By Christina Uticone 2017-02-03 13:19:58
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, which way is the cafeteria? SCHOOL NUTRITION IS A WOMAN’S WORLD—THAT’S NOT EXACTLY A BIG SECRET. It’s even right there in the nickname: “lunch ladies.” You yourself, SN reader, likely work with a bunch of broads, a gaggle of gals, a warren of wonderful women who out-number the men by, well, a lot. The women-centric workplace is a unique space with its own set of expectations, challenges and benefits. Even as more men enter the profession, school nutrition is still dominated by women. Let’s take a peek at what it looks like when women rule the world...well, this particular world, anyway. CLICKING VERSUS CLIQUE-ING Mean girls and social cliques. These are such ubiquitous forms of female relationships; they come up time and again in pop culture, whether it’s movies like “Mean Girls” and “Heathers” or even a fall episode of the popular NBC drama “This Is Us.” Even when not taken to its most bullying or ostracizing extent, there is tendency among women to form tight and exclusionary bonds. One of the most important skills required to succeed in school nutrition is the ability to work as a member of a team, but what happens when mean girl behavior or the formation of cliques creates interpersonal conflict? How can you nip it in the bud? In Maine’s Windham Raymond School District, Director Jeanne Reilly, DTR, SNS, tries to staff her sites with strong managers who possess proven team-building skills and who are fair and consistent with all staff. Reilly finds this has been successful in “busting the ‘mean girl’ mentality.” Another strategy is to move staff out of their comfort zones, whether for a short-term assignment or a permanent staff realignment. “Along the same line, we mix people up during staff trainings. We make sure employees are in work groups with people from other schools; this fosters a district-wide team mentality and builds relationships,” she explains. If you observe cliques forming among staff teams, it’s also crucial to look at the underlying reasons, advises Cleta Long, EdD, SNS, director of Bibb County (Ga.) Schools. “Usually women get along fairly well,” she notes. “When new employees or personalities are trying to fit in, in most cases there’s a smooth transition. But it can become disruptive when the status quo is threatened or changed.” And it doesn’t matter if that threat or change is real or merely perceived, Long observes. “In the workplace, there is an unwritten, and often denied, hierarchy of position. When this changes and the status quo is disrupted, suppressed personality characteristics may emerge.” Whether in the office or kitchen, jockeying for position can prompt a dynamic shift in which one individual is targeted to deliberately cause divisiveness or a newbie simply is not welcomed or accepted. From a human resources standpoint, it’s important to create an atmosphere of accountability, while also fostering a sense of togetherness, says human resources professional Peggy Blistain. Make it clear to the disruptors among you that work comes first, she advises. They need to hear you tell them: “You’re here to do a job, so treat your coworkers with respect and be polite.” Blistain encourages supervisors to “Make it clear to your staff that they don’t have to like everyone; they don’t have to be best pals. But they do have to work together effectively.” While the nature of conflicts might be different when it’s a group of women, says Blistain, the approaches to conflict resolution are going to be largely the same, regardless of gender. INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL: BRIDGING VENUS AND MARS Brace yourselves for this next factoid: Women and men often see things differently, and that can lead to conflict! Whoa—who knew that before reading this article?! In all seriousness, when men work alongside women in a woman-centric workplace, this can present a unique set of challenges. A classic “gender war”—the male-versus-female power dynamic—has the potential to disrupt your team, particularly when the woman is in charge. “One of the least-developed and most difficult issues in the workplace related to gender is the relationship between women and men when the woman is the supervisor,” says Long. “This issue seems to be growing, and it seems that both older and younger women are less able to cope with it.” While men also struggle with this dynamic, they are becoming more assertive in expressing their frustrations, she notes. “It’s become an issue in human resources that needs more training.” In the school nutrition profession, directors and supervisors have become more comfortable discussing the frustrations of generational differences and how to cope with them, but concede that they often ignore the elephant in the room, when teams have wildly lopsided gender compositions. Jeanne Reilly calls these potential battle of the sexes really tough.” For insight into this particular intersection of gender dynamics and the workplace, we turned to Dr. Sarah Damaske, an assistant professor of Labor & Employment Relations, Sociology and Women’s Studies at Penn State’s School of Labor & Employment Relations. “Most occupations are typically what we think of as being segregated by gender; we use the term ‘occupational segregation’,” explains Damaske. “One thing that attracts people to these gendered positions is the expectation of fitting in, of there being people ‘like’ them. But the more gender-segregated an occupation is, the more likely that the pay is low for the given level of education—female-dominated fields get paid less.” Damaske says that a changing economy is driving men to consider female-dominated fields that they might not have been attracted to 10 or 15 years ago. So, what happens when men start entering a female-dominated profession? From a sociological standpoint, Damaske says that current research indicates a faster track to the top for some. “There is some really good research that suggests when a man enters a female-dominated position, they are more likely to get promoted up the line because there is an expectation that this is not the ‘usual’ job for him, that he ‘needs’ more authority,” reveals Damaske. “A good 15 years of research documents this again and again. We call it ‘the glass escalator’—women hit the glass ceiling, but men get on this glass escalator and move up, often prematurely. Research indicates that African-American and Hispanic men don’t hit the escalator at quite the same pace as their white counterparts, but they all have better access to it than women.” As with so much about interpersonal workplace dynamics, one solution to longstanding problems between genders is communication. “I think everyone—male and female—values direct and honest communication,” says Reilly, “But men seem to be naturally predisposed to [this style], with less passive-aggression, less beating around the bush.” Long agrees. “When women lack confidence, they resort to covert competitiveness and passive aggression. This can be particularly dangerous in a confined area, like a kitchen, where sharp objects are readily available,” she notes, only partly kidding. Supervisors can help to address gender-based (and other) conflicts in women-centric workplaces by raising their awareness of some of the darker sides of this particular dynamic. According to Long, women have a tendency to be: » protective/territorial; » generally competitive, even though they will not self-identify as such; » accustomed to being the center of focus; » the decision-makers at home » frequently jealous, insecure and easily threatened; » passively resentful of authority. But awareness in a vacuum won’t ease a tension-filled kitchen. Supervisors need to apply this insight by developing strategies to address the characteristic that seems to be rearing its head at the time. How do you deal with an employee who is jealous of the attention and praise lavished on an artistically inclined coworker? The same way as you would the staffer who won’t train the new guy, because she’s territorial? Yes—to a certain degree, you handle all scenarios in a similar fashion: with a calm demeanor, respect and empathy that is tinged with no-nonsense expectations. Awareness of the emotions that are driving those behaviors will help you with the empathy part. AGING GRACEFULLY IN PLACE For women working in a physically demanding workplace, simply growing older presents its own set of challenges, says Blistain. This can affect both personal performance and how one functions as part of a larger team. “Menopause means lots of changes and mood swings, but physical changes can start much earlier than that,” notes Blistain. “As you age, you’re more tired. It’s harder to stay on swollen feet for long periods. Or maybe you can’t lift the heavy trays that weren’t a problem even a few years ago. Women might not be intending to be ‘difficult,’ it’s just that these changes lead to frustrations coming to the surface. When you add folks of various ages, and various stages of aging into the mix, things can get interesting.” Long agrees, having observed how women’s specific life stages and benchmarks affect their bodies, minds and emotions in the school nutrition workplace. “Women in their twenties struggle to find direction in both career and family, while the thirties bring babies—or raising babies—often while trying to climb the career ladder,” she notes. By the late forties, women start feeling stereotypically “middle-aged.” Often called “the Prozac years” by sociologists. “The body is changing, life is changing. Moods and temperament are being affected by changing hormones,” she says. Don’t be surprised if your kitchen environment becomes a hotbed of conflicting emotions. Some women report suffering personality changes, depression, anger and general anxiety, says Long. Other common characteristics of aging that affect workplace productivity include an inability to be focused and subsequently accomplish less, as well as being more distractible and unable to manage time. In some cases, relationships in the kitchen suffer and the workplace can become downright hostile. Long reports that as many women approach 60, they become calmer, while also being less tolerant of petty drama and giving in to a tendency to speak their mind, in very plain language. “As women, we need to be aware of what others are experiencing and consider it when reacting to challenges and determining outcomes,” she advises. “Remember, we will all be there someday.” BALANCING ACT In order to navigate and succeed in the unique school nutrition sphere, women are expected to embody traits that are not necessarily easy to integrate, says Elizabeth Campbell, MA, RD, a consultant with a background in organizational behavior, who now works closely with school nutrition professionals. “It’s really kind of poignant, how women in school nutrition are pulled between this very business-oriented mindset, and the expectation to provide love and nurturing—‘making food with love,’ if you will,” Campbell notes. “They are running a business based on numbers, where things have to make sense financially, but then you have to be complex, multidimensional and wear those different hats in order to be successful.” That said, women in school nutrition are uniquely suited to the task, asserts Campbell. “It’s almost a benefit to be a female in this profession, given the need to multitask, to move seamlessly between nurturing and caring on one hand, and business and financial decisions on the other. But it can also take a toll.” She recounts a period when she worked as director of internal operations at the Food Bank of Central New York. “Most of my team was female, and what worked for us was creating a rapport, an emotional connection; identifying our strengths and weaknesses and building each other up. There were fewer egos, and there was a willingness to accept—and help improve—individual weaknesses, while assigning tasks based on individual strengths.” Campbell reflects on the dynamics she’s observed in working with school nutrition professionals. “People underestimate what it means to deliver a school meal, with so many regulations, on such a large scale, with so much complexity in the final product—not to mention the shoestring budget—in an atmosphere where so many people have opinions about food and kind of an ‘anyone can cook’ attitude,” she notes. “Because it’s a female-dominated profession, it’s hard not to feel like women are, in turn, underestimated.” We can’t control whether others underestimate us, but we can start with not underestimating ourselves—as women, as school nutrition professionals, as wives, mothers, daughters and friends. Give yourself a little space to learn and grow from the fellow Venutians and the Martians in your midst at work. “HE SAID, HE SAID, HE SAID” SN reached out to three “lunch dudes” for their thoughts on being a minority in the school nutrition workplace. Once we assured them that this was not a trap, they were happy to share their reflections. 1) Working with 90% female staff and team members has made me more aware of the health and social challenges that women face. Each year, my team recognizes Breast Cancer Awareness Week; we wear pink aprons and remember team members whom we’ve lost. Regarding our children in the district, I love that my team members are the extra moms and tias (aunts) that students turn to for guidance and emotional support. It warms my heart to see their personal interactions and hear my employees refer to our customers as their own kids.—Dr. Robert Lewis, SNS, El Monte City (Calif.) School District 2) There is a lot more male inclusiveness compared to years ago. Sometimes I’m the only man in the room in a lot of meetings. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it definitely gives you a different perspective. I always joke with my male colleagues when we go to SNA conferences that there is never a line for the men’s room!—Chris Burkhardt, SNS, Lakota Local School District, Ohio 3) As a man in a mostly woman’s field, I have the advantage of sticking out. I find that people tend to remember me when I meet them. I’d like to think it was because of my sparkling personality, but it probably has more to do with representing a small percentage of the profession. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some really fun, spirited women who like to tease me about being a man in the kitchen. You know, the “now this is an oven” and “this is a dishwasher” kind of things. I have a good time with them and I usually get my own jabs back in, but overall I have been very well received.—Jason Carter, Siloam (Ark.) Springs Public Schools SUGGESTED READING Interested in learning more about gender and the workplace? Check out some of the following resources: » The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild A look at the “emotional work” we do in our jobs. In this case, Hochschild looks at flight attendants—another profession heavily dominated by women—and gives us insight into how our feelings help, and hinder, at work. Available at major online retailers » Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal Complex and absorbing, this exploration of “women’s work” (paid, and unpaid) is a provocative and witty view of gender and economics. Available at major online retailers » Institute for Women’s Policy Research This leading U.S. think tank focuses on the quantitative and qualitative analysis of public policy through a women-centered lens in five key program areas: Employment, Education and Economic Change; Democracy and Society; Poverty, Welfare and Income Security; Work and Family; and Health and Safety. http://www.iwpr.org Christina Uticone is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas, and a contributing editor for SN.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.