my manager said I’m emasculating an employee (or how to respond to gendered feedback)

A reader writes:

I am a first-time manager, but have been with my current organization for four years. I am the only person at my level with a direct report (who started in January) and I have significant concerns about my direct report’s ability to fulfill the requirements of the job. I have raised these concerns with my direct report and with my director (who has worked in our organization for less than two years and comes from a very different background). My director agrees that the direct report isn’t performing up to par. However, he is concerned that because I am very good at my job, I may be emasculating my direct report (I am a female manager, with a male director and male direct report).

We’ve all read about how women are more likely than men to be told they are “abrasive” and also told to talk less, step back, and let others shine. I am a vocal person and not afraid to make suggestions or give feedback. But so are my male peers, who don’t receive the same feedback to be more quiet.

How do I respond to gendered feedback? Do I push back and point out the feedback is gendered/sexist? I’ve done that once to my director via a former female manager who then called him out on it. Now, when he gives me advice to talk less or step back, he says that me and my male peer both need to address this issue (likely to appear not sexist). But he’s never given that feedback directly to my male peer.

He’s called me emasculating twice now in the last month. We think it may be a projection of the fact that he is currently being minimized in his role by our senior leadership and therefore feeling emasculated himself. But if it happens again, do I say something?

Also, how do I know whether I truly am disempowering others and not just receiving gendered feedback? So far, I’ve asked for honest feedback from peers and external mentors who have told me they disagree with my director. Is that sufficient? What should I look out for?



I mean, unless you’re telling your employee things like “you’re not a real man,” calling workplace feedback “emasculating” is pretty weird.

I’d ask your boss this: “When you say ’emasculating,’ what specifically do you mean?” And depending on how clear his answer is, I’d have this statement ready to go, too: “‘Emasculating’ seems like fairly gendered feedback to me. Is there a way for us to talk about this without linking it to gender? If he were a woman, is there a different way you’d frame it?”

I’d also be ready to say something like this: “I’m concerned that gender is playing a role here when it shouldn’t be. You know, there’s been a lot of cultural attention paid lately to how women are given different types of feedback than men — like being described as ‘abrasive’ when the same behavior in men is described as ‘strong’ or ‘assertive.’ I have the sense that gender might be playing out in this situation too.”

Depending on your relationship with him and on his relationships with others in the organization, you might also suggest bringing in other perspectives on it, pointing out that it can be hard to spot this kind of thing in ourselves. (Obviously, in order to say this, you need to have a decent relationship with him and he needs to be reasonably open to hearing feedback. If that’s not the case, skip this part.)

In addition, I’d seriously consider talking to someone above him in your organization about the overall pattern you’re seeing — particularly if there’s a woman who you have good rapport with and who’s positioned to do something about this. It’s absolutely reasonable to point out that you’re getting gendered feedback and that the adjustment he made after the first time it was pointed out didn’t fix it. (Also, when you have this conversation, you should address the need to ensure that raising this doesn’t adversely affect your relationship with him or your standing in the organization — because whoever addresses this with him needs to be clear with him that that can’t happen.)

As for the question of how you can get objective feedback on your own management practices since your boss’s feedback is suspect, your instinct to get input from others (both in and outside of your organization) is a good one. In doing that, be sure that you’re not inadvertently biasing people toward your viewpoint (since often people will be predisposed to agree with you — the person they know and the person seeking advice). That means that you should present as objective a picture as you can, as well as make a good faith effort to explain how you think your employee is experiencing things. (If you’re willing to, you might even role-play some of the interactions with a mentor, so that they can see exactly how you’re approaching the employee.) Also, in doing this, it’s key to make it safe for people to tell you they think you’re in the wrong; if people think you’ll be irritated if you don’t like their input, you’re less likely to get useful information.

Frustratingly, it’s possible that your manager actually has something legitimate and valuable to point out about your approach, but his approaching work life through such a gendered lens is making it pretty damn hard to know. So it’s good that you’re seeking out input from other sources.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 253 comments… read them below }

  1. Jules*

    Can I say that, ‘Your perceived bawls issue is none of my concern? ‘

    Wow, but I see a lot of this behaviour in corporate America :-/
    Recently, was in a meeting where a female VP has to preface her defenced with, ‘I am not trying to be ‘smart’ here but…’ My temper spiked when I saw how disrespectful people were treating her due to her gender.

    I am one of those ‘abrasive’ women. If you can’t take what you dish, don’t dish it. I am treating you like you are a none gendered entitiy. Don’t care if you are a man/woman/others. All I care about is your output and if I have to ask uncomfortable question (i.e. stuff you should consider before making a call) and that challanges your manhood, that really is not my problem. It’s a problem if management makes it a problem. Hence why I am leaving. I am not going to coddle someone because they are men and they need to be obeyed. It’s not going to help my career since I wouldn’t just take it, but at least I did not compromise my principles.

    1. the gold digger*

      My husband’s ultra-liberal parents have threatened twice to disinherit him if he does not “get me in line.”

      They have told him that he is “p-whipped” and that I wear the pants.

      I mention that they are ultra-liberal only because that would imply some degree of belief in feminism. Regardless of their beliefs, their behavior is unacceptable. Even if they were moderate or conservative, I would find their comments offensive!

      1. Jules*

        Oh boy… “getting you in line”.

        Wow… I would like to know what they consider the best method of getting you ‘in line’.

        My FIL and I don’t get along but he has a good solid advice for his son, “Son, you do whatever it takes to keep her happy. Happy wife = happy life.”

          1. Ann Furthermore*

            It may be just me, but I don’t like these expressions either. To me they imply that women are shrieking harpies and their husbands/partners have to scramble around kowtowing to them, catering to their every whim, and heaven help their husbands if something is not up to snuff.

            On the other hand, we are good friends with a married couple, and in that relationship, the wife is definitely the alpha. I say that because a few months ago the husband posted a picture of his honey-do list on Facebook. A couple times we made plans with the husband, which always fell through at the last second for one reason or another. Last time, I coordinated everything with the wife, and somehow everything all worked out and happened as planned.

            1. Zahra*

              I abhor “honey-do” lists. However, my husband sometimes makes plans without telling me or asking me if I have other plans. In those cases, his plans do fall through while mine rarely do (it’s the advantage that comes with the stereotypical task being in charge of the social calendar).

              1. Pennalynn Lott*

                I’m in charge of making Boyfriend’s “honey-do” lists because he has asked me to. He has ADD and can’t remember what needs taking care of in his spare time.

                1. Megan*

                  Same here. We went for five years without me making lists, because I didn’t want to infantilize him or patronize him, and finally he said “will you just make me a list when you leave every day,” and voila. Things get done. He’s got ADHD and a TBI so it’s the only way to go.

                2. MM*

                  trying to minimize all judgement. I’m sure you’re lovely. but…

                  do you write “honey-do” on them? Do you call it your honey-do list? or is it just at od do list? most normal people make to do lists, and once you’re cohabiting making them for the other person makes total sense.

                  I just always found the term patronizing and disgustingly cheesy.

                3. Zahra*

                  I definitely have an objection to the name. My husband is actually better at making to do lists than I am. My strength is making grocery lists ;)

            2. Nina*

              “To me they imply that women are shrieking harpies and their husbands/partners have to scramble around kowtowing to them, catering to their every whim, and heaven help their husbands if something is not up to snuff.”

              This, 100%. TV sitcoms relied on this trope for years.

              1. Sasha LeTour*

                Well, except for All in the Family, which inverted it to hilarious effect. But you’re totally right – The Cosby Show, The Simpsons, King of Queens and more all rely on that trope.

                1. Sasha LeTour*

                  (I don’t mean to imply that it’s any better that men are shrieking…uh, jerk stores and women are incompetent puppets, but more that it was unusual to see in late 20th century TV. AITF was a staple of my childhood, totally groundbreaking for its time, and probably wouldn’t even be made if the pilot were to be put forward in 2014, precisely because the woman-as-incompetent staple advanced the plot while allowing Norman Lear to make very relevant and fresh social commentary that is not welcome on primetime TV today.)

                2. Nina*

                  No worries. I understood your point. :)

                  You do have the rare show like AITF that inverted the trope, but most shows use “stressed out, neurotic Mommy” and “easygoing, put-upon Daddy” as the standard, even reality TV.

                  I do notice that things are changing, though. Yay!

            3. Elysian*

              I agree. I don’t like any expression or saying that suggests that two married people aren’t equal partners, both with emotional needs, regardless of gender. I think “Wife is always right” is just the flip-side of “Keep the woman in line.” I can’t like either of them.

            4. Nerd Girl*

              I am not a fan of these expressions either.
              Recently we were out with friends and I overheard one of the husbands say to mine “Wow, Nerd Girl’s kind of a bitch, huh? What’s that like to live with?” My husband told him I wasn’t a bitch, I just knew what I wanted and wouldn’t stand for it any other way.

              I don’t refer to myself as the “Alpha”. I am the Gatekeeper. Everything has to go through me before it goes on the calendar. Not because I’m trying to be a bitch but because I am the one who pays the bills, I am the one who schedules appointments for the kids, I am the one who carries a planner with her at all times. If I wasn’t the Gatekeeper, all kinds of crap would be getting through and we’d be mucking through it trying to figure out what was important.

              And just a funny story: years ago a friend of mine was at a dinner party and a male guest told her husband that he (her husband) needed to show his wife who wore the pants in the family. My friend leaned over, smiled sweetly, and said, “he wears the pants of course. I just pick them out and tell him when the hell to put them on!”

              1. Liane*

                I like this. I still say of my late in-laws–a true & loving team of 50+ years: “Dad wore the pants in the family–but like any good Marine, he knew who gave the marching orders.

                Now, the OP’s boss is so out of line. Please don’t get me started.

              2. EvaR*

                I am feeling sort of down about doing this for my boyfriend- he has ADHD, and isn’t really able to keep track of certain things well, but I don’t know if I’m really responsible enough for a leadership role…
                What I’m trying to say is this comment, and this thread in general, were something I really needed to hear at this point in my relationship, so thanks to NerdGirl and everyone else!

            5. Collarbone High*

              “It may be just me, but I don’t like these expressions either. To me they imply that women are shrieking harpies and their husbands/partners have to scramble around kowtowing to them, catering to their every whim, and heaven help their husbands if something is not up to snuff.”

              Agreed 100%.

            6. Puddin*

              Huh, I never really thought of it this way. And now I am doubting myself.

              I always thought of it as knowing what makes your wife (or partner) happy is important. Don’t do what you think will make her happy, KNOW what makes her happy and do that. Kind of akin to the Love Languages…

              I feel weird now, like I missed the Important Point of that statement my whole life.

              1. Kassy*


                If you’re both happy, keep doing what you’re doing. Trying to make your partner happy is a foundational component of the whole thing. If your execution is flawed (and I’m not saying it is), that can be fixed, but it sounds like you don’t even need that!

      2. Not So NewReader*

        They would disinherit their son if the does not get you in line?????

        That screams conservative at me.

        This is why I don’t like to say I am conservative or liberal. A lot of liberals can think of very conservative things to say and visa-versa. I know I do this.

        Of course, my response to their statement is “Okay, keep your money.” Then I would just shrug.

        The covert message, is a real slam to their own son. They think that his behavior/ his thinking is a commodity that they can purchase for the right price. If they can purchase him, then that means that someone else (like a potential employer) could offer a higher bid and win him over. There is always someone who has more money. Always.

        Hang tough, Gold Digger. You got a lot of people who like you. I can tell.

        1. the gold digger*

          Yeah, the only reason I brought their politics into it was to highlight the contrast between what they say they believe and what they do!

          I would love for my husband to tell them to keep their money and then never see them again. Not because of the money, but because – as you noted – the insult to him that the only reason he visits them and calls them every week is because he is hoping for a payoff. First of all, there is not that much money and at the rate they buy bourbon, there will be even less when they die. Second, there is not enough money in the world to make up for how mean they are!

          Thanks for the encouragement. Ever since I found out that one of the reasons they hate me is because of how I eat bacon, I have thought, every time my FIL opens his mouth, “Keep talking, old man. You are just giving me material for my blog and for my novel to be.”

      3. Bea W*

        I have most unfortunately run into similar situations where someone will proclaim themselves “feminist” or “pro-women” but their actual practice and behavior was similar to these people. The most notable was a guy I dated who complained how women had all the power over men who were oppressed and at their mercy. ??????

        Some people are liberal on certain issues but traditional/conservative on others. I find it odd only if someone is cheering gender equality in one breath and using words like p-whipped in the next although there are totally folks who are just that politically and socially unaware, the people who believe in equal pay and equal oppurtunity in the working world but totally miss the existance of gender inequities and bias outside of that narrow focus.

      1. Lisa*

        We shouldn’t have to apologize for doing our jobs, but this is how we get ahead in most jobs by playing it safe and saying things like this before any constructive feedback to soften the blow on any work problem. Otherwise we are labeled as abrasive, etc.

        1. Jules*

          I wish there is a mute button in real life that you can hit and say what you really mean before unmuting and softening the ‘blow’. Lately, I’ve been wanting to say a lot of ‘Cry me a river’ and the mute button helps a lot.

  2. nep*

    Question for the LW — Does this director have insecurities or manifest some kind of complex in other ways? Sounds like a bit of a complex to me.
    (Your director’s afraid that because you’re very good at your job you could be emasculating your direct report. Wow. What the hell.)
    Agree with Alison’s insight — if he has got legitimate concerns, it’s a shame he can’t articulate them in an effective manner.

    1. fposte*

      Right. “You’re undermining your manager” could be a legitimate concern. “I’m concerned about your manager’s testicles” is not.

      1. Jen*

        Agree. “You are condescending when you speak to your report” is something that should be dealt with and is not gendered. Emasculating though. Yikes.

        1. fposte*

          I misread the director/direct report thing, and I’m even more rolly-eyed. The subordinate’s testicles are what elicited this flanking maneuver?

        2. Monodon monoceros*

          I hate to give this guy any benefit of the doubt, but is it possible that he meant that the OP was being condescending, or demoralizing, or patronizing…and out of some ignorance he chose to say emasculating?

          It’s a long shot, but this would make Alison’s first bit of advice even more relevant. If the OP asks the boss what in all hell he means by emasculating, maybe she’ll find out that he’s just an ignorant ass, rather than a sexist ignorant ass….

          1. Case of the Mondays*

            This. I don’t think some people know what it means or know what it means but don’t know about the gendered part of it.

            1. Observer*

              How could anyone know what the word means, without knowing the gendered implications of it? It’s actually part of the definition!

              Here is a link to the Merriam Webster definition:

              Here is what Google gives me when I ask for a definition:
              verb: emasculate; 3rd person present: emasculates; past tense: emasculated; past participle: emasculated; gerund or present participle: emasculating

              make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.
              “our winner-take-all elections emasculate fringe parties”
              synonyms: weaken, enfeeble, debilitate, erode, undermine, cripple; More
              remove the sting from, pull the teeth out of;
              informalwater down
              “the opposition emasculated the committee’s proposal”
              deprive (a man) of his male role or identity.
              “he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons’ behavior”
              castrate (a man or male animal).

              1. Monodon monoceros*

                I hear people use words incorrectly all the time, and its obvious they don’t know what the word means at all. Never underestimate people’s capacity for ignorance.

                1. NoPantsFridays*

                  And more than that — they don’t know that they don’t know. My brother will often ask what different words mean if someone uses a word he doesn’t know, because he knows that he doesn’t know (known unknown). Most of the time when I hear people use a word incorrectly, they think they are correct — they think they know. I’m sure I’m guilty of the same. I would believe that this boss used it out of ignorance rather than sexism, and I agree that asking for clarification as Alison suggested is the way to go.

                2. Observer*

                  Yes, some people just don’t know what a w0rd means, and don’t even realize it. But, if you actually DO know what this word means (which the boss may not), you can’t pretend you don’t know that it’s gendered.

                3. nep*

                  Given the context as the LW explains it, sounds like Mr Director knows what the word means. It was a sexist viewpoint, it seems, that spawned his comments to the LW in the first place; sounds like he knows what the word means and meant it.

              2. Monodon monoceros*

                I’m actually surprised at all the “non-gendered” definitions there. I would never use the word emasculate in those other examples. I’ve always thought it only had the “make a man feel less than” definition. I am not immune to the ignorance.

          2. Anonsie*

            Absolutely possible, but I would still go in believing that it’s not. Partially because that’s more likely, and partially because if he really doesn’t know then LW’s reaction will help communicate that he really needs to find a new term.

    2. Kyrielle*

      Yeah. If “you’re emasculating your direct report” is valid feedback, you have just gelded someone, or perhaps drugged them to similar effect. Otherwise, what the hell?

      1. LBK*

        Seriously. The only person who should be receiving “you are emasculating” as valid feedback is a vet performing neutering surgeries.

    3. Mister Pickle*

      This situation is messed up and I don’t have any course of action other than maybe to suggest that there are more (and perhaps more important) issues here than this “emasculation” crap:

      1. The direct report is not performing well.

      2. The director is on the fence (or at least is not supporting the LW) about the direct report’s performance.

      3. The director is afraid of losing his job (or afraid of having it marginalized).

      3a. Which might have consequences for LW?

      Questions I have:

      A. Have the direct report and the director been discussing the direct report’s performance privately? (ie, are they ganging up on LW?)

      B. Can the director provide specific instances of this so-called “emasculating” behavior on the part of LW? No hand-wavy allowed.

      C. Does LW have a set of specific instances of how the direct report is failing? (I’m not trying to ‘blame the victim’ here; as an outsider with limited knowledge, I wonder if LW provided the director with what he feels is a compelling case for finding a new direct report). Again: no hand-wavy allowed.

      1. Jeanne*

        I was also wondering if the direct report and director have been discussing this separately without involving the OP. It could even be the direct report who first used the term, which makes him a worse direct report as well. To me, this sounds like a conversation had at the urinals. Yes, I know that sounds sexist as well but lets be honest that it probably happens.

        I hate doing this but I almost feel like telling this woman to job search. The company culture is obviously rigged against smart, successful women.

        1. Future Analyst*

          I don’t think that’s a suitable solution. If women left anytime the deck was stacked against them, there would be no women in corporate America.

      2. Chinook*

        Is it possible, though, that the director saw/heard something that the OP did that undermines her direct report and he doesn’t realize that the correct term is not emasculating? I say this because it seems everyone is assuming the OP is not at fault because of the director’s poor choice of words. I say this because it is very possible that the direct report has not talked to the director and may even not have an issue with the OP.

        In either case, it may be worth it to sit down with the direct report and ask if he has any concerns about her management style. True, he won’t say “you’re a jerk” (if OP is, which is probably not true if she is questioning herself at this point), but she will probably gain insight it what is not said.

  3. Idaho*

    Just maybe giving some clarity to where the boss is coming from: Maybe the direct report really does feel emasculated because the OP is a compotent and her direct report it not, but because he is a man he feels like he should be better than her given his gender. I guess I just disagree with Alison’s assertion that emasculating is a totally ridiculous observation. It could be the truth regardless of its merit.

    However, I don’t think you should change you management style based on this suggestion. But speaking as a manager (but as one who does not know the whole picture) you can try a few general things that might help you manage your direct report:

    * set clear and measureable expectations;
    * have weekly meetings at the beginning of the week where you discuss the status of projects and the tasks that will be accomplished this week;
    * use a project management tool, such as Basecamp, so there aren’t excuses for not seeing an email or not knowing where a file is.

    If the concern is that he really just have the technical skills needed for the job, discuss this honestly and ask what his thoughts on it are. Does he feel competent? Does he think he needs more training? Then, if possible, you can address helping him get this training.

    After all of this, if there aren’t improvements, you really should consider taking the steps to let him go. If he is not capable of doing the job, he should not be employed in the job. The only thing I worry about is that he was hired in January, and it is October. While you have said you have addressed it, he has been in the job for awhile and it sounds like he hasn’t made significant improvements.

    1. TNTT*

      Emasuclating is not a totally ridiculous observation … but it is a totally ridiculous comment to give as feedback at work. How is she supposed to respond to that? Sorry sir, I’ll back down? Sorry sir, I’ll perform worse so he isn’t being shown up by a woman?

      While it could be true, the point is that it has no merit as professional feedback and needs to stop.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        YES. Maybe the direct report is *feeling* emasculated, but that’s not OP’s problem. He can say “I’m feeling micromanaged” or “I feel like my authority is being undermined” or “I feel the criticism I’m getting is overly harsh because X, Y, and Z.” But “I’m feeling emasculated” implies that the OP should be treating this guy differently because, well, he’s a guy.

        1. Nichole*

          Agreed. And I’m sure the direct report would appreciate knowing his boss is being told he’s not man enough to handle being managed by a strong, competent woman. I know if I were a man and found out my boss was asked to dumb it down because I felt emasculated, I would be absolutely humiliated.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Part of the problem is that the comment is not instructive. It does not say what to do.
        So great, she been given this feedback and still has no idea what the problem is. That’s not useful.

    2. Tinker*

      Could be, but if it’s the direct report’s issue that he can’t work effectively because he feels emasculated by a female manager who is very good at her job, that’s an additional problem rather than a mitigating factor. The way the issue was brought up, though — specifically that the director agrees that the performance is a problem HOWEVER — seems to imply the opposite.

    3. A Non*

      Eh, perhaps her direct report has trouble taking critical feedback from a woman and therefore feels emasculated. But if so, that’s a) not her problem and b) not something her supervisor should be making her problem. And it’s really not a word that should be used in the context of professional relationships.

    4. TL -*

      I’m sorry, but someone feeling emasculated is a ridiculous observation to make, especially in the workplace. It has all kinds of implications to how one should behave (or, worse, should be allowed to behave) because of their gender.
      The word is traditionally used to imply that a woman is making decisions for man or not respecting a man’s manly input. Or maybe a man is being teased by other men for not conforming to gender roles? I can think of no situation in where feeling emasculated couldn’t be more clearly explained and better resolved by using less gendered terms and actually looking at the behaviors that bother you, rather than sounding like you’re whining because you’re not getting the respect your gender deserves. (If you feel that way, you feel that way, but bringing it up is just ridiculous.)

      1. LBK*

        Agreed 100%. Feeling emasculated is, frankly, a BS sentiment in any context because it implies that being forcibly removed from your image of masculinity is a negative or affects your value as a person. That wouldn’t even be a possibility if we didn’t have such strictly reinforced gender roles of men being successful, strong, in charge and generally superior to women – you can’t emasculate someone who doesn’t give weight to how “masculine” he is.

        In other words, the problem isn’t men being emasculated, it’s men attaching any value to how much their life situation matches up to the social ideal of a male gender role.

        Maybe this is easier for me to say as a gay man and therefore someone who has almost never been in line with the traditional concept of masculinity. It would be nearly impossible to emasculate me because I don’t really care if what I do or how I’m perceived is less in line with what’s expected of me just because I have a penis.

        1. Heather*

          the problem isn’t men being emasculated, it’s men attaching any value to how much their life situation matches up to the social ideal of a male gender role

          This is such a perfect summary. Thanks.

      2. jag*

        It’s possible to be a legit complaint, but just extremely unlikely. It’s possible in an abusive workplace, where supervisors (or either gender) and making obnoxious, gender-oriented comments to their male employees. “Man up for once! What are you, a little girl” etc.

        Yes, yes, a confident man should just ignore the meaning of that abuse and instead treat it like generic abuse (generic versions of the two insults above would be “Be more responsible for once! What are you, a loser?” But taking it literally is possible too. LBK is perhaps a better person than most to ignore that type of nonsense, but it is possible.

        1. Observer*

          Even then, it would be ridiculous for the boss to put it that way. If the LW were being abusive in a gendered way, what the boss should say to her would be “You need to stop being abusive, and you need to stop being sexist, since that’s not just poor management, but putting us at risk of a law suit.”

          In other words, complaining that someone is emasculating a guy in the workplace is pretty ridiculous, regardless of what the issue is.

        2. Another Poster*

          I may be confused by what you are saying here. Are you implying that a confident man should ignore sexist comments and treat it like any old non-sexist insult? So, only women should concern themselves with sexism? Frankly, a confident man SHOULD have a problem with that and definitely should not ignore those kind of comments. Doesn’t matter if it’s meant literally or not.

          If I’m misunderstanding, please clarify.

          1. jag*

            “Are you implying that a confident man should ignore sexist comments and treat it like any old non-sexist insult?”

            Yes in terms of the immediate effect on the man (me) directly. The sexist insult has a secondary aspect in that the person making it is also insulting women generally. Which is also a problem. But the immediate nature of the insult to me is the same to me whether gendered or not.

            1. Another Poster*

              Oh, I see what you are saying. As a man you shouldn’t feel insulted by the implication that you are in some way acting like a woman. Is that what you mean?

              I agree with that. I wish more men wouldn’t be insulted by the idea that they might possess feminine qualities or feel that some feminine qualities are bad or that many qualities aren’t only male qualities. But I also hope that men would be insulted on behalf of the women and would in turn still bring attention to the fact that these sort of sexist comments are inappropriate and unfair.

              1. jag*

                “As a man you shouldn’t feel insulted by the implication that you are in some way acting like a woman. Is that what you mean?”


                It’s similar to times that people (almost always men) have called me gay as an insult. My general response is “I’m not. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

                1. Another Poster*

                  Here is a good video about using the word gay that’s worth watching:

                  I have been accused (for lack of a better word) of being gay as an insult. I don’t typically feel the need to tell them whether they are right or not about my sexual orientation. But I will state that being gay is not something to be ashamed of and that they are seriously uncool, inappropriate, bigoted, etc. for implying/believing that it is.

                2. jag*

                  ” I don’t typically feel the need to tell them whether they are right or not about my sexual orientation.”

                  I feel the need to correct, or at least point out the inaccuracy of many things that people say about me that are untrue – being called gay, people mistakenly thinking I have a PhD (or a law degree a few times). work in technology, or am much younger than my actual age.

    5. BRR*

      The direct report might feel that way because his boss is a woman and great at her job but it’s a completely ridiculous way to feel. Is her direct report supposed to be coddled because nothing should bruise his fragile male ego? Unless the OP is specifically making comments about his gender I just don’t accept his feelings as being appropriate. If he feels emasculated because of his female boss is he just not going to work for any woman ever?

    6. Magda*

      It could be the truth regardless of its merit.

      But even if Bob really does feel emasculated, who cares? That is Bob’s personal problem to deal with. OP’s manager should be backing her up if her feedback has merit, and addressing it in non-gendered terms if it doesn’t. The direct report’s feelings of masculinity should not even be a part of the discussion.

      I have to say, this is a really frustrating contrast with all the AaM discussions about women crying in the workplace. A lot of people come down very hard on criers for not being “tough enough” to take criticism or handle themselves, and in some cases, for seeming to give credence to the stereotype of women being emotional/hysterical/manipulative. Now, I personally think there is room for human emotion in the workplace; but it’s hard not to notice the double standard. OP’s boss even acknowledges that the “emasculated” guy’s performance sucks, but whoa, let’s not focus on the business impact of a crappy performer, and instead cater to his alleged hurt feelings. I really can’t roll my eyes hard enough.

      1. Magda*

        And actually, I want to add: re-reading the letter, the “emasculating” thing seems to be coming exclusively from OP’s boss, so maybe I shouldn’t come down so hard on the direct report. This is reminding me a little bit of the “Lorcan” situation in one of yesterday’s letters, where Lorcan himself was fine with the LW’s pronunciation of his name but some other coworker kept fixating on it.

        I would actually feel pretty bad for OP’s direct report if the “emasculating” thing were purely a projection from OP’s boss and not something that originated with the direct report himself!

        1. BRR*

          I reread the letter and had the same thought. It could just be the boss. The guy sounds like an ass and the direct report might have not said emasculated at all. Come to think of it, it would be very weird for anybody to say to someone else they felt emasculated since admitting to feeling emasculated is emasculating.

          1. Magda*

            Yes, I wondered if OP’s direct report has been visibly unhappy/resentful (because they aren’t doing well), and OP’s boss has mixed that up with his own issues and attitudes and come out with “emasculating.” So the kicker might be that OP’s direct report ends up feeling even worse than necessary thanks to the manager’s issues.

          2. Chrissi*

            I suspect that the boss thinks the report is intimidated by her, but because the report is a man and the LW is a woman, he looked at it through his own lens of gender expectations and how he would feel if he was intimidated by a woman and came up with emasculated. I like a lot of the comments that note that using emasculating as a criticism means treating the report based on his gender rather than his work, and I wonder if simply pointing that out to the boss would allow him to see that and alter his behavior accordingly. In a perfect world, anyhow.

            I do think it would be useful to the LW to know if her report is intimidated by her. I’ve been told most of my life that I’m intimidating (my mother calls it self-confident because she’s my mother), so I definitely know that sometimes its a little mystifying and most of the time you are not trying to intimidate. But if he is intimidated, you might decide for yourself that it’s in the best interests of your working relationship to tweak the way you work with him. I know when I started my job, there was a senior person in my division that intimidated the ever-loving heck out of me because she was SO good at her job and knew SO much more than me and spoke very technically all the time. Because I was so intimidated by all of that, I never really worked with her and even asked my boss not to assign me to her team, which he did not. Eventually I ended up working with her and realized that, yes, she was very good at her job, but no she didn’t expect me to be up to her level right away, she didn’t think I was stupid, she didn’t expect me to be a workaholic, and she just wanted everyone to be as good as she is (she’s kind of awesome), and I became much better at my job by working effectively with her. I was definitely in the wrong for making so many assumptions and I really shouldn’t have been intimidated nor should that have kept me from working with her, but I just didn’t know and no one more senior ever tried to correct my assumptions (looking at you boss). So the rambling point is that beyond the comment from your boss that was stupid, finding out if he is intimidated by you (your skills and your displeasure with his work) may allow you to tweak the approach enough or have a conversation with him that might, in the end, make him a better worker.

      2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        But even if Bob really does feel emasculated, who cares? That is Bob’s personal problem to deal with.

        Yes. For a comparison that’s less about gender, imagine if I worked with a very attractive, fashionable woman and being around her made me feel insecure about my own physical appearance. Is it okay for me to have those feelings? Sure; you can’t always help your emotions. Should I work on those issues myself so I don’t feel that way? Yeah, or it’ll impact my work. Should the other woman’s boss tell her, as feedback, “You are making Elizabeth feel unattractive, so you need to stop doing your hair so nicely?” Absolutely not. This is a case where my feelings are completely my own responsibility.

        1. Magda*

          Exactly! I have worked with and for people who made me feel insecure for various reasons. It’s human. If my boss’s boss were making a Big Huge Deal about my insecurities, I would be completely mortified. And if I were the one making a big deal of it, I would hope somebody would take me aside for a little come-to-Jesus talk.

    7. AcesoUnderGlass*

      This is really condescending. Whether you intended to or not, it legitimizes the emasculation complaint and paints the problem as one of OP’s management, rather than gendered feedback from her manager.

    8. Another Poster*

      Even if the direct report is feeling emasculated, that’s his problem based on his own gender bias that he should somehow be better than her simply because he’s a man. If the direct report is actually complaining of feeling emasculated to OPs manager then her manager should have explained to him that sexism like that isn’t tolerated in the workplace and he needs to understand and accept that women are fully capable of being in superior positions to men and doing just as good of a job, that success and the ability to lead is not a male trait. If OPs manager is making the assumption on his own that her direct report is feeling emasculated then he needs to learn similar lessons.

    9. Batman's A Scientist*

      That’s not her problem to deal with though. He might be feeling emasculated and he has every right to that feeling, but he needs to learn to manage that. It’s not on her to become less competent just to make him feel better.

    10. krisl*

      If the direct report feels emasculated because his manager is very good at her job, then the direct report is the problem.

      I mean, it’s one thing if she’s belittling him regularly, but if she’s just better than him, big whoop. Some people are better at things than others. If he can’t deal with a woman being better at something than he is, then he has a problem.

  4. EngineerGirl*

    I agree with Alison. Unless you are making comments about someone’s sexual performance you can’t possibly emasculate them. I also agree with Idaho that he could feel emasculated if he is performing less competently than the OP. I see this pattern a LOT – women are allowed to succeed, but not exceed men.
    I do think it is appropriate to ask the boss “When you say emasculated what do you mean by that?”. And then repeat back what he said to you to emphasize it. So if he comes back with “You make him feel powerless” Ask back – “How am I making him feel powerless that is different from the men?”.
    Oh, and watch out for the infantile game. This is where the underperforming “Ken” becomes “poor Kenny”. You know, because boys are boys and can’t be expected to perform to normal standards.

  5. Anna*

    “but because he is a man he feels like he should be better than her given his gender. I guess I just disagree with Alison’s assertion that emasculating is a totally ridiculous observation.”

    He may feel he should be better than her given his gender, but how is that her fault? Is it her responsibility to coddle someone who is insecure in his masculinity? Not her problem.

    1. Idaho*

      I didn’t say it was her fault, and I said not to alter her managing style based on his comment. In a comment above I agree with TNTT and note that the comment reflects more on the boss than the OP.

      1. TL -*

        I’m with fposte. It is a ridiculous comment to make, in any situation but especially at work.
        It’s kinda like if you were jealous of a coworker’s success, which they totally deserved and did not come at your own expense. Sure, you might feel that way, but it’s completely ridiculous to bring it up in any context – and, though it’s human nature, it is also a little ridiculous to be jealous of someone else’s fairly earned success. It’s a feeling you deal with on your own time

  6. Training Manager*

    Coming from a males perspective, the “emasculated” feedback is crap. That director giving the feedback is using that term as a cop out for poor coaching technique and/or not standing up for his direct report (the OP) with the person complaining. This is causing more harm than good in general for the entire team. Sorry off my soapbox at anger directed not only at my gender but also weak leadership (also a big pet peeve). The advice for specifics is the best route to go IMO. When you get vague terms like “emasculated” ask for examples when it occurred, then ask for ways that the feedback could have been delivered? I would not be surprised if the feedback you receive would be identical to what you had already done. Then you have the opportunity to say to your director that his feedback would possibly still be interpreted the same way. At least an attempt to get more concrete ways to call him on his poor coaching. I would expect though, as so awesomely pointed out above, is that you will have to get documented (maybe an e-mail to your director recapping his coaching session with you on being “emasculating”) then find a champion above your director. Tread carefully but this is something worth fighting for. I wish you good luck and hope you get some positive results.

  7. Student*

    If your boss is genuinely trying to tell you that you have a direct report who can’t handle working for a woman, then it is time to let that employee go.

    I don’t know if that is what your boss is trying to convey, or if your original interpretation is correct (that he’s giving you crappy feedback because you’re a woman).

    However, there really are some men who can’t handle working for women. There are women who can’t handle working for women. I’m sure there are some people who can’t handle working for men, too, but they seem to be pretty rare. I’d always give an employee the benefit of the doubt on a topic like this. But if it really is established that you have an employee who performs poorly when managed by a woman, that’s a performance limitation on the part of the employee and it’s best for everyone if you fire him.

    You need direct reports who will support you and believe in you and lift you up – not direct reports who are undermining you, or don’t believe in you due to your gender. It’s not your job to convert them, or teach them the error of their sexist ways through a PIP – it’s your job to find direct reports that will do the job you need done, and will do it well.

    1. TL -*

      “I’m sure there are some people who can’t handle working for men, too, but they seem pretty rare.”
      That’s because one doesn’t really have a choice about working for men in our society; they hold most of the positions of power and it’s ridiculous to think of someone who can’t work under a man, whereas for some reason it’s more okay to say you have a problem working with/under women.
      And yes, you should immediately fire someone like that. Being unable to work for a good half of the human population is a huge performance/personality issue.

      1. Monday*

        Indeed, you cannot decide you won’t work for a man. Even in heavily female-dominated fields, if you go up the hierarchy far enough it’s almost always a man in charge.

        One thing I have chosen to do for the past year or so is avoid books by male authors. This is by no means a life-long policy or a devaluing of all the male talent out there, I’m just doing it as an interlude/experiment. After all, most of our reading lives are dominated by male voices most of the time. I can barely remember a female author or even female protagonist in any of the books I was assigned in school. It’s been interesting and I recommend it.

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          This has captured my imagination. I’m going to consider doing this. Thanks for the mental left turn!

          1. Sarahnova*

            As I recall, Captain Awkward has some great posts about media by women for just this kind of personal experiment/practice.

    2. Lillie Lane*

      A few months ago, the new VP at my company (a woman) issued an ultimatum for my [male, older than the VP] colleague — “You have to decide if you can work for a woman. If you can’t, then you will have to go.”

      He decided he can work for her. I think she’s great.

        1. Sasha LeTour*

          Me too. And I love how she laid the cards on the table just like that: succinct, direct, no BS.

          I am trying to become more concise in my written and oral communications at work and this is inspiring.

    3. Seal*

      Agreed. Years ago I worked with a man who couldn’t handle working for or with women, to the point he would actively sabotage their work. As one of the few women who flat-out refused to stand for his BS, I became one of his biggest targets. Unfortunately, our workplace was such a dysfunctional mess that, while everyone acknowledged this guy was a problem, no one would do anything about it in large part because his boss was such a colossal jerk himself. Fortunately, due to a long-overdue reorganization, this guy was reassigned and eventually wound up reporting – not coincidentally – to a woman who was new to the organization. She fired him within 6 months for insubordination and poor job performance. The many women he had harassed and bullied over the years cheered.

      1. Zahra*

        I’m totally picturing you standing up, cheering and high-fiving yourselves when the email went out that he was fired! :P

    4. the gold digger*

      you have a direct report who can’t handle working for a woman, then it is time to let that employee go.

      There was a question on the GMAT about how to put six people in two canoes if you want at least one person each from marketing and finance in each canoe, etc. One of the conditions was “Bob cannot work with women.” I wasted so much time thinking, “So? Is that MY problem? Bob needs to get over himself.” And yet I had to put him in a canoe with all men because I wanted to get into grad school.

      1. Clerica*

        This is exactly why I did so poorly with algebra once we got to word problems. I can’t internalize a procedure if I can’t picture an honest real-life application, and somehow I can’t imagine a situation where I’m handing out company canoe assignments to misogynistic dudebros from Finance.

        What are they going to be “working” on in the canoes? Are we rowing away from a zombie apocalypse and they want to increase the odds that we still have representatives of different departments if underwater zombies manage to capsize one of the canoes? If it’s the canoe with all the women, how do we repopulate? If both canoes survive, but the women froze all their eggs for “later,” what will the TFR be? I don’t remember the formula for this!

        1. K Breezy*

          “If both canoes survive, but the women froze all their eggs for “later,” what will the TFR be?”

          I can’t even handle this, I’m dying.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Wait. So you are saying the correct answer on the test is to cow-tow to this dude????

        This is on a test? REALLY?

    1. fposte*

      I think a number of people, were they in the direct report’s position, would be absolutely mortified to discover that things had taken this turn.

      1. Swarley*

        Exactly. I’d be half surprised if OP’s direct report has no idea any of this is transpiring.

      2. Mister Pickle*

        Yes. I wondered about this, too. And I’d be rather offended to find out that the director was “taking my side” in this manner.

  8. BadPlanning*

    Makes me wonder how the direct report feels about the director saying he’s being emasculated (assuming this didn’t come directly from the direct report). I think that would be pretty embarrassing and/or angering for many men. I mean, you’re struggling a bit in your job, trying to get your feet and you find out that your boss’s boss thinks that’s the issue here? Not micromanaging, not lack of training, not confusing priorities…but your boss is demeaning your manliness?

    1. BRR*

      And the direct report might have never said anything about feeling emasculated. If somebody told my boss her feedback was making me feel emasculated I would be horrified that somebody used that to describe me.

        1. BRR*

          *Awards Blue Ribbon for Best Comment*

          Except I wouldn’t feel emasculated because that’s a dumb feeling to even exist.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I guess that would mean that his manliness was the basis for him getting the job in the first place, take that away from him and it’s over.

  9. BRR*

    I reread the letter and I’m not sure the direct report is feeling emasculated (please excuse my harsh in my comment above). It sounds more like this letter is about her boss being sexist.

  10. AcesoUnderGlass*

    IANAL but… start documenting. If your boss is as sexist as this makes him sound, this can’t possibly be the only issue, and someday it may be really useful to have a log of all the times he was sexist at you.

    1. jwlynn*

      You’re obviously NAL. The law does not protect you from someone being “sexist at you.” It protects you from invidious discrimination. LW’s boss is obviously clumsy and probably a sexist jerk, but neither of those things rise to discrimination under the law. In terms of documenting things for legal purposes, there is nothing to document here.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        I disagree. The incident itself may not be discrimination, but documenting it and other similar incidents may uncover a pattern, which could be helpful if invidious (had to look it up) discrimination does occur. I say, document. It may never be useful, but it for sure won’t be if you don’t document.

      2. neverjaunty*

        Documenting further instances of sexist behavior is like Basic Employment Precautions 101 in a situation like this. Because if you think “being sexist at you” never translates into “discrimination” you are the winner of the Wrong On The Internet Award.

        You’re not a lawyer, right?

        1. jwlynn*

          As a matter of fact I am, and I know the law quite well. Well enough, certainly, to know that there is no alchemy out there that can turn what LW complains of into a cognizable discrimination claim.

          You may be using the word ‘discrimination’ in kind of an ordinary person sense. Is it discriminatory in that sense? Perhaps; probably, even. Is it an unproductive and clumsy way to handle a problem, that is likely to propagate whatever is actually the problem? Most definitely. Is it legally-actionable gender discrimination? Not close.

          So sorry about that award. I’m sure you’ll find someone to accept it; one senses that if you keep talking you might just find yourself in the running for it as well.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Sorry, AAM. I’m just flabbergasted that somebody claiming to be a lawyer would, in essence, give advice to OP that would sabotage her should her boss’ jerkitude later translate into actual workplace discrimination.

            1. jwlynn*

              I doubt it takes much at all to flabbergast you, neverjaunty. Nonetheless, I’ll thank you not question whether I do what I do, just as I will not question… well, whatever it is that you do.

              To the extent that I have created more heat than light, AAM, I apologize.

              1. JB*

                wow that was a nasty comment. And as a lawyer who reviews these kinds of cases, I agree with others who say that documentation is a good idea, not because this one episode is enough for a discrimination claim, but because it can, over time, reveal a pattern of behavior that is discrimination. I’m surprised a lawyer would ever tell someone NOT to document something. That’s usually our go-to advice in any situation. And when does it ever hurt?

              2. Renee*

                Wow. I hope that no one is discouraged from seeking legal advice. Another lawyer here. I agree that documenting is a good idea. Sure, you can’t sue for someone just “being sexist” but you can if that “being sexist” translates into conduct. A documented pattern will help establish motive behind pretense. I’m pretty sure that everyone understood what was meant and I’m going to assume that someone just had a day full of difficult OCs.

  11. Eric*

    Sounds to me your boss used the word “emasculated” without knowing what it meant. Holding your reports up to the same rigid standards you hold yourself to could be a valid criticism. I’m not sure what word to use for that, but not “emasculated”.

  12. Sans*

    It’s interesting, I’ve been in the workforce for over 30 years. In the beginning, I definitely encountered men who couldn’t handle working for a woman, and who showed it in their attitude. I don’t see that anymore. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but maybe it’s less acceptable, so those guys have learned to be quiet about it.

    But if someone actually told me I was emasculating someone because I was so good at my job … I don’t know what I’d say, because I’d be busy picking my jaw up off the floor.

    1. Jules*

      Oh, I see them alright. Not many, out of 1 out of 6 that I work with maybe? Granted, he is younger that I am and is a technical specialist. I just happen to have a lot more experience in projects. I called him out a few times over things he wants to do, so that it makes his life easier. Not at the expense of other people, bub. He then started to tell his supervisor all kinds of tall tales. Ultimately, I pulled it off and came out looking great. But I wish I could kick him off the team cause he sure wasn’t being a team player. He talked smack about older workers etc. I don’t accept such behaviour. Age has nothing to do with performance.

      1. JB*

        Yep, I still see it too, though not a often, and when I do see it, it’s not flagrant. They don’t say “I can’t work for a woman,” they just annoyed or angry at something their boss does that doesn’t bother them when it comes from a man. I don’t think they even realize that’s the problem.

    2. Another Lauren*

      I am pretty much living this right now. It’s not done in a blatant way where he says “I don’t like working for women”. Instead, he just cops an attitude whenever any of the women on our team is the lead on a project and makes suggestions or provides guidance on the direction of a task. He directs us to draft emails for him or take notes in meetings, despite being the most junior person on the team (and he only does this to the women on the team, never the men). The most disheartening/frustrating part of this is that one of the women on our team, in fact the one he is often most disrespectful of, advocates for “just doing what he asks” because “the male ego is just so fragile”.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Tell her that little parable about the child who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis, so feels sorry for it and cuts slits in the chrysalis to make it easier, only to have the butterfly die because the process is what allows it to become strong enough to fly. :P

      2. Sarahnova*

        I’m not sure I will ever understand how the patriarchy pulled off the double-whammy of simultaneously popularising the idea that men are the strong and logical and RIGHT ones, and that their feewings are so very very delicate that they must be pandered to at all times and subjected only to very low expectations.

        Seriously, that’s some pro sh*t right there.

  13. GrumpyBoss*

    Ugh this pisses me off so much. I got this last week too, except I was “being emotional”. I disagree with AAM’s advice, only because I find it doesn’t work. People who do this aren’t doing it out of ignorance. There are deep gender identities that they possess and an adjusting statement from me won’t change it.

    What I have learned is to not let the phrasing of the feedback block me from actually learning from it? Was I being emotional? No, but now I know to lead with facts and keep my hypothesis and conclusions from my boss. Are you being emasculating? Of course not. But is there an opportunity for you to communicate in a way that is more collaborative? Maybe….

    1. Adonday Veeah*

      “People who do this aren’t doing it out of ignorance. There are deep gender identities that they possess and an adjusting statement from me won’t change it.”

      I disagree. Deep identities are often based on ignorance, and how do you change ignorance except by confronting it? People who are handed their identities on a silver platter and make no effort to evaluate them are ignorant. Not stupid or mean or bad, just ignorant. A person who is offered a different perspective (via, perhaps, an “adjusting statement”) might take the opportunity to rethink their deeply held identities.

    2. Anonsie*

      You are unlikely to change their thought processes, but you may at least be able to change their behavior and establish that they can’t do that kind of crap to you.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I could see something like this happening:
      OP gave Bob a list of five things to improve on. Feeling overwhelmed, Bob latched on to the first thing he could think of – “Because my boss is female, she therefore hates male subordinates and she is trying to castrate me. I can lay the ground work for now for being discriminated against. I don’t have to change anything I am doing work-wise.”

      I have seen it a few times now where a female employee will lash out to a male boss (or visa versa) in this manner when truth be told, the employee is just a crappy worker. And those around the employee would agree with the boss.

    4. krisl*

      “What I have learned is to not let the phrasing of the feedback block me from actually learning from it ” This!

  14. Malissa*

    Next time look at your boss and ask, “In what way am I making Bob feel like less of a man?”

    There is a chance that the boss doesn’t realize he’s using the word wrong. Otherwise this simple question puts the feedback in plain terms that makes it look as ridiculous as it is. It should also help to get actual real feedback from the boos. At the very least the complaint should go away.

    1. KJR*

      This is a REALLY good point…my boss frequently uses words wrong! It’s worth a re-phrasing as Malissa suggests to see if he truly gets it.

    2. Chriama*

      I like this framing because it gets to the heart of the matter. Boss has some interpretation of ’emasculating’ that isn’t overtly sexist, but if you frame it this way you force him to choose better words. Of course, they may still be sexist words, but then at least you know where you stand…

    3. soitgoes*

      I think this is a good approach. Yes, I agree that the boss might not realize that he’s using the wrong word to describe what he means. I had a boss frequently say “inclimate” (the business performed services that required decent weather conditions) and he didn’t correct himself until I wrote “inclement” in an email. Sometimes a brain fart persists until it’s corrected.

    4. Mister Pickle*

      Shades of David Howard!!! Extremely interesting point – does he know what the word means?

      (I knew a fellow once, he was a practicing psychotherapist, had an MD and everything, and he often tossed the word “penultimate” into the conversation in such a way that it was obvious that he didn’t know what it actually meant).

    5. Clerica*

      I agree with this. At my second job we have a new manager who tries to use words correctly and…fails sometimes. He fails at a lot of things, actually. Well, he had said one day that because sales were down (he “took ownership” for not getting the sales signs out, if by “taking ownership” you mean complaining that no one told him he had to get them out and by cutting hours of people whose fault it wasn’t) he would probably have to cut some people from the next weekend. He said he’d “start with the perennial call-outs.” That weekend he called to tell me he was cutting my shift. We had this conversation:

      Me: “Hey, I thought you were starting with the ‘perennial call-outs.’
      Him: “Uh, yeah…you called out a couple weeks ago.”
      Me: “That was my fifth call-out in three years. That’s only perennial if you’re analyzing a biblical time span.”
      Him: …

  15. Magda*

    Wanna bet OP’s boss would also be the first to come down on her like a ton of bricks when her team isn’t meeting its performance goals? And/or complain about how female managers just aren’t as effective? Yeah.

    1. AMG*

      Because if she were a really good female manager she would know how to bet her eyelashes at him to encourage him to get work done. Yep, been there done that.

  16. Swarley*

    I’m wondering where this feedback is originating from… Did the report go over the OP’s head to the director and complain? Or is this feedback based solely on the director’s interpretation of how the OP is interacting with her report. Either way it’s unhelpful and inappropriate; I’m just curious to know where it started.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, I am wondering why Bob has not been instructed to talk to his immediate boss first.

      Talk about reducing someone’s power.

    2. catsAreCool*

      I wondered about that too.

      At any rate, no matter how this supervisor got his “information”, he absolutely has to be more specific about whatever problem he is trying to talk about.

  17. Biff*

    Just when you think wacky Wednesday couldn’t get weirder.

    Emasculated? I really hope OP writes in and explains more. I can imagine certain things happening that would be described this way, things that I have seen happen, but they are usually called something else.

  18. whatnow*

    Wow this is ridiculous. Ultimately the OP is being told she should not perform as well as she is at her job, so that her male colleague, who is performing badly, doesn’t feel bad about his poor performance…

    Not only is it sexist it’s poor management. To improve the bad employees mood, we should get his better performing manager to dial her abilities down…

    What is the female equivalent of emasculate? Could this be rearranged, if I had a male boss and he was performing better than me, could the fact he’s outperforming me at a job I (according to my gender?) should be good at, make him curb his performance so that I feel OK about it…

    D0es the boss have a personal relationship with the direct rapport? Is it weird nepotism? Or is this guy going through ‘an emasculating’ situation in his home-life, so that he needs to be treated with kit-gloves?

    I hope we get updated with how this went. I’m flummoxed by this one. Anyway you go it seems like you have to accommodate men who don’t know how to work with or talk to people. Like other commenters have mentioned the direct rapport may be horrified to be discussed like this… And it makes it all such a delicate, weird situation where poor OP has to tread on egg-shells to deal with pathetic egos.

    1. Student*

      Am I a terrible person for reading, “What is the female equivalent of emasculate? ” and thinking: doing the laundry better than me.

      1. Nerd Girl*

        I’m willing to subject myself to the female equivalent of emascualte if this is indeed the answer. And you don’t have to do it better than me. Just do it instead of me. ;)

      2. the gold digger*

        Except I would not be insulted by my husband doing the laundry better than I do it – I would be thrilled and suggest that he take over the laundry responsibilities!

        1. Judy*

          Not sure he does it better than me, but he’s at home alone more, during his class prep day, so my husband does our laundry most weeks. It gets washed even if it doesn’t always get folded.

    2. Jeanne*

      There is no female version of emasculate. It can’t be done to us because we are supposed to already know, understand, and be grateful that men are better than us. (I don’t actually believe this myself. I believe some men do believe this.)

      1. Sarahnova*

        There’s also no career equivalent; men entering female-dominated fields tend to receive praise and rapid promotion (the “glass escalator” effect).

  19. Brian*

    It’s thoughtful, intelligent responses to these kinds of difficult questions that make this blog my favorite thing on the internet. I have learned more from reading this (and your awesome books) than i learned in most college courses or training programs. You’re a $&#%ing national treasure Alison.

      1. mutt*

        You need to put this comment next to your “proof that i kick ass” thing on the right there. I’m sure someone could create an awesome icon that says “[I’m] a $&#%ing national treasure” and links to Brian’s comment.

        And, he’s right. You need to be put on Mount Rushmore or something.

  20. Joey*

    Id ask this “what does me doing a good job have to do with Bob feeling like less of a man? Are you suggesting that you want me to make him feel more like a man?”

  21. Artemesia*

    I have worked with a number of women (men too, but this is irrelevant here) who are overbearing and abrasive. Yes women get more criticism for it, but it is obnoxious and ineffectual in either case. The OP really needs to reflect on whether she is using a bullying, overbearing and dismissive tone with her report. The manager may not be able to articulate the problem he sees but there may be a problem.

    Or it may be just an incompetent manager who is unwilling to hold the direct report to high standards or let the OP do so. The OP can deal with both issues — specific problems with her management style AND the inappropriateness of gendered feedback at the same time.

    1. LBK*

      I have worked with a number of women (men too, but this is irrelevant here) who are overbearing and abrasive. Yes women get more criticism for it, but it is obnoxious and ineffectual in either case.

      The issue is that this criticism is often levied at women in situations where they aren’t being overbearing or abrasive, because as a female, ANY level of negative feedback or disagreement with someone else is considered too much. So it’s extremely hard to judge whether it’s accurate or not because for a woman, just saying “Bob, you’re not meeting up to the expectations I’m setting for you as a manager” is considered too abrasive.

      No one is disagreeing that ACTUALLY being abrasive is a bad style for a manager, but the issue is judging the validity of that feedback when it’s given to a woman. Alison posted an article not too long ago where something like 75% of women at the company being surveyed were told they were too abrasive.

      1. Artemesia*

        I agree with that. But the OP should still be reflecting on what is actually going on since she keeps getting this feedback. Maybe it is entirely bogus — I too am one of those ‘smart direct’ women who has run afoul of this although luckily also worked in settings where that was valued. But maybe it is also an inept way of providing feedback about behavior she should modify.

        I will agree that the very use of the word ’emasculating’ tilts the benefit of the doubt to the OP.

        1. Magda*

          I don’t think it’s fair to say she “keeps” getting this feedback, since she only gets it from one person. She states at the end of her letter: “So far, I’ve asked for honest feedback from peers and external mentors who have told me they disagree with my director.” To me, the fact that OP was willing to seek a reality check from an objective third party speaks very well of her.

    2. Jeanne*

      Even if the OP is managing badly, this is not how her manager should communicate it. This director is wrong for saying this no matter how she is managing.

    3. neverjaunty*

      The OP should absolutely reflect on that the moment she gets meaningful feedback from her boss. “Emasculated” is such an ugly, gendered term that – especially in the context of Boss talking to her about a direct report – I would give him zero benefit of the doubt.

  22. Snarkus Ariellius*

    I’m itching for an update already!

    I’d also try it another way.  “When Bob is screwing up, specifically how would you like me to handle it?  What do you want me to say to him?”  Then don’t say anything after that.  Don’t suggest anything or comment further.  Let him deal with the silence after that question.

    Having been on the receiving end of this once already, I don’t hold out much hope because his behavior is so deep-rooted.  This guy probably doesn’t even think about what he’s saying or why he feels the way he does.  He just knows something is wrong with this situation, and he’s uncomfortable about it.  

    When I pressed for specifics on why my work performance was problematic, I never got anything beyond nitpicky (margins, font size, facial expressions, the way I walked, etc.) feedback.  If I pressed, I got told I had a bad attitude and didn’t care about my job.  Yes I obviously made my boss uncomfortable and upset, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t come out with the whys and the hows.  (I wonder if she even knew the answer herself.)

    Funny thing is, OP, both of our bosses could have legitimate feedback, but it’s drowning all this other distracting, gendered BS that it’s ruined credibility and believability.  

    1. catsAreCool*

      I don’t understand why people will give a vague criticism and refuse to explain in more detail. Unless the people either like being mean or don’t like you.

      A good manager will tell you what you can improve so that you actually can improve on it.

  23. Things that make you go hmmmm....*

    I recently received feedback from my female boss (I am also female) that I am very smart and direct. Yes, this was “developmental feedback” because apparently these are not compliments for a female manager. It seems being a smart and direct women is off putting for some. You can not make this $#!+ up.

    1. Jeanne*

      You can’t make it up. You think it must be legend until you experience it. I have had a female manager upset with me for trying to increase efficiency and teamwork with other departments.

      1. AnotherHRPro*

        I used to force myself to believe that gender didn’t matter and being a women did not negatively impact how I was perceived. And then one day your eyes are opened and you can’t stop seeing it. Very sad. And what is worse when women do it to each other.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          YES! If nothing else, we women can at least watch what we are saying to each other! Start there.

          Many years ago, I worked in a nursery. WOMEN would come in and tell me it was biologically impossible for me to learn about plants. I did not have the brain capacity to process such information. WOMEN would say this.

          1. Heather*

            I had no idea that the “learning about plants” gene resides on the Y chromosome. I must let my husband know that he will have to take over the garden since I don’t have the brain capacity.

            I’m really going to miss the blueberry plants when they die.

    2. Adonday Veeah*

      Wait, wait, she said it as something for you to correct?! What did she have in mind that you be instead? Dumb and wishy-washy?

      1. Things that make you go hmmmm....*

        I believe I am to be more demure and giggly. Or as I call it, cute and dumb. Ugh! What man has ever been told he is too smart and direct??? It honestly makes my blood boil.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I have worked places where I could not get stupid enough to work there. So I left.
          This may be the case for you, too.

        2. esra*

          My two most awful managers pulled the “too smart and direct” and “need to learn to massage egos a little bit.”

          Uhm, no. I am not here to massage your ego. I am here to do my job well.

    3. Joey*

      Direct is a double edged sword that I hear too and I’m 100% dude. I don’t think it’s automatically gendered. I take it as meaning that I should continue to work on changing my approach to fit my audience. That is direct works well sometimes, but other times another approach may be more effective. But, you have to consider the source.

      1. Joey*

        I wonder if by smart she means that you come off as trying to show off how smart you are. Who knows?

  24. OP*

    OP here – thanks for all the comments so far and the great advice from Allison. I do think this situation is much more about my boss than my direct report, and I’m almost 100% sure my direct report has never said he felt emasculated or gone to my Director about his performance or my management. However, direct report is visibly upset that he isn’t performing up to par so my Director may be reading into that. Unfortunately there are no women above my Director who could help in this case, and our CEO has similar issues with sexist views in the workplace. So pushing back on gendered feedback and asking for more specifics and examples seem the way to go.

    The emasculation comments may be more projection by my Director than anything else. Our CEO works very closely with me, not always keeping Director in the loop, so I spend a lot of time making sure Director feels fully informed and included in my work, even though in many ways I work directly for the CEO. This wasn’t a problem for my former (female) Director who was a great mentor, but is a problem now. In general, I think whatnow captured the situation well when she said “And it makes it all such a delicate, weird situation where poor OP has to tread on egg-shells to deal with pathetic egos.”

    I tend to be pretty self-analytical so am taking the “emasculating” comments to mean that perhaps my direct report doesn’t feel empowered or like he has enough ownership within our portfolio. I am very talkative, so am regularly reminding myself to encourage others to contribute and not dominate conversations. Therefore I’m trying to make sure my direct report feels room to give feedback on how he thinks our overall team can improve (both management by me and overall effectiveness) during our weekly one-on-ones.

    Any advice for managing egos in the workplace would be very welcome – I have a few strategies, but struggle to boost someone else’s confidence when it feels artificial (ie just ego building). However, a more confident boss (and direct report) often means better performance, so I see the value in trying to make others feel more capable, even when continuing to give constructive criticism and regular feedback. It’s a hard balance in an ego-driven office like ours …

    1. fposte*

      You sound very thoughtful and grounded, OP, and you’re rolling with this better than I would.

      To me your “ownership” idea is a good one. Another thing I wonder about is feedback–if he’s genuinely performing below standard, as it sounds like, what’s the best way for him to hear about those weaknesses without getting a daily “that’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong”? Would you be able to basically do a performance improvement plan that isn’t an official PIP by meeting with him once a week, identifying goals with him, and keeping most of the overall feedback for then?

    2. OP*

      Also not sure if this is relevant – Part of why I work so closely with the CEO is because I lead our work in his passion area and I’ve grown the portfolio by more than 5X since I took it over 3 years ago. My Director has never worked in this technical area and comes from a very different background but does at times have great contributions for how his background can improve our strategy. However, my long expertise on our team means that I have often filled management gaps when needed and am seen as the go-to reference person for issues beyond my portfolio, and lead on-boarding of most new staff. So my Director may be threatened by my access to our CEO and my overall performance and leadership of our team, although he praises this type of leadership regularly and gives me great performance reviews. It really depends on his mood for whether I am excelling or “emasculating” others.

    3. Red*

      I don’t have any advice on high-touch management, but you sound like a good person to work with! Good luck.

    4. Red Stapler*

      Personally I would treat it as if your Director was saying something negative about your report rather than about you. The idea that you would start doing your job badly as a way to “fix” a subordinate doing their job badly is just flat out dumb.

      I wouldn’t ask how to fix that at all, it’s not your job to fix someone else’s inappropriate response. If your direct report was repeatedly crying at work you wouldn’t start being crappy at your job to make them feel better, if your direct report was having anger outbursts at work you wouldn’t start being crappy at your job to make them feel better.

    5. Joey*

      I’m guessing you may have done this, but call him in and ask him what’s up? That he seems down and you are concerned about him. Then be quiet. If he doesn’t immediately talk remaining silent will pressure him into opening up. Then listen to what’s got him down. Maybe it’s something that isn’t related to you maybe it’s not. But you won’t know until you give him every opportunity to tell you. Only then can you help.

    6. catsAreCool*

      When I don’t understand something, and I need to (especially a comment on something I need to improve), I make sure to sound nice and friendly, maybe even humble, and then I ask for more details. As much as possible, I try to sound like this is something we’re working on together, something where I am very interested in doing better and am trying to connect on what is wanted.

      Most of the time, I do care very much about what the person wants me to change or do, although, I might also feel irritated and frustrated that the person can’t just tell me what they mean in a way that actually makes sense to anyone but that person. Acting irritated and frustrated rarely improves the situation; it usually makes things work.

      This might not be the most feminist way to deal with things, but it works, and it doesn’t involve batting my eyelashes :)

      Persistent, helpful, nice, and hard-working can get a person somewhere.

  25. Apollo Warbucks*

    Hopefully this is just a really poor choice of word leading to some confusion, otherwise I’ve got no idea where to start expressing what I thinks wrong with the situation. That said I just looked up the definition of emasculated and there are two meanings:

    1 deprive (a man) of his male role or identity.

    2 make (someone or something) weaker or less effective.

    Meaning 1 is completely unacceptable in any circumstance no particular behaviour or attitude should be considered more “manly” than another.

    2 isn’t a definition I realised applied to the word so there’s a remote possibility the boss is using it as a hamfisted way to express genuine concern about the OP’s management style, but I can’t see that being the case given what is said in the letter about other male managers not getting similar feedback.

    I seriously at a loss as to how to even start addressing this, other than the OP sitting down with the director and giving him the chance to express himself better, but who knows if that would help.

    1. Poohbear McGriddles*

      I wondered about that definition, too – but the OP mentioned that the director noted her high level of performance as the “emasculating” action, not how she coached her direct report.

  26. Non-gendered feedback*

    As someone who is frequently described as, “intense, opinionated, and direct”, I have had gendered feedback and non-gendered feedback. The non-gendered feedback has been very helpful, and significantly improved my working relationships with a few people. Generally, it’s a question of matching my energy to that of the person I’m dealing with. So, I don’t have to be “quiet” or “step back”, but I do need to make sure I’m not running a mile a minute, while my counterpart is still stuck at the starting line.

    Saying “emasculate” makes it gendered, saying “intimidate” makes it possible to discuss actual instances, mannerisms, word-choice, etc. that lead to a feeling of intimidation (assuming this is the case, but sounds like it’s not, given the outside feedback received by the OP). I had a similar situation with a male direct report, who generally described me as over-bearing. And yet, my other male direct report, female direct report, female boss, and male peer all felt that I was a great communicator and manager. When he didn’t hit a deadline, my feedback was “picking on him”. When he spent too much time chatting about non-work topics, my feedback was “micromanaging”. Fortunately, he’s no longer with the organization, but it was a rough few monthly trying to be “nicer” so that my legitimate feedback would be taken seriously.

    1. Biff*

      Uuuugh. I have sympathy. I worked with a guy, we will call him FK, for his nickname (it is just as unflattering as you might imagine.) I found out by accident that he was claiming to have finished work that wasn’t been done. He was merely checking files out and then checking them in a few hours later to make it appear than they had been edited. I let my boss know.

      Well, that uncorked a bottle of “I wish I hadn’t.” FK told my boss that I intimidated him, and he was too scared to ask me for help because I’d been too harsh in my peer reviews. My boss told me I was directly responsible for my coworker’s non-work. Coworker laid down the law that I wasn’t allowed to review his work anymore, which my boss accepted as a rational outcome. And furthermore, my boss told me that I needed to stop ‘entrapping’ people since I was a trap door spider just waiting for someone to make a mistake. It was, in a word, horrible.

      It just wasn’t possible to be nice enough to this guy. Everything was a slight or intimidation or harassment. He would talk about doing illegal things outside of work in the breakroom, and was finally implicated in a string of robberies that had been taking place during his suspiciously long (four hour) lunches. This was made extra special as he was a candidate for our local police force.


      I’m sorry you dealt with the same thing. I wish there was a good way to deal with it.

      1. catsAreCool*

        That’s awful, Biff.

        In a sane work environment, reporting that the co-worker was trying to cheat the system would be considered a good thing.

        1. Biff*

          Well, my ex-boss’s tune changed somewhat when the guy was implicated in the robberies. But until then, i was in trouble, my coworker that has reported the four our lunches was in trouble, and FK got away with murder.

  27. whatnow*

    Reason I wrote that OP would be treading on egg-shells was I was trying to think a way to discuss this without offending anyone. For instance going directly to the direct report and talking to them – although that could be misconstrued…

    Could it be better to be direct and say to the manager, actually Bill I found your use of the word emasculate both confusing and offensive? Confusing firstly because I’m not sure what you mean by that or how I am supposed to react to it and offensive as you seem to be saying my work ethic/authority is decreasing a co-worker’s manhood. I feel like I’m being told as a woman that I need to tone down certain behaviors or work less well than I currently do to fit in with a male worker.

    Annoyingly I feel that tiptoeing round male egos is a ‘typical feminine’ trait, or one that has been expected, so that you don’t mess with the status quo- which is on the whole male. It might be better to address it directly instead, and possibly deal with some more workplace ridiculousness. But at least it’s on the table and you’ve been clear about how you feel about it.

  28. ANONCPA*

    I usually think Allison gives great advice but I think you should not specifically seek out a woman who is higher on the food chain. I think this is also, in itself, sexist. I think you should seek out the person best equipped to deal with the regardless of their gender.

    1. Brian*

      I disagree, because a woman higher up on the food chain is so much more likely to have experienced similar challenges, particularly if this is a reflection of broader workplace culture issues. And I think it would be reassuring to know that you wouldn’t have to meet with a male coworker and say “I am experiencing XYZ issue, but first I need to clarify where you stand on sexism/equality/feminism in the workplace to know if your feedback will be valid or absolute garbage”.

      1. Tinker*

        There’s a certain amount of truth to that, although unfortunately the fact that a person is female doesn’t necessarily get around clarifying their position regarding sexism first. There are female MRAs, and on a more practical level it’s still not that uncommon to encounter a woman who believes or professes that sexism don’t real and/or still holds to a less malignant gender essentialism under which differential standards (particularly regarding “soft” image issues) are still permissible. Sad but true.

  29. Kiwi*

    Your boss seems to be suggesting that you are too competent and that this may be disrupting the performance of your male employee. In other words, “women should support, not compete”.
    I can’t see this going anywhere good, career progression wise. Women have a “place”, with your boss. These sorts of attitudes cannot be addressed in a quick face-to-face. A reasoned argument won’t do it.

    Realistically, I would begin scouting out different employment.

    1. nep*

      Yes — a reasoned argument doesn’t tend to get far with people stuck in sexist, racist, or any other -ist mindset.

      1. nep*

        (Didn’t mean I agree with the suggestion to seek other work based on this — just endorsing the comment about closed-minded people.)

    2. AB Normal*

      Yeah, I’m also questioning the CEO’s view based on what the OP said. I’m going by limited information, of course, but what I’m reading is that the OP is a highly valued employee who’d not be reporting to this director, but directly to the CEO, if only she was a woman.

      Depressing, but if I found myself in a situation like that, I’d be networking like crazy to find a company that didn’t have this type of bias (I’m a woman and in my 400+ employees tech company we have a great number female of managers and executives — I wish the OP came to work for us where she could thrive in a women-friendly environment :-).

  30. nep*

    Looking through the comments and back at the original letter again — Seems to me what’s more important than the word the director chose (emasculating) is simply the fact that he feels he’s got to tell a female employee he’s concerned that her excellent performance would be in any way negative for the male direct report. Whatever word he might have chosen there (threatening, intimidating, demeaning, what have you), the sentiment and remarks are screaming with sexism.

  31. sally*

    Unless your boss just fell off the turnip truck he knows exactly what he’s saying. He will continue to be passive aggressive until you knock him down a peg or two.

  32. Various Assumed Names*

    That feedback is so sexist it’s ridiculous. He’s basically saying that male employees should be entitled to feel superior to their female supervisors, and any feedback from a woman should be dismissed since she clearly doesn’t know her place. I agree with Alison’s advice and I’d also bring it to HR if talking to him doesn’t work. Some men are really set on trying to keep the workplace a boys’ club.

  33. Bea W*

    However, he is concerned that because I am very good at my job, I may be emasculating my direct report

    The look that would have unintentinally beset my face upon hearing that would have likely emasculated the manager and any living being with testicles within a mile radius. How do you even…

    1. Jeanne*

      I probably would have been in shock and I most likely would have blurted out I can’t believe you just said that. And I, like you, would not be able to keep the look of contempt off my face.

  34. krisl*

    “However, he is concerned that because I am very good at my job, I may be emasculating my direct report”

    My thought is that this is a terrible view of men. There are plenty of men who can deal with the fact that a manager or co-worker is good at her job. If this is the real problem, than the direct report has some issues. He feels emasculated because she’s good at her work?

    I’m female and good at what I do. The guys I work with seem to be OK with it.

  35. Neil Armstrong*

    What are you doing, sending spaceships to the moon? Maybe try helping your direct report out instead of throwing him under the bus after a few months and not taking responsibility for getting him up to speed. I wouldn’t want to work for a manager who does that. Sounds like you are a selfish manager.

Comments are closed.