When I was but a young pup in the working world, fresh out of college with no concrete plans but about $85,000 worth of post-secondary book smarts, my church offered me a super-duper entry-level job working in their cultural center. The pay might as well have been lint, but it was an opportunity to acclimate myself to “the real world” after four years of worrying about little more than writing papers on Shakespeare and speculating when the Ques and Kappas were going to have probates in the quad. My boss was my pastor’s sister, a very tall, very statuesque, proudly Afrocentric woman with blonde dreadlocks and a demeanor that commanded—shoot, insisted on—respect. I knew just from seeing her around church that she was not the one to be messed with and I was so thankful to have a job (which got my mother off my back), I surely wasn’t planning on being the one to give her any kind of intentional grief.
In retrospect, I don’t even think I made minimum wage after all was said and done, but I worked that position like I was pulling in a six-figure salary with an expense account. I called publishing companies and hustled up books to create a library. I forged and nurtured partnerships with other community-based groups. I set up tours, cold-called folks to collect African-American heirlooms and spent more time combing through dark, dusty archives for research than any reasonably sociable person should. Naturally, the harder I worked, the more demands she placed on me—and the less I could meet her very specific, very lofty expectations. I was always coming up short some kind of way, even though I turned every kind of hustle my little 21-year-old creative mind could conjure to grow the organization and get its name out there. For the last few months before she canned me (hallelujah), she rode me harder than a half-witted camel in the hot desert sun.
That was just the first in a long string of horror stories and plain ol’ nightmarish experiences with female bosses. After the run-in with the Black Brunhilda and a follow-up with a Nigerian dictatress at another job, I wondered, for a fleeting, scary space of time, if it was just sisters that I couldn’t peaceably operate under. Black women have a reputation for being incredibly hard on one another, particularly when they can flex the muscle of a fancy job title to do it. It was a stereotype I never bought into, but I could definitely see where the concept got its root. While my friends with male supervisors got mentorship and professional development, I got around-the-way girl attitude and, following sound scoldings for any perceived mistake, the ubiquitous silent treatment.
But honey child, when I got a taste of white woman tyranny, I really got my tail smacked up, flipped and rubbed down. My first boss following my relocation to Washington, DC was hell bent, fire baptized determined to wear me down. She was emotional. She was compulsive. She was pre-menopausal, beyond melodramatic and moody for days. I could fill up three pages with the shenanigans she pulled just to make my job as hard as her life was. She was every part the reason why men say women shouldn’t be in charge. More than once I caught her in her office following a department meeting, eyes swollen, red and puffy, face the shade of a corny Christmas sweater. But she also inspired the entrepreneur in me to become the one lady—what looks like the only lady—I knew I could work for.
Being a woman—and a business woman at that—I don’t subscribe to the idea that all ladies in positions of power are unreasonable, erratic and overdemanding. Just the ones I’ve had. And to their point, sometimes I can’t knock them, even if I was the bullseye at the receiving end of their obnoxiousness. Women have to wear a dozen masks to appease a dozen different kinds of folks with a dozen different expectations. On demand, we’re expected to be rational and strategic but nurturing and comforting, attractive and approachable without coming off easy or overtly sexual, smart and on point without being pretentious or—God forbid—condescending to any fragile male ego. It’s no wonder homegirl was in her office sobbing her woes into a box of Kleenex. Is it harder to work for a woman than a man? Maybe. I know it was for me. But I also know I’ve been taking copious notes so that if and when I ever have a staff (if I ever want one), I can remind myself that there’s very little glory to being a pitbull in a skirt.