Women leaders can fight smiling

Women leaders who are fighting for their rightful positions should remember there is little or no gain in some losing and others winning. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

I am sharing with you a conversation I had with three young women leaders, launched by one of them about a situation in which she found herself. “I am the only woman on this board, and one of the men asked me to get him a cup of tea,” she narrated and asked how I would have reacted.

Earlier I had shown myself to be a champion for women, so she was surprised and dismayed when I replied that I would have brought him the tea. I explained that otherwise I would have risked provoking resentment on his part, and hence quite likely jeopardised our relationship.

My suggestion was that she should be building her status as a board member by making high-quality contributions, leading people like him to perhaps think again about such requests.

However, I would not have left the matter there. I hoped her chairman — or another director — was someone she could have approached after the meeting, requesting him to speak to his fellow board member and suggest he find other ways of getting his tea.

She revealed that she had indeed refused to be the “tea-girl”, and quite assertively so, but it turned out that at the subsequent board meeting and consistently thereafter other staff provided the service.

She wasn’t aware of how this came about, but she was relieved that she no longer risked being placed in this awkward situation.

Others in our group now had their say, with one suggesting she would have just put the tea on the table without actually serving the man, and another saying she would have smiled as she responded, whether accepting or refusing his request.

I now had two of the women role-play the situation, with one acting the part of the man. How did he feel when his request was strongly rejected? Was he embarrassed and remorseful? Did he resent the snub? It’s good to put oneself in the other’s shoes.

As we continued, I decided to call my wife, who has over the years often been the only woman on a board. Had she ever been asked to be the tea-girl? And if so how did she handle the situation? No, she hadn’t, she told me, but if asked she would have done so – with a smile and a light touch.

I then brought the conversation to the subject of emotional intelligence, which I suggested is about negotiating win-win outcomes. The challenge here was how to deal with the tea request in a way that both parties ended up feeling OK about it all.

And for me that meant giving way at the outset, while finding gentle ways of preventing a recurrence. Not necessarily by engaging directly with the other person, but perhaps seeking the intervention of a third party, a mediator.

One aspect of emotional intelligence is that sometimes we need to find the strength to separate how we feel from how we behave.

For sure, the lady board member resented being asked to be the tea-girl. But my thought was for her to swallow her short-term pride to allow for an easier long-term resolution.

Here we were talking about a small matter, however demeaned the lady in question felt. But the pluses and minuses of the different approaches we discussed among us regarding the tea-serving apply much more broadly. And not just between men and women.

It can be between older and younger people, senior and junior ones, the more and the less educated, and other pairings where one side feels unduly entitled to favours.

A final word on women’s empowerment. Any time I hear about women “fighting” for their rights it worries me. For in fights there are winners and losers.

Where such aggressive women win their fight, one of their key measures is that men will lose. No, I say. I am an absolute supporter of women’s rights, but wherever possible to go after them in graceful, elegant ways that allow for win-win all round.

Going back to the days of the British suffragettes who struggled to obtain the right to vote for women in the early 20th century there were two groups: one that was confrontational and dramatic, and one that operated more quietly but at least as effectively. I would have been with the latter.

So to the women reading this I say, smile rather than frown as you advocate for your cause. And to the men, go get your own tea.

Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of the Kepsa Advisory Council. [email protected]


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