates. That, apparently, is what happened at my workplace.
Crucially, and this is where the fun comes in, female bosses may “bully” in different ways from male bosses. Yet the word still applies. When the mass email went around I had an “aha” moment — that sense you get when you realize that a word applies to how you feel and to how lots of other people feel, and you understand intuitively that you are not alone in your feeling, and so suddenly a kind of loneliness lifts, and a community is suddenly created, just because someone found the right word for what you’ve been long experiencing.
The Female Bully Still Hears You..
My female boss had a strange ability to hear but never listen; I would send emails about things I was unhappy about and she’d call me at home, in the middle of breakfast with my kids, to talk about the issue. It sounds, in a sense, like commitment to the problem, but it wasn’t. The key issue or feeling I had was totally ignored in favour of her agenda. She would say that she was happy to talk more about the issue, and she meant it, but the talk (even though I talked) was really just a monologue. She didn’t interrupt, but it was as if the space to talk was just that — space to talk. There was no check-in, e.g. “Have we solved the problem to your satisfaction?” or “Did you get what you need?”
My boss would create what were in theory democratic and participatory organizations, but effectively, they were just her autocratic style recreated in a different context. She was very good at this. I would sit on committees where over time the membership of the committee would shift from the people who had been originally appointed to the committee to the people she supported. It was a bit insidious, because it would happen gradually. But the tone in the committees would change — where originally the committees were ones where diverse voices were heard, they would move to a place where some voices, usually the loudest, or the ones with the most formal authority on those committees, would make all the decisions.
It seems really important to say that viewed from the outside the structures she created were democratic, participatory, diverse. Had you assessed the committee merely from its membership you would have cheered at what you saw; there was an equal balance of male and female voices, there was racial diversity, everything looked good. The committees made quick and efficient progress on their mandates. But inside the committees, voices, even a lot of male voices with considerable authority, were silenced. Certainly, mine was.
White Men Have All the Power, Yeah Right!
Okay, so if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a rich (sort of) white guy. I’m married to a very smart and ambitious woman of color who is miles smarter than I am and makes more money than I do. We have two kids and own a townhouse in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I’m also a Eurocentric over educated snot-nosed elitist who had a transcontinental childhood and went to a private East Coast college in the US. I read big books and watch art-house movies. I’m the guy you want to throw stones at; don’t feel badly if you do, everyone does! I’m supposed to have all the power.
But you see, I don’t. Our struggle for equality is messy and complicated. Toes get stepped on. White male toes get stepped on, and yes it matters. Equality is NOT a license to get revenge on those who kept you down. They did that in the French Revolution and the results were not pretty. You can do that too, but I’m going to call that out as “revenge” and sometimes I’ll be right.
If you want “justice” you had better make it about all of us, the poor First Nations woman rolling her wheelchair down the street who’s on meth and was raped in residential schools and me, the elitist white guy sitting in his townhouse sipping his Starbucks latte. If you think that’s hard, well welcome to the world.
One of the hard lessons of life for those who want to bring justice in the world is that the more things change the more they stay the same. If you want to get rid of townhouses and lattes and maybe even white guys with trust funds, I might join you, white man that I am. But history is against you. Change is possible, but it’s very often cosmetic. Power is often like the famous stones at Machu-Picchu that undergo an earthquake and merely rearrange themselves while leaving the structure wholly intact. In my experience no one wants to tear down the buildings, they just want to throw out the people living on the upper floors and take over their apartments. We can’t live without the structures of power, and yet they are the real problem. If you wake up one day and discover that white men are still mostly in charge, wisdom and history suggest that the thing to do is NOT to rail at white men, but to investigate how power itself (which will always be with us) can be mitigated.
One of the first things my female bully boss did (and one of the signs of things to come) was to create ex-nihilo a program for “Social Justice.” She then proceeded to “democratically” force through a full-time job for a non-stellar female hire whose virtue for this job lay more in her obedience to my boss than in her merit. The position was in theory “open” to others, but it wasn’t. My female boss had chosen the person she wanted, and I, powerful white man that I am, voted against my will, to create this department and hire this person while ignoring the other people who applied. My issue, however, is not with the competence of my colleague, but with the unjust way my boss went about creating justice.
If the goal here was to bring more justice into our institution, it backfired splendidly.