I went to a lunch this week to mentor some younger women about workplace inequities, the slightly under-the-radar gender related things that happen in the workplace. Sometimes unintentional….ingrained, unchallenged behaviors that men can partake in in the workplace…but not un-harmful. Some things that came up included: being called sweetie or honey, not being included in informal networking, being the focus of “when are you going to get married” type conversations and feeling excluded but not wanting to “be one of the guys” to get “in”. There were also examples of more obvious harrassment…e.g. clients or other colleagues not including you in emails and conversations because you “are a woman”.
The former may not be ground for a suit, but continuing unchallenged doesn’t do much to change the masculine bias in corporate offices. Younger women are often hesitant to challenge the behavior because they don’t want to seem like a “b*tch” …that they are making a mountain out of a molehill. Many older women have been slowly edged out the workplace so they can’t speak up.
The conversation started with the point that it is a personal decision to speak up. One person suggested that going to HR needs to be done knowing that the HR persons job is to resolve conflict…not necessarily to look out for your best interest. Speaking up has to do with how much it affects you, how you do your job, and further…how it may affect the next woman in your seat.
But…don’t take it personally. Some people say to give it right back to them. Or just be very straightforward and say …”actually my name is x not sweetie.” My favorite advice is from a HR director. She says to act as if they have just told you a ridiculously sexist joke and say with a bit of a laugh in your voice, “that is so inappropriate”. Replying as if it was the joke they must have intended it to be.
There were several conversations on this and other matters but that was not the point of this post….perhaps another day (some great advice on speaking up / harassment here) and how to handle hidden bias here). The point is that after the luncheon a woman in her early 20s, just starting in the workplace, was asked what she thought of the discussion. She said, “It’s all good but I don’t know if I feel empowered enough at 21 to be able to tell someone to stop calling me sweetie.”
I understand it can be hard, but here is where age may have your number. Think about it in a different way… that your age can give you an advantage and reason to speak out. You are there because you bring a new voice. You have permission to challenge. You don’t need to be a jerk. You can use naiveté to your advantage…”I didn’t know they still called women sweetie in the workplace. Are we at Mad Men or at work?” Or again, simply be straightforward.
I know saying this may not help…but you are empowered. You are there and you deserve to be. But having the comfort level to say these things has to do also with developing relationships. Another thing older women talked about at the lunch was that when you have a relationship with someone it’s a lot easier to be honest with them.
You don’t have to be one of the guys to develop a relationship with them; you can just find some common ground. Maybe that guy plays rugby and is obsessed with fantasy football and cars. But he also may like talking about reading, or cooking or his sister / daughter’s latest adventures. Not to be gender stereotypical, but just making a point. The same applies to women…you don’t always like the same things as other women either but you can find some common interested usually.
Listen. Find out what your common ground is. Then you can be more authentic in your discussions, whether it is an inequity or asking advice or brainstorming ideas. Also try practicing “challenging” or responding with empowerment with your colleagues and guy friends before taking it up the hierarchy.