Thursday, September 17, 2009

Avoiding Hits at Work

Women made the first serious challenges to the dominance of men in the American workplace in the early 1970s and they continue to advance toward equality in the business, education, and government establishments. When men ruled the employment roost, athletic achievement and sports talk played a part in maintaining “good old boy” structures. That has changed in several respects.

For years, many former jocks were appointed to well-paid corporate posts when their glory days on the gridiron, diamond, or court were over. Often, their resumes included few, if any, qualifications to perform the tasks assigned to them. Participation in athletics on any level was considered a big plus by those who hired and fired. It thus was not surprising that sports analogies were prominent in workplace conversations.

“Take one for the team, that’s a winner, don’t cry foul, this is our lineup,” and many similar phrases flowed from the mouths of managers and workers. Today, we hear less of those sorts of specific references to athletic competitions, but perhaps more general palaver about the “management team,” the “leadership team,” or all sorts of other “teams.”

Actually, men often used sports as an excuse to keep women in subordinate jobs. They claimed, and I even believed it for a while, that women would not be effective leaders because they had not grown up participating in team sports, and therefore wouldn’t know how to interact effectively with fellow workers or perform well as managers. I stopped believing any of that when three outstanding female members of the Forest Service staff I supervised for years advanced to become three very effective managers.

Those who had the “team player” attitude ignored the achievements of such successful female leaders as Catherine the Great and Queen Victoria in government, and Claire Booth Luce in business. Presumably these powerful ladies had not participated in rugby matches, stickball contests, relays or any other team sports that might have been popular among males in their times. Was Margaret Thatcher a cricket player?

Nowadays, soccer Moms and Dads deliver girls as well as boys to the playing fields and everywhere else team sports are played. So no longer is there a shred of logic to back up the theory that men are predestined to rule the American workplace because of sports activity as youths. As the new breed of female athletes matures, “sports speak” may rise again to a more prominent position in board and conference room conversations. That can be a fun thing.

Some of the old sports analogies were rather clever. A member of the Public Information staff in a western Forest Service Region described his immediate supervisor’s work ethic this way:

“He doesn’t block or tackle. He never carries the ball. But he sure is quick with the handoffs.”

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