Mother Hens and Nice Girls: How Gender and Class Show Up at Work

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a perpetual state of childhood, unable to stand alone.” -Mary Wollstonecraft

Since writing about class and feminism here a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been booked to present at a couple of places about conflict between women co-workers, which was the topic of my thesis research way back when. Nowadays, I work as a diversity trainer and workplace consultant, helping solve problems and training employers and employees about workplace bullying. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs with different wages and occupational statuses but one thing remains mostly constant, a bullying co-worker, a jerk boss, or a dysfunctional department (I was an academic too) affects worker behavior and motivation. Internal conditions such as co-worker relations, working conditions, and job security matter as much as earnings and in some cases, even more.

I had two questions when I started this: do women experience more conflict with other women at work and why do women say that they don’t like working for other women? I wondered this at a time when women were setting records for degree attainment, especially professional degrees and PhD’s (140 women graduate for every 100 men). If women are earning more college degrees than men are, how could women avoid having a woman for a boss and why would she want to?

It turns out that gender socialization and normative expectations for feminine behavior influence women’s approach to conflict. It wasn’t that they had more conflict than men co-workers, more that there were different expectations of women at work, particularly in low wage pink-collar service work that requires intensive emotional labor. But work is a micro-interactional space where social expectations of the self and others are a reflection of the larger culture. Cultural ideas influence women and convey the message that they should get along, that it is natural and required for women to feel unity with other women. Insofar as the workplace is considered, this means that women place great emphasis on the normative behavior of their women co-workers (and their women bosses).

The most important thing for women at work is to be regarded as a nice person. Feminine norms associated with behaving in a nice or friendly manner influence the technique women use to negotiate peer relationships and manage co-worker conflict. The major typology suggests that in a general way, niceness, that is acting nice or being perceived as a nice woman, is both a technique for avoiding conflict and a source of conflict among women and that “being nice,” whether toward co-workers or clientele, is a key measure of a co-worker’s value that can go up or down according to perception. The other typology, mother-henning, relates to the concept of performing niceness as a specific technique for negotiating conflict among peers.

A caring, but controlling woman is a cultural identity common enough to provide an image of the mother hen, a woman who takes care of others in an overprotective or interfering way, a seemingly selfless helper. Performing the role of the caring mother of others is an interactional strategy women use with co-workers to maintain a normative sense of feminine power (power that is not openly threatening). In organizational settings, mother-henning is a means to avoid direct conflict by assuming an impression of solidarity and nurturance towards co-workers in order to express indirect power.

The importance of being perceived as a nice co-worker brings the discussion back around to the idea that how women negotiate conflict is shaped by cultural ideologies like ‘sisterhood.’ Feeling the pressure to get along with other women regardless of treatment (by co-workers or the boss) speaks to the message of the Red Tent: That women share a common bond that is natural and different from men and because of this, experience harmonious relations. Because of broad ideas about how women should get along, there is a sense that one must “be nice” no matter how she feels or risk being thought of as a catty or mean woman.

In many cases, the women I interviewed seemed to feel more comfortable with avoiding conflict.  The literature however, suggests that women’s avoiding conflict is dysfunctional, a result of poor socialization and an inability to manage emotions. This idea has implications in the discussion of feminine norms, conflict, and pink-collar service work.

Getting by in pink-collar jobs is different from jobs that provide autonomy and creativity. Though they can be physically demanding, the primacy of service work involves performing nice, friendly, and caring emotions. Performing such emotions influence how women experience themselves and other women at work and encourage the effort to present an idealized impression of the self in conflictual interactions. Because of this, women (in professional jobs too) tend to perform more “office housework,” that is, anything from volunteering to take meeting notes or picking up supplies to buying birthday cards and cake for co-workers. This type of kin keeping that women do at work is additional, unpaid, and often unavoidable. What happens if a woman says, “No, I’m too busy”? Especially if she is a temporary or “at-will” employee.

When women work in jobs with autonomy—having a private office, coming and going with minimal supervision, along with benefits and a salary wage—it is possible to ignore the public performance and develop direct styles of conflict management because the professional structure allows for it. I only interviewed two women in the category of service professional, but both Jill and Susan made statements about the importance of being able to “shut the door” and hence, shut out conflict. There is more agency and personal freedom in professional jobs, office housework or no.

In jobs that require a friendly, kind, and caring ‘workface’ however, the pressure of the performance is always present in the interactional space because the service-oriented structure expects it. Saying ‘no” or refusing to nurture and help is less of an option for pink-collar workers. In this way, women working in the pink-collar world do their jobs within a structure that creates, maintains, and reinforces those essentialist norms that construct women’s identities as nice, helpful caregivers.