The 'girl boss' flourishes despite cultural backlash


Not long ago, Beverly Tuttle, president and CEO of Consumer Credit Counseling of Connecticut, held an all-day training meeting for her staff.

This could have been a deadly boring and fruitless exercise, but Ms. Tuttle, girl boss, loaded the staff onto a bus -- where they watched movies -- and visited company branches that nobody had seen.

"We played games on the bus, and we all shared a meal," says Ms. Tuttle. Last year, instead of a Christmas party, the office held a diversity party. They wore costumes and learned to line dance.

"If I was reporting to some higher group, I would say the goal was to learn to work with each other in a mutually receptive way, blah, blah, blah. We learned how to do all those things by playing and falling over our feet. And there were some very surprising people on staff who were wonderful at dancing."

Let's talk about "girls" in business. If it's a mark of honor to be TC good ol' boy, for the sake of argument, let's say that being a girl is a separate but equally wonderful title.

Girls know how to have fun. Girls don't always follow the rules. Girls wear lipstick and bright clothes, and they may or may not cuss. In short, they're nice to have around.

And that's important to remember, because right now girl bosses are taking it on the chin. There's "Mrs. Doubtfire," the movie in which Robin Williams' character has it all over Sally Field's character in the nurturing-human department. And there's "Disclosure," Michael Crichton's story that includes a predatory female boss who sexually harasses a male employee.

Eeeew. Just when we were getting to be girls again, popular culture scuffs our Mary Janes.

You can read all about it in a book called "Backlash."

"Susan Faludi's thing about a backlash is out there, and it's not hiding," says Ellen Fagenson, associate professor of management at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of "Women in Management" (Sage, $21.95).

"A 1965 study done by the Harvard Business Review said people did not prefer female bosses, but that was 30 years ago, and now the research shows a very strong preference for female supervisors," Ms. Fagenson says. "There's higher morale; female supervisors tend to emphasize consideration, friendliness. The media doesn't want to recognize that is the case."

How did we get here? In order to make their point, women of the early feminist movement shunned the word "girl," but somehow the message that women are just as capable as men got translated that women are just like men.

Girl Managers 101 taught that women should forget they were girls and instead be as much like a guy as possible. Guy jackets. Guy brief cases. Even (shudder) guy ties. (When she first went into the work force after 27 years at home raising children, Ms. Tuttle bought a book called "Things Your Mother Never Told You," which contained such gems as, "If you eat your lunch at your desk, you're never going to appear presidential.")

That was then, and while women still haven't penetrated the upper echelons in the business world, the girls who would be guys are, by and large, being followed closely by girls who are girls.

"They're just starting to be able to be women again," says Ms. Fagenson. "That might be because there are more women around, but I would still say that most women who make it to the top are more male-like than women still at the bottom. That's probably because men are picking the women bosses, and men would pick women who are more like them.

"My book is optimistic, though," Ms. Fagenson says.

For some historical perspective on how women became men and then started switching back to women, it's easiest to look at office wardrobes. "There was an emphasis in the '60s and '70s toward being equal to men, and that seemed to translate in the workplace to wearing the three-piece suit," says Loyce Arthur, assistant professor of costume design at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Women's clothing was very severe. There were even a lot of pantsuits around."

(Should you have missed the era, see "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" reruns.) Lynn Davis, a Virginia Tech University public affairs specialist, has been working for 27 years. Her most recent jobs were in education, and at a Chamber of Commerce.

"The old style of management goes back to the military chain of command," says Ms. Davis. "The whole corporate world was built on that. Now we're seeing that following that lousy chain of command isn't always very productive."

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