The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Andrew Pollom.
I always get a varied amount of replies whenever I self-disclose that I am a [male] supervisor, currently of a team of all females in housing. It is not the first time in my professional role that I have been in such a position. The replies offer a mix of intrigue, of satire or sarcasm, of genuine interest, or of confusion. Specifically, males in the field seem to find it particularly interesting. Fairly, some are concerned with the imbalance of gender representation on the team, but more often than not I am questioned as to the “difficulties” of supervising an all-female team.
My experience supervising women in housing has changed me. I am far more aware of the influence of gender roles in each of our professional lives as a result. Allow me to begin by being very clear. When I break things down to nuts and bolts, my approach to supervising men or women is really equal. Everyone is bringing different strengths, interests, and experiences to the table. Everyone needs appropriate levels of challenge and support; albeit for different things. As a supervisor I want to practice equity with listening, empowering, coaching, mentoring, directing, informing, and with expectations and feedback. Internally, I approach these in similar ways and externally the steps I take look the same.
There are differences though; however, those differences have more to do with my awareness of my own male privilege in the field and nothing to do with “difficulties” related to the amazing women that make up my team. Working on a team of women has given me unique insight on the gender roles that I have been socialized into; the gender roles they have been socialized into; and the gender roles that we all need to address. I am particularly aware of these roles in my role as their supervisor.
Recently, prior to an important meeting with colleagues on campus, one of my team members and I were meeting in a one on one. During that discussion I defined clearly my expectations for the role I was going to take during that meeting. She had done an amazing job, the heavy lifting, on a project that we were involved with together. I wanted to acknowledge in the upcoming meeting that I was going to challenge my voice out of the conversation and share only as appropriate. What do I mean by challenge my voice? As a white cisgender man, in a role of leadership on a team of women, my socialization has taught me that they are supposed to be more reserved and silent and that I should, with my privilege, dominate this exchange. It is my voice that should be front and center, whether credit is due or not. Even as I type those words, I cringe. I cringe because as a young professional in residence life I did not have many male supervisors that were challenging that dynamic. On the contrary, it was an experienced female assistant director that pointed out my propensity to dominate conversations, particularly over my female peers. I was a graduate student at the time and while I knew women and men had different experiences in life, I had never really given thought to my specific role in that dynamic. I never really had to. Today, I give it thought and I challenge my voice. I have to. We all have to.
Strong women are often viewed as threatening, particularly to men in positions of leadership. A woman that speaks her mind openly, that openly challenges status quo, and that advocates for her own success in visible and direct ways can easily be judged by male supervisors or colleagues as “difficult”. There are a lot of words that I have heard used to describe women of strength other than difficult, self-interested, stubborn, inflexible come to mind among others. While these are words used to describe women, men with equal qualities are often described as motivated, a go-getter, and driven. Experience has taught me the obvious errors in this thinking. I applaud the strong women around me on my team. They are motivated, driven, and awe-inspiring. I find very little needs to be done by me to help them use their voice, but when necessary I elevate their voice, their ideas, and their efforts. I have learned as a social justice accomplice, that my power can be used for good. I see their accomplishments and risk taking, celebrate their work, and give them full credit when due. As a result, I have had my leadership style questioned in the past. Leading from behind is not a quality that is expected in a man. I have been told that I need to be more out front and there are those moments that in my own mind I fight the internal dialogue saying that I need to be. To be extremely frank, had I given into gender stereotypes and prescribed gender roles, some of the best accomplishments that I have been able to be a part of as a supervisor would never have happened. I wonder about how many strong women in housing there are that quieted or demotivated because of the oppressiveness of male gender roles in their supervisors? How many great accomplishments as a field are we not experiencing as a result?
There is a gender stereotype that suggests a team of women would be difficult to supervise or manage. There would be a great deal of in fighting, emotions fly freely and logic is not generally something that comes into play unless a man introduces it. My team, regardless of my role as their supervisor, stands in sharp contrast to that stereotype. Are they difficult to manage or supervise? Being painfully honest, only because of my shortcomings as a supervisor are there difficulties with managing them. Is there dysfunction and in fighting? Of course, as with any team, but no more than when I supervised co-ed teams or mostly male teams. Do emotions fly freely? Yes, but that’s because I’m open with my emotions and they tolerate my tears. As far as logic is concerned, some of the most brilliant minds in our field belong to women. I do not need to mansplain that to anyone.
In a field such as housing I did not expect that I would run into these dated, misogynistic perspectives, and yet I do, more often than some would expect. As troubled as I am by that prospect myself, I need to pause and recognize how problematic it is for my team and female colleagues? If someone identifies as female, trans female, or gender queer, how is it that they should have any less opportunity or value than I or any other man in the field? I have been laughed at that I give this power dynamic so much thought or attention, but in reality, there is nothing funny about it. The glass ceiling remains intact for many women in housing and it is an obstacle that needs to be broken. Thankfully, I work today with some women that are up to the task, as long as I get out of their way.
Dr. Andrew Pollom, Ed.D. is the Senior Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life at Lake Forest College. He is a rabid Cubs fan and enjoys fishing, leading office-wide dance parties, and spending time with his family.
The Women in Housing series is sponsored by Adirondack Solutions.