When to Show Who’s Boss

By Catalyst

Research on diverse women often focuses on the challenges such women face when it comes to obtaining mentorship and sponsorship from those senior to them, but obstacles to effectively managing junior employees are rarely discussed.

Women-of-color managers sometimes report being undermined by their employees, especially by those with racial or ethnic backgrounds different from their own. In Catalyst’s report, Women of Color Executives: Their Voices, Their Journeys, a senior Asian-American woman manager described an out-of-line employee as follows:

I had a very difficult performance discussion with one of my staff. He clearly was not open to receiving negative feedback from a female, and thought that he could work the system to use the fact that I was a female to build a stereotype: “She really can’t lead…she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” He thought he could get further with his issues just because I was a female.

The same report quotes a black woman manager who had to deal with similar issues, but was fortunate to have the confidence and support of her boss:

I’ve had situations where people go around me to the boss. I’ve been very fortunate that when I’ve had those situations, I could go to my boss and say, “You’re going to have to make a decision here. If everybody’s going to bypass me and go directly to you, and you make the decision, you’re undermining me.”

Arguably even more damaging than disrespecting a diverse woman’s authority by attacking her managerial skills or skipping over her in the chain of command are the subtler ways in which a lack of support can be expressed—including but not limited to employees who dole out criticism and withhold praise or who don’t keep their diverse woman manager in the loop about their projects and priorities.

This type of behavior may signal that the employee in question will eventually go behind the manager’s back, and it shouldn’t be tolerated or ignored. Our research indicates that many diverse women are acutely sensitive to the pain of being rejected and/or held to double standards in the workplace, so they strive to create diverse and inclusive teams that are tolerant of a variety of work styles. But if a woman manager feels consistently undermined by one of her team members, even subtly, it’s wiser in the long run to address such behavior head-on.

At what point should a woman manager ask a toxic team member to leave? The answer will differ depending on the situation and the people involved, but it’s crucial to listen to your gut, speak up, and, when necessary, remove the person who is making your job difficult.