I’m going to start today with a wild generalization. Ready?
Women typically hold power and influence in the private sphere — the home, the family. We don’t grow up with strong traditions of women cultivating public power and relationships in government, business, religion, activism.
Not Kardashian-public, where everyone knows where you just got waxed. I mean relationships that are based on your priorities for your public life, the other person’s priorities for her public life, and if the two of you can cut a mutually beneficial deal. That is the heart of a public, professional relationship between powerful people.
Instead, we apply the expectations of private relationships to our public life. Nowhere is this more obvious and troublesome than in what we expect of a female boss.
Here are three expectations that you may have of your boss — just because you’re both women — and how to manage them.
EXPECTATION #1: “She’ll be my big sister!”
Every new job comes with a version of the romantic comedy fantasy. You’ll fall in love with it! And your new boss is a woman? She’ll get you and be your mentor and kind of be a mom and she’ll help you because she’s a woman! You’ll lay your life down for your boss because she’s your hero, because you’re both women, and you both get it. You will connect! And share Chinese take-out during your late nights together on the job!
The risk: You get your hopes up that you should be bonding or being BFFs when that isn’t the goal. And then you worry she doesn’t like you or that she should express how she feels about you in a certain way — just because she’s a woman.
The solution: Remember that you’re not girlfriends. Expecting any boss to meet your personal emotional needs is always going to come back to bite you. Either they’ll fail or they’ll start expecting you to meet their emotional needs. A lose-lose. What you do have is the potential to be two powerful women, creating opportunities to help each other do fantastic things.
EXPECTATION #2: “She’ll definitely advocate for my promotion!”
Your boss is a lady? She’ll definitely pull for you when you go for that promotion or big project! She cares about you! She wants you to succeed because she’s a woman. She gets it. She won’t be threatened or jealous or indifferent. Her job is to nurture talent. Isn’t it?
The risk: You assume that her whole goal is to fulfill your career dreams. Maybe she’s an angel, but probably, she’s a human, definitely not your mother, and is far more concerned for her own career goals. That doesn’t mean she can’t advocate for you, but to expect her to back you and champion you at all times, especially if it comes at a cost to her (as in, losing you to another team when she really needs you!), is just not fair. You again end up hurt and disillusioned.
The solution: Stop thinking of your boss as your mom. Be honest with yourself for a moment: do you expect her to nurture you as a mother would? If there’s a little bit of “yes,” in your answer, imagine your boss as a man, and then make two lists: what a mom can give a daughter and what a boss can give an employee. You’re trying to shake out any “mommy” lens you might looking through, so you can get clear on reasonable expectations for your boss as your career grows.
EXPECTATION #3: “If I leave it means I’m letting her down.”
This is where things get tricky. Because if you have had a great relationship with a female boss, you may feel it’s your duty to stay there because of her, too — even if it’s time for you to move on and you know it.
The risk: The upside of this is that you love working with this person. The downside? You stay longer than you should feeling you “owe” her. That is not necessarily true. At all.
The solution: As much as you love and admire your boss, the two of you are in a public relationship. Get clear on what she needs from you, what you can give, what you want from this job, and what you need from your boss to achieve your goals. That’s it. That is the core of your relationship as boss and employee.
You can be kind and respectful as you figure out boundaries and needs. You should be! Being consistently clear and kind can actually build a professional connection that will outlast this job.