Invisible to Your Boss? How to Deal with Subtle Discrimination

Q. How do you deal with subtle discrimination in the workplace?

I don’t know if this is so much a question, as something I’d love to hear some perspective on. I don’t think it’s sexual discrimination but it’s like I’m invisible to my boss.  I couldn’t figure it out but now other women in the company have talked about experiencing the same thing with him.

What’s interesting to me, is that he is not overt about it. He doesn’t make any jokes, or sexually harass. He even hired me. He is very savvy about it. With me, he has simply ignored me and my work and will not give me any opportunities.  I have excelled despite his giving me no direction and have earned incredible respect throughout the organization with no help from him.

Luckily, I am going to be re-org’d out of his team (but not because of this). I’ve also been arranging “girls lunches” as a way to support women in our field at our company. I am angry, but I also revel in it. It’s only made me stronger and it pushes me to want to succeed even more.

I guess I’m just interested in hearing if you have any experience with this and if you have any advice, if I encounter it in the future. I work in a very male-dominated field and I wouldn’t be surprised if I will face this again in the future.

A.  The answer lies in communication … building relationships around this person and addressing the issue with the person themselves.

I decided to tackle it with a slightly different approach than usual. I have one answer from an expert, one from a “real” 40-something who offered her perspective and another from a man who has let someone go for gender discrimination.

I have also included two posts from the past that speak to the issue. One from a group of 40-something women talking about “inappropriate behavior in the workplace”. They offer up a variety of perspectives from “being one of the guys, to going to HR, to realizing that while it may not bother you… you can help stop the pattern.

“While you may not think something is a huge deal, this guy is more than likely saying/doing the same thing to another woman who might think it’s a huge deal. She could in turn sue the company, and all along, I could have prohibited it by speaking up. Now I realize that not speaking up not only hurts me, it could potentially hurt the company.”

More here:

The second is a post from a previous interview with Carol Frohlinger of Negotiating Women on defining “second generation gender bias” – that which is not intentional but still exists in subtle nuanced ways.

“Second generation gender discrimination can be very insidious. Unlike first generation gender issues, which were intentional acts of bias, second generation gender discrimination are practices that appear neutral on the surface.”

More here:

For the answers today, people focused on how to address an issue with a specific person and navigate your way around the issue through negotiation and networking. I turned once again to Carol Frohligner of Negotiating Women for her expert opinion.  Here is her answer:

A. There’s a lot that I don’t know. For example, does your manager support others, particularly men? What makes you think the behavior is intentional? It may be, but sometimes it isn’t conscious, simply clueless. But, in any case, I think these situations create an opportunity to negotiate. First, you have to prepare carefully; think about:

  • What specifically you want your boss to do (what action you want him to take)
  • What reasons he has to do what you want him to do (the benefits to him and to the company)
  • Your alternatives if he doesn’t (for example, transfer to another group, find a new job, continue to suffer, etc.)
  • Why he might be behaving the way he does (for example, he might be concerned that people will think he’s showing favoritism to you)
  • Based on that information, propose a solution(s) that will meet your needs and his
  • What he might say (pushback)

Schedule the conversation at a convenient time for both of you when you will have uninterrupted time. Be careful to control your emotion – keep your tone professional and upbeat. The preparation you’ve done will equip you to ask for what you want in a way that links your interests to those of the company – that is the best way to get what you want at work. Good luck.

This answer is from a 40-something woman who works as a financial advisor for a investment planning firm:

A. The unfortunate reality is that not all managers have good communication, social and/or managerial skills.   There intent may not be dubious but their skill set could simply be limited.  You will come across this again and again – with both male and female bosses.  My advice: be resourceful and connect with other senior professionals and potential mentors to learn how best to navigate the internal issues and what is required of you.  Networking internally and expanding your exposure to others may be the best way to mitigate his limitations and his lack of support for your growth.

This answer is from a 40-something who heads up a company and spent many years in the corporate world:

A. Make sure that you are right. It exists for sure. I have fired people for it. But I also have seen situations where the problem lies elsewhere. So first interrogate the situation. You have to cross-reference. Find a subtle way of getting at the facts. Speak to peers and people who have been around him for a long time. And I would talk to the person directly once you have done this. Your goal is to not be “invisible” …to get leadership and guidance from this person and make sure that it is not available to you first.

Honesty is the best policy. In an unemotional, extremely non-confrontational way, face up to the person. Tell him, “I will be that much better off if you help me. I respect your authority and I’m looking for guidance and help. Your tutelage and counsel is going to be helpful to me.” And remember, flattery is helpful. This person is more experienced. Overtly tell them that you want to benefit from their knowledge.

Then develop a plan. List goals and agree to a timetable to measure how you met the goal, then re-assess and reset. Define what success looks like. When you know what success looks like you have something to use rather than fear.

I’m an experienced person and you realize there are so many times that you don’t assume the same thing. There are errors in judgment because you don’t know what the other person is thinking. More times than not, it’s the opposite of what you think even if you are attuned. Don’t leave doubts on the table.

A different situation but for example sake, we had a young woman working for us that came from finance. Prior to us, she worked as a business analyst on a male dominated banking floor. We all thought she was quiet … and anyone working for us has to have a voice. But she came from a world where it was “shut up and do your job”. Eight months went by with us wanting her to talk and her thinking she shouldn’t talk. We were 100% wrong. She found her voice and has become an instrumental part of our team. In fact her importance has led to the way we design our structure to allow people to grow.

So talk. If you are not right, you will know it, but you won’t fear it. It’s what the dog hears. If you don’t lay your concerns out you can’t assume everyone knows. Do it in a positive way…position it as for the good of the team vs. for yourself. And listen to your bosses concerns.

At the very least you will get a good realization of whether your belief holds true or not and how much he is or isn’t committed to helping.  If you don’t get a result…reality is, there are going to be instances, regardless of what your actions, where it is what it is. You have to decide whether to say or go.

Would love to hear from more women on this important issue! Feel free to weigh in.

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