Thursday, February 26, 2009

Women beware women

Now this could get interesting.

Two months ago, I went job hunting and was lucky enough to be hired, off the street in a good way you might say, at a local dry cleaner's. Since my resume truthfully announced that I had been a retail store manager (for a whopping two months, which I also announced truthfully), the business owner hired me specifically for a soon-to-be-open position as manager of one of her six, no wait seven, stores.

The reason the position will be open is because the current manager wants to leave soon, and none of the other staff want, or are wanted for, the job. Joann doesn't want the responsibility, and has "things in her file" such that the owner will not trust her with it. Marge does not want to make herself available to work on Saturdays, because she goes away every weekend to her cottage on the lake. Also "she's greedy," the departing manager told me -- what these women will say about each other -- and thinks the little bonuses the manager gets are not worth the trouble. Who knows, maybe she'll prove right. Young Jorie only works a few nights a week, often calls off to take care of her baby, and is also anxious to get pregnant again. She will probably not stay long in any case.

That leaves the teen girls, who are temporary hires anyway, and the seventy-three-year-old veteran Marnie, who only performs one task at the store -- bagging the finished, clean clothes orders -- because she never could get used to the computer system installed three years ago at the front desk, customer service area.

And so, in I walk to my new job, after having had a crash course in the complexities of dry cleaning drop-offs, tagging, bagging, racking, order pickups, and sundry obligations (you have no idea) at the main plant for about a month. Incidentally, it so happens I've just learned how to say "dry-cleaner's" in French, le domicile du Pressing, from a favorite blog, Larchmont Daily Photo. Doesn't it sound elegant?

Everyone is, from the first, very nice to me. I need help every five minutes, it seems, but then after a while, less so. I learn opening procedures and closing procedures. When we are working alone together, the manager also shows me the lists and records and bookkeeping that I'll eventually be responsible for.

After a few weeks I began to wonder if my co-workers ever ask why I'm there. I've heard them talk. Office gossip is a part of human nature, but it seems to me that what I listen to is extraordinary. They will literally run out of breath criticizing someone -- a customer, a co-worker, anyone -- rushing to say all they want to say until the very moment that the door opens and the victim officially steps within earshot. Luckily, the store has big glass windows and you can see everyone approach, take your aim, discharge your bolts safely, and then say "Hi" as cheerily as you please.

What on earth have they had time to say about me? One can't help but be curious, especially since things have changed since my innocent arrival. Marnie, for example, who can't deal with computers, has had her hours drastically cut. The economy is partly to blame, of course. In fact after being called off for the third week in a row, she came in to get her things and go job hunting elsewhere. And there I was that very day, quietly doing her work.

"They've asked what's going on, but I just say 'talk to Sarah,' " the manager told me. Sarah is the business owner who hired me. Blond, manquee, soignee -- made-up, well-cared for -- a little plump. Divorced and remarried to a man fifteen years her junior. A soft, old-lady voice conceals a female Attila. Everyone is terrified of her. "She has made every one of us cry at some point," Marge warned me, and all the others have agreed that my day will come. It's just unnecessary, the things she says ... hurtful ... 'my grandchildren could do better' .... Brace yourself. I believe Marge especially salivates at the prospect of my being yelled at soon.

I wonder what they know because yesterday, the mood at the store turned downright uncomfortable, and I am thinking now of small previous experiences I have had in "managing" women, and of all I've ever read about having or being a woman boss. I'd better brace myself. Yesterday seventy-two-year-old Marnie was laid off for good, and within minutes I apparently began to overstep my position. I answered the phone, I made a phone call. Marge stalked off, gesticulating to herself. I asked advice of this cheery Marge and she merely said, "Do whatever you want." Joann arrived and she and Marge withdrew to a corner for a bout of whispering. "My f--- hours have been cut, too" Marge exclaimed, and then I came within earshot and they both turned silent.

I even became a sort of ghost for a few hours that day. I did my work, and they did theirs, together; and when they looked over a bookkeeping problem, with their backs to me not ten feet away, they agreed "Someone must have counted the money wrong on Saturday night."

In a short time I will most likely be these women's Woman Boss, and it so happens that apart from remembering what I've read and known about that situation, I saw a survey result recently which declared that most women prefer a boss who is a man. And -- as I brace myself -- I've come to think, polls and surveys aside, that's putting it backwards.

I think it's not that women prefer a man supervisor. Nor is it that men and women have different managerial styles, or that women bosses tend to be more difficult because a special anxiety to earn respect makes them out-"man" the men. I think women simply do not naturally tolerate the idea of authority emanating from another woman. Women want to be emotionally understood, above all else. That's why women talk, brood, and remember. A man boss is comprehensible because, of course, he'll lay out some plan or direction, and then walk off and do something else. He's a man. You can obey him and be done with it. You don't need or expect anything else from him.

Let a woman lay out some direction or plan, and the women under her will react with confusion and anger first. The Woman Boss is not living true to form. She is not being a woman first, not being emotionally understanding first. That above all else glues women together.

I have no head for long-drawn out fiction, but I certainly can make scenes. Let's say, for instance, that young teenaged Emma shows up for work in blue jeans and a t-shirt, which she has done before and which is against the company dress code. A man boss could send her home to change, and that would be that. He would be "an ass," but there would be no power struggle because no woman is going to expect a man to be womanly.

Suppose I send Emma home to change. Not a good situation. The women's first reaction would be anger, at me, for not being emotionally understanding. For not being a woman first. Emma has done this before, they would say, and no one has ever been the worse or wiser. Sarah never comes to the store anyway. Where a man boss would now probably bark "Do it, please," a woman boss -- and I have done this -- will attempt reasonable argument. "Sarah has said if we don't follow the dress code, we'll be issued smocks, and I don't want that. I read that memo."

Big mistake. Yes, it can be useless to attempt to reason with women. I can carry the scene further and picture women now happily climbing aboard the emotional merry-go-round that defines their spirit and that usually leads to victory in the race to prove emotional credentials. Endless, unprovable reassurance is their shield and buckler. You and your worries become the problem. They become, I suppose, Mother. "Oh, don't worry. Those memos are years old. No one even reads them. She never comes here, no kidding. At Christmastime, maybe."

The woman boss can now bark like a man, argue fruitlessly with women who can't accept authority from a woman unprefaced by emotional understanding, or she can surrender. Surrender is bad in itself. Plus surrender means the woman boss takes the risk of Sarah walking in the door and seeing things improperly done tomorrow, and then properly blaming her. It always seems the women who can't tolerate on-site female authority without a fight end up being carefully free of its sanctions on themselves. And, the icing on the cake, if the woman boss opts not to surrender but to win, then she has become "weird," emotionally incomprehensible, an ass. Worse. A woman ass. A Woman Boss.

A reader come this far might cluck and say, honey, if you knew this was the future, then you made a mistake in taking the job at all. Ah, but who else was hiring? My experience is that it takes about sixty applications to find a job, and that's in a good economy. So here I am.

We'll see. Maybe I'll be one of the few who puts it all together and becomes the non-hated woman boss of women. Because, yes, like all women I want emotional understanding, too. Who wants to face every day women who look on you as having passed beyond that veil of weirdness that becoming a manager entails? Oh my God, it went to her head. I know, I know. This is why women bosses have the reputation they do. Totally. I read that, too ....

We'll see. The current woman manager at least has years of seniority on everyone else. When they arrived, she was there. And as she launches the most bolts of all from behind the safety of the big glass windows, and lets Emma come to work in blue jeans and t shirts, I can only assume that the general tone of the place is largely her doing. I'm new and different, gawdhelpus. This could get interesting.

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