If you’re a woman in leadership, chances are you’ve experienced workplace discrimination due to your gender, even if you’re not aware of it. More likely, you were aware of it (especially if you’ve experienced sexual harassment) and were trying to ignore it so it doesn’t get in the way of your ability to keep your job and/or be taken seriously.
Gender discrimination has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the fact that we had a woman running for president, some transgender kids (and their parents) decided to stand up for their rights, Fox News lost their sexual discrimination suit to Gretchen Carlson, and most recently a brave young woman at Uber blogged about her experiences and how the company did nothing meaningful to protect her. But even though society has at least acknowledged that workplace discrimination exists (which is an advancement we owe to Anita Hill), it still happens far too often and most of us feel powerless to stop it. That’s where we’re wrong.
First, Learn To See Workplace Discrimination And Harassment
For me, harassment and discrimination were things I was viscerally aware of when it happened. I remember when my male colleagues would point at my breasts with an off-hand comment about my buttons, put their hand too low on my back as they ushered me through the door or teased me to see if they could get me drunk and sleep with them the night before my big presentation to “prove women couldn’t handle their alcohol.” In those moments, the world shifted a bit as I realized I wasn’t “one of the guys,” and it brought up anxiety related to a non-work-related assault in my childhood.
I handled it in a variety of ways.
I quit a college internship rather than subject myself to more discomfort. I ignored their touches and tried to walk through doors after them, and I didn’t sleep with them and handled my presentation with professionalism, despite a serious hangover.
At the time, I don’t think I told anyone about these things that made me uncomfortable. In college, I thought I was alone. At work, I was worried my boss would think I was a whiner. At home I worried my husband would believe I was flirting at the office. But the fact that I remember them means that at least I noticed them. How many more situations did I ignore to the point of not noticing them at all? I don’t recall any of my female colleagues sharing these kinds of incidents with me, though I’m sure they all experienced them as well. And if they had told me, I’d probably have advised them to ignore it like I had.
What I would’ve given for a female mentor; someone respected in leadership, who could have created a safe space to help me and my colleagues realize we weren’t alone and that what we experienced wasn’t okay. Someone to talk to HR with me and champion a shift in the culture instead of an adherence to policies.
But I didn’t have such a mentor, and as a result I’m not sure I handled any of my experiences particularly well.
Of course, when I was experiencing workforce discrimination, there were no women in leadership in my company. Short of all-out rape, there were few corporate policies that I knew of that could protect me. Heck, Anita Hill was giving her testimony during my most formative corporate years in the workforce!
Discrimination and harassment make everyone feel powerless. Find your power anyway, we’re depending on you. – Click To Tweet
Second, Activate Women Leaders In Your Company
Today, there are many rules and laws that try to protect women and men from workplace discrimination and harassment, but as this reframing article in Fast Company suggests, “company culture crises are often a product of many small failures,” and if you’re a woman who’s made it into a leadership, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to these small things. It is still too easy, as Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber demonstrates, for Human Resources (HR) to treat sexual harassment issues as a function of compliance rather than culture.
Here’s the thing. If you’re a woman in leadership, I KNOW you’ve experienced workplace discrimination and sexual harassment yourself. I KNOW you’ve pushed a lot of those experiences aside to get where you are today. I KNOW you have more power in your organization and you’ve become “okay” with the little games you have to play to maintain that power. I KNOW you probably believe to some extent that this is “just the way things are.” I KNOW you are fine rocking the boat when arguing over spreadsheets, but are less comfortable on matters of discrimination lest you be viewed as “part of the problem.”
But I also KNOW you care about your company culture and you care about the younger women trying to get ahead without having to go through what you did when you were younger. So if you’re a woman in leadership, please read on and consider what you can do to start a shift in your company culture.
What level of leadership do you have to have in order to make a difference? Well, if you define leadership the way I do, as having an intention and acting to bring it to fruition, we’re all leaders. Here are t things you can do to begin shifting the culture in your company, no matter where you rank in the pecking order:
- Deal with your own triggers around this issue. Yes, you have experiences that still make you uncomfortable to think about, much less feel. But this avoidance isn’t helping you or anyone else deal with these problems. Learning to detrigger the unhelpful emotions related to the discrimination and abuse you’ve experienced – anger, fear, anxiety, guilt – is the single best investment you can make in yourself and your career. Do it now.
- Find women leaders in your company who will agree to meet and have safe dialog. No matter what level you are in, you can approach women above, alongside and below you and invite them to meet and discuss their experiences in a safe space. Choose a private place and set a simple rule: LISTEN FIRST.
- Let each person speak while everyone else listens.
- Validate what the person said by repeating what you heard, without judging what was said.
- Let someone else speak about their experience. Listen. Validate. Repeat. If someone tries to tell the speaker what they should feel or should have done, even with good intent, please gently ask them to stop as this implies judgement. This kind of safe space merely requires listening and acknowledging. It’s a special gift women can give each other, but it takes some of us a little practice to learn not to share our own experience before the other feels validated or give advice to try to “fix” the problem.
- Invite the most senior women you know to form a special team to approach HR. There is strength in numbers. Even though you are all worried about rocking the boat with other male leaders, banding together signals to HR and to those same male leaders that this isn’t a “his word against hers” situation, and that you’re identifying cultural trends that need to be addressed, not trying to single out individuals for retaliation. Tell HR that you’re not seeking retaliation but a serious look at the company culture. Suggest steps such as:
- Building a coalition of male and female leaders to advise HR in the process to understand and shift the culture of the company.
- Create cross-gender teams of employees to explore what kind of discriminatory or harassment behaviors exist in the culture and suggest solutions.
- Conduct a third-party audit of how workplace discrimination and sexual harassment policies work in the company and will they support a cultural shift away from discrimination and harassment.
Now, you and the HR team may be feeling helpless in the face of the fact that workplace discrimination is usually deeply integrated into the business culture, even if sexual harassment isn’t. And how often does culture change? Not often enough, true, but cultures do change, and they are much more likely to change for the better if you treat anti-discrimination efforts as a change initiative instead of a legal compliance issue.
So get smart about how to change. This isn’t just the right thing to do for all the women (and many of the men) in your company, it’s the right thing to do for your career. Change is here to stay and the best leaders will learn to master it.
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