Oh the blessings of middle management. You don’t actually get to make any decisions. You get to enforce other people’s decisions. By which, I mean that you get to hear all the complaints and objections from your employees about an issue that you don’t actually have a lot of control over. Super fun, right?
There are plenty of days where middle management feels like a Kobayashi Maru. There’s simply no way to win. If you follow orders from upper management, your team will be angry. If you stand with your employees, the executives will not be pleased. When the whole thing is said and done, one side will leave feeling less than fulfilled. That’s the reality of the situation.
But when you start to throw gender politics into the already precarious balance of middle management, things can get extremely tricky.
I can still remember the wonderful day when I confronted an employee about his increasingly unprofessional use of pet names. As we’ve established, it’s a cultural hot button that most people should be smart enough to stay away from in a professional setting. And yet, there he was, a man roughly my age calling me “Kiddo.” At that point, “Honey” would’ve been welcome. Anything other than “Kiddo.”
I calmly, carefully explained that I preferred to simply be called by my name. I told him that while I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be insulting or condescending, calling a grown woman “Kiddo” was inappropriate in the office. He assured me that he called men “Kiddo” too. He said it was just “a New York thing.” (We live in Indiana, but he grew up in New York.) I think everyone from the state of New York should be offended by that, by the way.
The conversation ended, and I looked forward to ending a phone call with my salesman without an involuntary twitch in my eye. Honestly, I considered the issue closed, not to be concerned about again. That’s when I saw the man walk out away from my desk and directly into my boss’s office. My Spidey-sense should have been tingling. Later in the day I heard, “Hey Kiddo…” and honestly had to restrain myself from screaming.
When I began to talk to the man again about my pet name preferences – or lack thereof – he interrupted me to let me know that he had talked to my direct boss. “Paul* knows that I don’t mean anything by it,” he said, as if that clarified the situation. “Well then you can address Paul any way you see fit,” I jumped in, “But I prefer to be called Lindsay.”
It may sound like a simply issue of pet names, but to me, the situation represented much more than that. It wasn’t just condescending, this employee took a criticism from me and went to address it with my boss. In the position of a middle manager, this is about as rude as you can get. When you add in the gender dynamics of a female chastising a male employee, and then the addition of the male higher-up to the mix, you get a mix of office and gender issues that just does not work itself out easily. Honestly, as a female, I felt offended and insulted, both by my employee who didn’t respect my opinion and by my boss who agreed to get involved in what should have been my call to make.
Being a woman in an predominantly male office already makes you feel like you’re stuck in the middle. Working in middle management commonly earns you nicknames like the “police officer,” because you have to monitor and direct your team based on upper-management’s laws. But being a female middle manager caught in between men on either sides might actually be the worst of both worlds.