Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not A Team Player

We've been talking about gender bias and the "Double Bind", which is a bias in which a woman who displays more "masculine" professional behavior (assertive, strong, confident) may be viewed less favorably by colleagues or even be disliked.  In contrast, a woman who adheres to more traditional feminine behavior in her interactions is liked, but not respected professionally.  I mentioned that today's gender bias is often of a subtle nature, not always easily spotted; I described some scenarios to watch out for and specifically mentioned that whenever anyone was characterized in black and white derogatory terms such as "bossy" or "not a team player", that bias is likely at work.

In the New York Times Magazine, an article describes an exit interview with Sheila C. Bair, chair of the F.D.I.C. (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.), an agency in the US with the mission of protecting citizens' money in banks.  She transformed the F.D.I.C. during her tenure (June 2006 - July 2011) and was an outspoken critic of bank bailouts. Other U.S. bank regulators failed to curtail the various practices that ultimately ended in major failures and the recent economic crisis. The exception was the F.D.I.C. under Bair's leadership. She pushed industry executives to change lending standards "to avoid abusive mortgages so that homeowners would not lose their homes when the housing bubble burst."

Not surprisingly, Bair was characterized as being "difficult" and "not a team player".

Another aspect of her "difficult" behavior was in reaction to something called the "Basel Committee on Banking Supervision".  Basel II, which permitted banks to evaluate their assets with their own risk assessment models, was widely adopted in Europe.  In the US, the Federal Reserve also strongly favored adoption of Basel II. The F.D.I.C. was opposed to it, due to the greater risk of bank failures under Basel II.  Bair was pressured into signing on, but managed to delay long enough that the financial crisis struck before Basel II was ever implemented in the US.  Bair's bureaucratic "foot-dragging" is described by some as a factor in the US avoiding the very worst of the financial crisis.  Apparently, European banks are in much worse shape, a mess that caused widespread bank failures in a number of countries and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  Bair's "difficult" reputation arose from her refusal to participate in the rescue programs that other US agencies were pushing during the financial emergency.  In other words, she didn't support her team, even though what was being pushed would have made the crisis worse (iwhich turned out to be correct).

The interesting question for us, of course, is how would a man (who behaved as Bair did) have been characterized?  Would he have been called "difficult" or instead "persistent" and "strong-willed"? Would his lone voice have led to his being charged with "not being a team player"?  Or would he have been seen as forceful and confident in his opinion, that is, "sticking to his guns"? Even after it was apparent that some of the proposed measures would have made the financial crisis worse in the US, Bair's influence was still not recognized, much less praised.  Would a man in this position instead be acclaimed as a fiscal "hero" for trying to protect American borrowers and homeowners (the basic job of the F.D.I.C.)?

Bair explained that she "didn't start off being assertive and going public with concerns, but we were being ignored, and we had something to bring to the table." This statement suggests that she initially tried to be heard, but was not taken seriously.  She then changed tactics and became more assertive and persistent, which led to her eventual depiction as being "difficult".  Sometimes, being persistent is the only way a woman can be heard.  Our opinions or requests may be repeatedly ignored, which is frustrating.  It's especially frustrating when we see male colleagues not only being listened to, but assumed to have a useful opinion even before they speak.  We must resort to restating our ideas or needs multiple times and more forcefully in the hopes that eventually someone will acknowledge us.

No wonder that a woman who is forced to use these tactics (more often than men) develops a reputation for being "difficult".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very true. Women get the Nag label when they are not willing to be ignored.

Similar stories are Elizabeth Warren and Brooksley Born.