Female leaders, throw those ‘boys’ undermining you a curveball

Doing everything by the book makes it easy for opponents to plan ahead. So shake them up a bit, says Marcia Devlin

May 14, 2021
A female baseball pitcher symbolising female leaders
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Most university senior women I know have had “the style” conversation at least once in their career. It goes something like this.  

The line manager of the female staff member asks for a meeting, or raises the matter during a performance-review meeting. There has been “feedback” about her, and it’s not positive, unfortunately. There is apparently a concern about her “style”, which is creating a bit of angst. You see, her style is just a little bit – how shall I put this – brusque, abrupt at times, tending towards blunt, sometimes terse, has an element of briskness about it, and can be a little bit sharp. She has been known to be short, on occasion. She cut someone off when he was speaking last month. (Or was it last year? The details and examples are sometimes a bit vague and hard to recall.)  

If you haven’t had this conversation yet and you are a woman with a leadership role or ambition, it’s more than likely coming. 

Style is something that male leaders in universities generally need to give little thought to. None of the senior men I have asked about the style conversation have understood what I was talking about. Men put on clothes, go to work, get promoted and get put in charge. Not so for women, unfortunately. 

Having a woman in leadership can be threatening and difficult for some people, both male and female, in universities. This is especially true if a woman rejects the implicit expectations of her to be nice, nurturing and “mothering” in her leadership style. 

When this “lack” of “softness” is accompanied by an assertive approach that focuses on outcomes and deliverables and/or includes candour about the performance of direct reports that may be below par, the result can be a general sense of threat. One of the potential consequences of not being liked or being perceived as “not nice”, as a woman, is that colleagues may undermine you as a way to slow you down/trip you up/put you back in your box.  

Men and women in universities experience undermining, but it is more common for women, and even more common for women who are not playing by the gender rules set for them. Many women I know who work in academia have experienced undermining – though, often, it is covert and while you feel like you know it’s happening, you can’t always point to hard evidence of it.

Another potential consequence of not meeting gendered expectations that many women experience is gossiping/bad-mouthing and rumour-spreading. Women are far more often victims than men. Malicious gossip can be about your character, “style”, management of emotions, personal life or any other aspect of your personhood. Even if the gossip is completely untrue (as it often is), throwing mud like this is effective in creating wariness and even dislike or distrust of a woman. This, in turn, can successfully undermine your efforts to build relationships, camaraderie, teams and harmonious workplaces. It can also harm your reputation and undermine your ambitions and goals. In some cases, it can create even greater damage and negatively affect your mental health. 

One of the best pieces of advice I got as a female leader dealing with poorly behaved men reporting to me was from an experienced senior (male) colleague. He was mentoring me secretly because he was a good bloke and he wanted to help. It had to be secret because when I asked my male line manager if we could appoint this person as my mentor, he said no. 

“The trouble with you, Marcia,” the secret mentor began one day, after I had my usual debrief about undermining behaviour from male colleagues, “is that you have high standards. You hold yourself to them, you expect others to be held to them, and you are utterly predictable in all of that.” He went on to say that “the boys” – as he referred to my troublesome colleagues – all knew exactly what I was going to do next, and that they could predict and plan for that “every single day”. They were “playing with me”, undermining my authority, doing things “deliberately to upset” me and, to top it off, “really enjoying themselves”.

“Flip this,” he advised, “and become unpredictable.”  

I took his advice. I cancelled all my regular planned one-to-one meetings with each of “the boys” for the rest of the year. I wrote a sweet, personalised email to each of them. I told them that I had been reflecting on our working relationship and that I didn’t think I was meeting their needs as a leader. I quoted negative feedback they had given to our senior boss, including about my “style”. I invited them to pop in or arrange to meet with me whenever they chose to do so. I signed off, noting that I hoped my efforts to make a change would prompt an improved working relationship. 

If only because they were all now wary of me and unsure about what I would do next, the poor behaviour and undermining reduced significantly. My relationships with each of them improved slightly – if only on the surface. They all eventually asked to have regular one-to-one meetings reinstated.

It is hardly role-model behaviour to cancel meetings, but doing the right thing as a leader wasn’t working, so it was worth a radical shake up in that circumstance. 

I have shared this technique with a few senior women in universities and other industries. All of them have said that it has had positive impacts. One reported a joyous feeling of liberation. Another reported satisfaction in disarming “the opposition”, as she described her male colleagues.

It isn’t ideal to have to make your reports wary of you. But it is better than letting your wariness of them prevent you from doing your job.

Marcia Devlin is an adjunct professor and consultant who serves on the board of various higher education bodies. She has worked in senior executive and/or senior leadership roles at Victoria University, RMIT University, Federation University Australia, Open Universities Australia, the University of Melbourne and Deakin University. This is an edited extract from her book, Beating the Odds: A Practical Guide to Navigating Sexism in Australian Universities.

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Reader's comments (4)

"Men put on clothes, go to work, get promoted and get put in charge. Not so for women, unfortunately." If only it were that simple. There's a lot of silliness in this article, and its assertions are grossly lacking in sources. Also, there's a difference between firmness and rudeness: that might be where you are going wrong.
As someone who has has "the talk", and who has been blocked from opportunities because of exactly the reasons described in the article, I totally agree that this is a real problem. I can tell you that the words the author uses here are the ones I've heard, practically word for word, in conversations with my direct supervisors. Male supervisors. I've also heard the same talk from mentors, who tell me that my problem is that I try to hold others to the same standards I hold myself to. And that, as a woman - and an immigrant woman - is just not done. I was, however, a bit disappointed by the advice given by the author. While I agree it does work, isn't it adopting the nurturing position that they (society, men, whoever) expect us to have? What the author seems to be saying is to do exactly what those male supervisors, colleagues and mentors want from us: as a woman, you must not be assertive, you need to be motherly and nurturing and self-effacing. I'll say it again, that approach works, I can attest to it. It's just sad that it does.
yep I too have had these 'talks' and recognise exactly the dynamic. When as a female leader you need to move from being friendly and open to more directly managing up or even needing to confront and deal with poor behavior that's when you get the 'bossy', 'brusque', 'blunt', 'aggressive' etc descriptors. The expectation is that you will be nurturing in style. I have never in all my time as a senior female leader heard one of my male colleagues pulled up for 'style'. Even when some of their 'styles' might be very agressive indeed, in those cases they are called 'big beasts' and that is seen as a mark of authority. Let's call this for what this is, sexism.
yep I too have had these 'talks' and recognise exactly the dynamic. When as a female leader you need to move from being friendly and open to more directly managing up or even needing to confront and deal with poor behavior that's when you get the 'bossy', 'brusque', 'blunt', 'aggressive' etc descriptors. The expectation is that you will be nurturing in style. I have never in all my time as a senior female leader heard one of my male colleagues pulled up for 'style'. Even when some of their 'styles' might be very agressive indeed, in those cases they are called 'big beasts' and that is seen as a mark of authority. Let's call this for what this is, sexism.

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