Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Career: Boss Lady

Women bosses, have a lot to gain in acting more like, well, women.
By Tralee Pearce
Photography by Miguel Jacob. Styling by Rita Fiorucci. Hair and makeup by Min Min Ma for

Vilifying women bosses remains a fetish in contemporary culture. Think we’re beyond the moth-eaten Disclosure boss-as-villainess trope? Now it’s called The Devil Wears Prada, and it still trades in taking down the powerful top chick.
Being the boss ain’t getting any easier for women. But they are finding new ways to avoid the “b” label while still asserting themselves. Just ask Joey Berdugo Adler, 46, who found herself heading up the Canadian arm of the premium jeans label Diesel International after her husband and business partner, Lou, died of cancer in 2003.
“When I first stepped in, I made some bold moves,” says the Montreal-based boss. “The word on the street was that I’d lost my marbles.” She said some people had no problem bluntly telling her, “Lou would have done this differently,” but she quickly learned to put her foot down. “I valued his legacy, but at the same time I had to imprint my own personal style on the company in order to succeed.”
If you ask her now, three years later, what kind of boss she is, she’ll tell you that she’s forged a path somewhere between tough and fair. “Men can be tough without being emotional. Women have to prove themselves more. I went through that.”
Emira Mears and Lauren Bacon, who run the blog Boss Lady ( ) out of Vancouver, say that while it’s still a work-in-progress, this new middle ground is a refreshing change from the ’80s power suit era of leadership, when there was “the idea that to succeed, women must be more like men.”
“Women have a lot to bring to the business world that is different, and we would be doing a disservice to everyone by not bringing ourselves—gender and all—to the business world,” says Mears, adding that the slow pace of change is one reason they started the blog, which is aimed at women entrepreneurs. “In Canada, women are starting businesses at three times the rate of their male counterparts, according to recent stats.”
Margaret Knott, the director of pharmacy initiatives at Mississauga-based AstraZeneca, the second-largest pharmaceutical company in Canada, can remember a time when her male boss would carry her briefcase out of misguided chivalry. “It used to be that if a man took off his jacket, he was getting down to business, and if a woman took off her jacket she was a secretary.”
With seven children ages three to 35 in Knott’s blended family, there’s no question that she’s implemented what you might call “female” initiatives in the workplace. Her 23 employees know she’s flexible on how, and when, they work. “I never check the clock. We value family here. The only issue is if work is not getting done.”
Authors Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio see this as part of a trend. In their new book, The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch), they suggest that women bosses drop the micromanaging and any dictatorial tendencies and act more like, well, women. “It really has to do with a lack of role models,” Friedman told NBC’s Today correspondent Natalie Morales recently. “I mean, when we were growing up and coming into the professional environment, we had really tough women bosses, but they had learned from men.”
As Diesel began growing from 35 to nearly 50 employees, Adler hired a human resources person to ease the transition. “My door is always open,” she says. “But it was starting to be impossible to be equitable.” So she set up a road map covering such things as employee discounts and—a big one for her—family leave in the case of death or illness. She is also fierce about promoting from within.
“A boss once didn’t want me to advance—he put me in a slot. I’ll never do that,” Adler says. In her case, it was important to institutionalize the “touchy-feely” stuff that women are supposedly better at, in order to free herself up to focus on the bottom line and set a corporate example. “When it comes to business, there’s got to be structure and a chain of command. Otherwise, there’s no accountability,” she says.
And, Knott says, don’t be afraid of navigating office politics. You don’t have to pick sides, nor do you have to be pals with everyone. “But it’s not a bad thing to understand the people around you and their motivations.”
Both Knott and Adler say integrity and honesty are the top characteristics to embrace—especially if you’re the non-confrontational type. “Everybody knows that they can walk into my office. Even if they made a $10,000 mistake, I won’t yell. I don’t care. As long as you say to me, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve made a $10,000 mistake,’” says Adler. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s smart business. “People don’t have to like me, but I need them to respect me. And you hope they will if you treat them fairly.”

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