“Actually,” She Said, “He Works for Me.”


Let’s agree that gender stereotyping still exists. We may try to suppress the subconscious image of political leaders, doctors, and CEO’s as male, but that’s what pops into our heads when we hear those professions. What’s ironic is that I’m the CEO of an investment company, so, if I struggle with this, I suspect others must too.

One of the most ubiquitous forms of stereotyping is when someone (whether male or female) assumes that a woman working with a male colleague is working for him. In my case, people of both sexes ask me if I work for David, the partner with whom I co-founded our firm. When Ava, a well known dermatologist in Los Angeles, bought a large practice, most patients assumed that she was working for the selling doctor, who was male. According to Marsha, a top executive at a medical center, the doctors often defer to the male nurse in the operating room, who is often junior to all the female nurses present.

Does it really matter that this occurs? I think so. Such remarks can be annoying at best, but also, at times, demeaning and confidence-eroding. The literature strongly suggests there is a benefit to explaining to the speaker, whether innocent or intentionally discriminatory, that he or she is mistaken.

However, even if they want to confront such stereotypes, research shows that most women, regardless of their status in an organization, are reluctant to actually do so.

We don’t need to over-think this. Whether the person is making an innocent mistake or being actively patronizing, just answer directly about your position — while keeping your tone friendly and open. For instance, when people assume David’s my boss, I usually just say something like, “Actually we co-founded the company together,” and move on. Even for powerful women, there is a cost in antagonizing a client, a prospect, or a peer. Depending on your tone, the response “I’m the boss” or “He works for me” may sound angry or overly defensive. Sue, an accomplished scientist and leader of a well-known research lab, told me, “I don’t make a big deal if they don’t realize it’s my lab, but I correct them, often with a joke, and then move on.”

You can also make your response less direct — perhaps by using the politician’s strategy of answering a question by referring to something that wasn’t in the original query, such as “we started the company eight years ago when I felt we had the right product.” Or if you prefer to make more of a point, you might say, “You seem like such an open minded person. I would have thought you’d guess right away that I’m the CEO.” (Or “his supervisor,” or “the chief consultant on the job,” or whathaveyou.) This approach appeals to the person’s sense of him or herself as egalitarian, which Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Kathryn A. Morris, and Stephanie A. Goodwin have described as a very effective strategy in their Academy of Management paper.

Then there are the times that actions speak louder than words. Laura, a high-ranking attorney, remembers walking into a client meeting to take a deposition, only to be asked for some coffee by the client. Although fuming inwardly, she got the coffee, then sat down to begin the deposition. The client apologized profusely.