Female Relationships at Work

We don’t know how to overtly compete like men do...We cut you out of an email maybe, or bad mouth you behind your back. And then that war gets very deep and goes on for a very long time.
— Kathi Elster
These women work for the U.N. so let's hope they genuinely get on (photo used with  Creative Commons license )

These women work for the U.N. so let's hope they genuinely get on (photo used with Creative Commons license)

The first time I did a show about women's relationships at work I felt guilty. This wasn't a happy story I was doing, but a piece about how poisonous things can become among women in the workplace. I felt bad because the idea that women have it in for eachother, that they're 'catty' and mean, is generally accepted, and it harms women. Female women-haters have become a popular stereotype.

The problem is, many of us have experienced some version of this behavior in our own lives. Some people even quit jobs because they can't take it any more. So I'm talking about it again, with the hope we can bring some understanding to this kind of behavior - and change it.

I had a great conversation last week with Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley of K Squared Enterprises. They focus full-time on solving relationship issues at work. I just released a whole show about this today, but here are some quick points I picked up from our conversation.

  • Back when we lived in caves and men roamed around for food, women had to protect their offspring. The men competed and sometimes got killed doing it. It was our job to keep the next generation alive, and we befriended other women as part of this tactic. So we evolved not to compete openly like men, but covertly. This instinct lives on in us today.
  • Covert competition is responsible for a lot of less-than-appealing female behavior - in and out of work. But most of us are totally unaware of the extent to which we engage in it.
  • Women and men are harder on female bosses because we expect women to be nice. We don't necessarily expect that from men. So the next time you're inclined to label your boss a bitch, consider for a minute: if a man behaved like that would you feel the same way about him? Or would you just accept it?
  • Women tend to personalize business behavior - most men don't. So we're likelier than men to amp up the drama because we get upset and take it all personally.
  • Some studies suggest playing competitive sports sets women up for life in the office fast-lane. A lot of young girls play sports but many drop out as teenagers. If women were socialized to be more openly competitive, as men are, maybe some of this underhand competition would disappear, along with its harmful consequences.
  • Some senior women find it hard to be generous to their younger female colleagues because they faced such hardships on their own way up the ladder.
  • If you're a woman who's in a bad situation with a female boss, you could be piling on without realizing it. Take a step back, look at what's going on purely from a business perspective, and divorce yourself from the emotion. To hear about all this in more detail, tune into the latest show.

Everyone's a Coach

Photo by Carlos zgz

Ever since women and work became my main reporting beat I've begun to notice something: lots of self-employed professional women are coaches. Or at least they call themselves coaches. If I look at bios on Twitter I see the word 'coach' appear startlingly often. And the more time I spend there the more female coaches I see - and they all seem to work with women.

It seems pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle as a coach. The industry isn't regulated and coaches come in many forms - life coaches, career coaches, executive coaches (who, from what I can work out, tend to work with companies as well as individuals - but if you're a coach feel free to set me straight). I haven't tracked down much in the way of statistics yet, although this study claims the life coaching industry in the US is worth $1 billion a year. That's a lot of people looking for some big life changes, and paying for them too - and I would wager the majority are women. We know women tend to seek outside help for their problems more than men do.

I wonder if this apparent glut of coaches comes as part of the whole female empowerment movement. If it does, you could argue it's good - that more people want to help women discover what makes them tick and makes them happy both at work and in life. Or maybe it's fueled by women leaving corporate life after many years and starting career number two as a coach, eager to use their experience to help others.

I suppose I should admit that as a fully paid-up curmudgeon raised in Britain I can't help being a bit suspicious of the American attitude of endless positivity that fuels the whole self-improvement industry. I'm not anti self-improvement. I just want the real thing. How is someone who may be feeling vulnerable and desperate for advice meant to tell what constitutes solid, valuable help versus the more woo-woo stuff that's out there?

I'd love to hear from anyone who's either used a career or life coach or is one.

On being a female, independent podcaster


I'm a woman with a podcast so I was intrigued when my local public radio station, WNYC, invited me to an event put on specifically for my kind. The event, Werk It, took place last week at WNYC and I'm writing about it in case anyone else can benefit.

I couldn’t make the second day, which focused on pitching. As a podcaster who's not affiliated with a network I’m concentrating on the advice for indy podcasters that came on day one. The conference focused on women - because women don't podcast as much as men - but I think any independent podcaster can get something out of this post.

The panel on indies featured Crissle West of The Read, which totally took off in what I consider no time at all and now has 115,000 subscribers. Then there was Lauren Spohrer from Criminal, which also hit the bigtime quickly. It now has a million downloads a month. Hillary Frank began The Longest Shortest Time in her house. After her successful Kickstarter WNYC came calling, and she’s now there. Lynn Casper co-hosts Homoground, by and about queer musicians and music lovers, and Kaitlin Prest of The Heart (formerly Audiosmut) is now, like Criminal, with Radiotopia, which I think of as the golden kiss for podcasters (you get money and new listeners!)

What I'm about to say comes partly from Werk It and partly from my own experience as an independent podcaster.

Have Patience

Because you are going to need it. It’s wonderful that shows like The Read and Criminal leapt into the podcasting stratosphere within a year or two, but those are like the stories of your friend who met the love of her life on a first date, in college, wherever. The rest of us have to tough it out in the dating trenches for years before we meet the right person. I’m seriously hoping it doesn’t take me as long to grow this podcast as it did to find the right guy, but at least I’m practiced in the art of waiting.

Kaitlin Prest put it best when she said that “motivation is more important than time” when it comes to your podcast. Producing a regular podcast can feel relentless. I produce mine every two weeks, which may not sound like much. But on top of other, (paying) work, cutting the tape and writing the show is a lot. Too often I’m tweaking the writing the day before I head into my closet to track. Sometimes I have to skip a production cycle altogether because of work. You need to be motivated and excited to produce what you’re producing, to keep going when you don’t have many listeners. I was doing my show for 18 months before I had more than 1,000 listeners. That probably sounds crazy to some readers but I loved what I was doing, knew the topic (women and work) was important and needed, and had enough encouragement from existing listeners to continue. Now, new listeners tell me they go back and listen to all the old episodes.

As Hillary Frank said, “Take what people say about the numbers with a grain of salt. It’s about making the thing that’ll bring in the numbers.”

In my case it was some surprise press in major publications – and a mention of the show on Planet Money – that pushed up those numbers. Many podcasters have tales of their numbers rocketing when their show is featured on another podcast. It especially helps if that podcast is called This American Life

Build It and They Will Not Necessarily Come

We all like to think our creations will magically find their audience, but this isn’t true, at least initially. I suspect it may be even less true in a podcast world that seems to be exploding. Some podcasts will of course take off shortly after launch because they touch a collective nerve, but many podcasts are on niche topics and you must be prepared to do the work to let people know you exist. I was so excited to launch my show in 2012 I totally forgot about taking any steps to get on 'New and Noteworthy' in iTunes. (I was featured on iTunes almost three years later - not complaining.)

Until you start a podcast you have no idea how time-consuming marketing is. All you want to do is produce the content and make it as good as possible. Many creative types are not natural salespeople. God knows I’m not. I learned a lot on CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism program, where I launched The Broad Experience. Still, like a lot of women I am not good at saying, ‘I’m great, come and listen to my show.’ I dislike boasting about my work. That said, I do it. You have to be prepared to silence that voice that tells you it’s unseemly to self-promote. Find your comfort zone and keep at it.

I’m not just referring to social media. Unless you have a huge following, those channels aren’t enough. You need to get in touch with publications or entities that are like-minded – that have more reach than you – and ask them to check out your show. Also, consider a Kickstarter, but wait till you have a base audience to support the campaign. I haven’t gone down this route but many podcasters have pulled off successful Kickstarters, most famously 99% Invisible. The most recent one I’m aware of is Jacki Lyden’s campaign for her podcast, The Seams. And the bigger you grow, the more you can build live events into your marketing efforts. This is working well for Criminal, The Read, and The Longest Shortest Time.

I'm not saying word of mouth doesn't work. It does. Many of my listeners have come to me that way. But it's usually not enough to build you an audience of tens of thousands of listeners. And let's face it, most of us want that.

Getting Sponsors

I love the story Hillary Frank told at Werk It and in previous interviews about how she landed sponsors for her show. This happened when she was still independent. She approached sponsors when she was planning her Kickstarter and picked companies she actually felt had helped her as a new mom. She called, left a message for the marketing manager, and asked if they would provide matching grants for her various Kickstarter goals. None of them had done anything like this before, and each said yes.

I’ve done something similar with The Broad Experience but I wasn’t as clever as Hillary. Last year I approached a few companies I felt were trying to do something positive for their female workforce – or at least wanted to be seen to be doing something positive. These are big companies we’ve all heard of, and each of the three said no to sponsorship. But then I approached the Financial Times, which I’ve been reading for years, and they said yes. They have a good women in business page and I knew they wanted to increase their female readership. I should add this relationship, which we termed a partnership (part of the deal was that I interviewed one of their journalists for each show), got off the ground when I had far fewer than 10,000 listeners. I got a lot more than the CPM rate for the three shows I did with the FT. If I were to sign up with a sponsor using the CPM rate model right now, I’d get $250 per sponsor per show.

You can get more than this often-discussed rate if you sell the sponsor on the value of your audience, which in my case is educated, smart, curious, ambitious and busy (and mostly female). These days I am approaching companies whose products I use that I feel have the same mission I do – to empower women in the true sense of the word – and I’ve had some success.

The key is to have a niche and find sponsors that gravitate to your people. These may be smaller companies with a scrappier attitude than Procter and Gamble.

All this sales(wo)manship is time-consuming and as a result I don't do it as often as I should. Rather I go through phases of doing it and phases of letting it slide. I am always disappointed that I don’t have enough time to truly focus on my show. But the pleasure The Broad Experience has brought me is unlike anything else I’ve experienced at work. I'm building a real community online. I get candid, heartfelt emails from listeners of both sexes telling me the show has actually changed they way they think and act. They've given me ideas for stories and listeners have been wonderful guests on the show. I could never have achieved any of this if I hadn’t started my own podcast.

So if you have something to say, say it. Just be prepared to werk it too.

Tips for success from an 81-year-old

Women still feel the need to be credentialed. Maybe because we’ve been such good schoolgirls...but men who get bad marks are leaders in so many other fields.
— Madeleine Kunin
Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Being old is generally not seen as a good thing in American culture. But I want to interview more older women for The Broad Experience. And when I say 'older' I don't mean 55 or even 65. I mean 80 or 85 or 95. I mean bona fide old ladies. Women who've lived long lives, made mistakes, had successes, had families or not had families, and acquired some wisdom along the way.

Recently I got to talk to former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, who starred in my show Politics is Power, about women in politics.

Here are five career insights from our interview that I believe women - or other humans - can use no matter what their profession.

Do Something Uncomfortable

Or “step out to the edge of the precipice”, as Madeleine put it. Getting away from what I know has always made me squirm, but I have come to realize I need to do this to achieve anything substantial. Madeleine Kunin knew she wanted to be in politics but she was terrified when she landed an early role at the state legislature handling the budget. An old (male) lobbyist stopped her in the hallway and said, ‘We’re going to be watching you.’ The learning curve was tough. But gaining that knowledge of the budget’s inner workings gave her immense confidence to tackle other issues later.

You Don’t Always Need to Have the Answer

If you’re female you know how unnerving it is not to have the right answer to something when you’re on the spot. You feel discombobulated, like you’re not good enough and that others are judging you for not knowing. Men, Madeleine points out, are much more comfortable blustering than women are. Don’t know the answer? They fudge it. Women don’t do this to anything like the same extent. Madeleine said there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ One local voter remembered her fondly years later because he’d once asked her a question she couldn’t answer on the spot, but she did her research and responded later.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Kids

Madeleine had four children with her first husband, to whom she was married for decades, and like virtually every mother who works outside the home she often felt she should be in one place when she was in another. Here’s what she said about her kids:

“I think they’re generally proud of me. They did not grow up with helicopter parents. They had to learn to be more independent earlier, they learned to cook, and I did have help, not a full-time nanny but somebody always there when came home from school.”

She also pointed out that kids need you just as much when they're teenagers (even if they won’t acknowledge it) as they do when they’re little. I’ve heard this from other working mothers too – that they wanted to be home more when their children were teenagers, because the teenage years are often when emotional problems kick in.

She has a good relationship with all her children. “I’m sure I would have been a worse mother if I’d felt confined and frustrated,” Madeleine said about going into politics. “If you’ve got it in you that you want to make a contribution, you want to be part of a larger circumference than your family or your neighborhood it’s much healthier to express that.”

You Can’t Make Everybody Happy

Especially in politics (and at home), but in other jobs too. Not everyone will like you, “and this is harder for women,” she says. “Maybe it’s our motherly instincts.”

You Have More In You Than You Think

“Try to believe that you can actually make a difference, and that your voice counts. And then test it,” Madeleine said. She was talking about politics, but this goes for any situation that involves putting yourself out there.

Before I started hosting the podcast I told myself I couldn’t do it, I was a reporter, not a host, I didn’t know how, etc. You name it, I could think of a reason why I couldn't pull it off. But once I put my toe in the water I knew I wanted to continue. It just took that first experimental step to sweep my doubts away and instill me with the confidence I needed to keep going.