Forget the ‘BitchSwitch’ and get to work

Cape Town – So, is there a “bitch switch” or not?

Cell C CEO Jose do Santos has had a terrible week for saying – on online radio station CliffCentral- that they do. After an outcry, he apologised. Then senior women managers at Cell C issued a statement supporting him, saying that while he had chosen some inappropriate words, these were “far outweighed [by] what he has done for every employee in this company, particularly women”.

And Adriaan Groenewald, who interviewed Dos Santos, took to Twitter to defend him. “People must listen to the interview for context,” he said.

I don’t know what Dos Santos was thinking, because that is simply not the sort of thing the head of a large business says in public. 

But I am not the CEO of a large business. And I am a woman. And I have lived corporate life for many years, both as a low-ranking junior and as a middle manager. And while I won’t say there is a bitch switch, or that women should employ such a thing, I will say this: there is a lot that women have to learn about dealing with conflict and competition in the workplace.

I have had a lot of bosses in my time, and the only two on whom I have modelled my own practice were both men. And what I try (and sometimes fail) to emulate was the ability of those two men to treat people fairly, to be good mentors and to keep everything on a calm, even, pragmatic keel.

In contrast, I have had a women boss who actually lay on the floor and kicked her heels like a toddler in a tantrum when someone crossed her. And she was not alone: over the years I have been ignored, shouted at and undermined by women bosses and colleagues. Not all of them – but the trend has been that women have been nastier to me than men, by a long shot.

In the midst of all this, the Daily Mail carried a report  in which a researcher was reported as saying: “As a woman who has worked across the world, I’ve long observed that women take competition with other women much more personally than men take competition with other men… Women should be aware that taking competition too seriously could be holding them back from leadership positions.”

I mentioned this to a friend, who smiled wryly and told me this little anecdote. A project at her workplace was coming down to the deadline. The female boss of a largely female team started questioning and nitpicking and going places that just weren’t sensible if the project were to be brought in on time. The woman in charge of the project put her head in her hands and said: “You just can’t do this to me now, you just can’t.” The boss backed off and the project went ahead. Later, my friend went to her remarkably cheerful looking colleague to see if she was alright. Oh, she said, I had it all planned. I would have cried if necessary.

As the mother of a boy, I have for years watched in admiration how boys will make friends with other boys (complete strangers until that point), sort out a rough hierarchy and get down to playing. And no fussing afterwards about anyone being nasty to anyone else. Mothers of girls tells me things are a little different in the girls playground, where a facade of being nice can often hide some really nasty rivalries.

So my take on it is this: there may or may not be a bitch switch. But girls are not taught how to deal properly with conflict and competition (while boys seem to figure it out by themselves). As mothers, we should be robustly modelling – and this is crucial – how not to take things personally. And as women we should be doing some inner work on toughening up a little.

That would be better than ganging up on poor Mr Dos Santos, I think.

This was first published on IOL Lifestyle