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Women Leaders, Bosses, Colleagues and Mentors: Can We Relate?

By Miriam Grunstein - US Mexico Center. Baker Institute
Non-Resident Scholar


By Miriam Grunstein | Non-Resident Scholar - Mon, 08/07/2023 - 11:11

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Just yesterday, I was interviewed for a position in a consulting firm by a woman whom I’ve known for over 30 years. We met in law school in the mid-’90s. Zounds! It was during the last century that we were classmates in law school and we are near the end of the first quarter of this one. Time passes unforgivingly and, during the interview, we mentioned that we have and continue getting older. Further, in my particular case, I was considerably older than my law classmates, since I pursued a legal career following the completion of a notably unprofitable Ph.D. in comparative literature at NYU. Having obtained my doctorate, I came back to Mexico to the measly income of the literati, which was markedly insufficient to cover the expenses of my one incurable and uncontrollable addiction: equine cocaine. My fierce love of horses made me a lawyer, to wit, of the energy sort. 

In Mexico, students enter law school at the age of 18. I was 31 when I joined them in their pursuit of guarding law and order, which fortunately, generally speaking, also allows a handsome income to provide for ourselves, family and, in my own particular case, horses. 

The woman I spoke to yesterday, like myself, became an energy lawyer. And there are another number of similarities between us: we are both smart, successful, pushy, outspoken and thrive in competitive environments. However, there is one interesting difference between us: I am 13 years her elder. 

Do I want this woman to be my boss? 

Male-dominated stereotypes would yowl NO, while foreboding the inevitable “cat fight” while sharing the limited room on the corporate ladder. Also, given my seniority, it would be expected that I should aspire to fill her position rather than being hired by her as a subordinate. But no. These issues were addressed candidly during yesterday’s conversation and we agreed that, should it be the case that I join her firm, we could engage in a collaborative rather than in a competitive liaison. Although this may sound like clichéd hogwash, we agreed that, at this point in our careers, and given the tremendous pressures that the energy business, as others,  entails, we’d rather partner and focus on getting stuff done the right way, rather than engaging our egos against one another. Whether this will happen, only time and experience will tell. But it feels right to be able to talk about it. It is a positive sign that we addressed the fact that our strong personalities may collide and it feels even better that we can derail confrontation by concentrating on what really matters: the excellence of the results, by applying our similar but also different talents. That is so much better than coating possible conflicts with sweetened sorority discourse. 

If we agree to work together, she will be my boss. But either of us can be leaders and colleagues in different contexts. No one can understate the value of fine leadership and tight collegiality when huge projects and material risks are involved. And, notwithstanding her younger years, she might be my mentor. Generation gaps are often advantageous if they lead to a wider perspective on strategy-making and problem-solving. It is true that experience endows one with perspective on how things have been done while youth may show angles about how things could evolve in the future. However, it is also true that seniority allows one to identify the signs of similar cases with comparable outcomes, while younger minds may find that aspect which might change the results.

Still, there may be issues that will have to be addressed “in cold blood” regardless of the time of our acquaintance and personal empathy. Salary proposals must be made and accepted based on “market value,” which sounds outright dehumanizing but that’s the stuff of which business is made. If it’s attractive, I’ll accept. If not, a professional declination will be in order. I don’t expect her to make me a higher or a lower offer because of my XX chromosomes. She should not expect that I will be less or more demanding because of the same. If a man in fact supersedes me in competence for that position, he should get it with no hard feelings from this end. 

We also spoke of empathy which, together with kindred minds, makes for solid work relationships. Humans, of either gender, have “issues” and, in my experience, any boss can be a “bitch.” Are women more prone to empathy than men? The generalization is, at best, an “iffy” one. Women who have gone through profound and honest periods of reflection are aware of the hardships of lack of inclusion. Other women simply use the “sorority” banner just as a tactic to get ahead. Shame on them. 

Come what may, whether yesterday’s interview amounts to a working relationship or not, it has made me reflect on how two women, who 30 years ago were classmates, are now industry leaders in their own right. Whether under the same roof or not, the best is yet to come for us and women like us. It is fine to be smart, successful, pushy, outspoken and to thrive in competitive environments.

Photo by:   Miriam Grunstein

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