Congratulations! You’ve got the promotion, the higher pay cheque, the fancy designation! Chances are you’ve put in much longer hours than your male colleagues to get these perks but your hard work has paid off and you’re a newly minute manager or senior professional! It’s time to consider how you might use your new powers and privileges.
If you’re focussed solely on your individual goals, you can bolster your success by upholding the patriarchal norms of the workplace, imitating the behaviour of powerful men and distancing yourself from female colleagues. You can question younger women’s complaints of unequal treatment with comments such as, “I’ve succeeded without support. I don’t see why you should need any“, “Women-friendly policies undermine the cause of gender equality” or “No one likes a whiner. Quit complaining if you want to get ahead.”
Or you can contribute to making your workplace more gender equitable and support the success of all women employees (yourself included). You can do this by listening to junior women when they recount experiences of being stereotyped, side-lined or harassed, acknowledging gender inequality and exploring ways to effectively undermine it. Here are seven suggestions on how you may do so:
- Examine the terms and conditions of employment for all women and not just those associated with your pay grade. Are maternity benefits available to everyone irrespective of the nature of their contract? Is there a creche in your workplace? Can all staff members use it?Ask questions about working conditions and health and safety policies for janitorial and kitchen staff. Bring this knowledge into discussions about employee welfare and corporate social responsibility.
- Enforce a no interruption policy in meetings. Research undertaken by Adrienne Hancock and Benjamin Rubin at George Washington University suggests that women are twice as likely to be interrupted than as men. They found that within a three-minute conversations, women, on average, interrupted men just once, while interrupting other women 2.8 times.Men interrupted other men twice and interrupted women 2.6 times. In short, women often don’t get to finish making their point. Having a no interruption policy, an American writer and television producer Glen Mazzara found, not only enables women to be heard, it makes the entire team more effective by building listening skills and providing time for reflection. It also allows new ideas a fair hearing.
- Practice amplification: Amplification was effectively used by female white house staff during Barack Obama’s presidency. Frustrated at being overlooked by the largely male ‘in-group’ who were prominent in the presidential campaign, they implemented the strategy of repeating a point made by another female colleague and endorsing it.When the same point is repeated by two or three team members it becomes harder to ignore. An important strategy in amplification, however, is to give credit to the original person who floated an idea (using phrases such as ‘as — said’ or ‘— has just made an important point’).
- Model Assertive Communication: Women often let themselves down through their communication, a result of a lifetime of being socialised to be compliant. Verbal pitfalls common to women include posing a statement as a question, deflecting praise and apologising unnecessarily. Find ways to overcome your own unassertive communication habits and encourage others to do so.Here’s my experience of being alerted about my ‘sorry’ habit by a supportive manager:Some months into my first job when I knocked on her door with the words, “I’m sorry, d’you have a minute?” my boss, a wise and talented professional, asked me why I had opened our conversation with an apology. She suggested that I record all the times I said ‘sorry’ over the next month.The results were striking: to the man on the bus who stood too close for comfort, “Sorry, can you please make some room?“; to a colleague who hadn’t met a deadline, “Sorry, can I have that report now?“; to two people who were chatting audibly at the cinema, “Sorry, I can’t hear the movie“. In short, as my manager put it when she read the list, ‘Sorry for asking for my rights.
Also Read: A Crash Course on Workplace Gender Biases
- Give (and Take) Credit Where it is Due. While it is good managerial practice to praise a colleague’s accomplishments immediately and publicly (irrespective of gender), as Kieren Snyder’s study of performance appraisal in technology companies indicates, women receive significantly less positive reinforcement at work than men. To make the situation worse, women tend to be poor at taking credit. “Oh, it’s nothing“; “No big deal“; “I didn’t do that much” are common ways in which we minimise our contributions. Therefore, it’s crucial to draw attention to the achievements of women.Take the public praise policy further: encourage younger women to take the credit due to them: at meetings, at appraisals, at the staff canteen and on email list-serves. I’ve found that ignoring childhood messages, not to ‘show-off’ and sharing my achievements yields unexpected rewards.Some years ago, I had been feeling somewhat alone and isolated at work when I received news of the publication of an edited anthology to which I had been a contributor. Silencing several thoughts on the lines of, “It’s only a chapter, not an entire book“, “How many people will be interested anyway?” or “Spamming colleagues is unlikely to make me popular.” I sent an email to the university’s listserve, beginning, “It gives me great pleasure to announce the publication of —” followed by a brief description of the anthology and my chapter.
Before the week ended, several colleagues had expressed interest in reading my chapter, one had included it in his course syllabus and two others had reverted with comments that lead to lively conversations and later to strong and supportive collegial relationships. Needless to say, my earlier feelings of isolation reduced considerably. When I shared my initial misgivings with a supportive male colleague, his response was telling. “As a contributor, isn’t it your responsibility to promote the anthology?” he asked.
- Practice Zero Tolerance of Sexual Harassment. No matter which side you support, the debate currently raging in Indian academia has shown us that sexual harassment is ubiquitous. Not all harassers are star performers but many can be.Preliminary results from my research in the technology industry and in higher education suggest that organisations often treat such individuals with leniency for fear of losing talent. Conciliation is often encouraged in the interests of ‘maintaining harmony’ in the organisation. This is a dangerous, ineffective and unethical strategy that increases women’s sense of anxiety and isolation in the workplace.Managerial support is crucial for victims. Managers can provide believing eyes and ears, explain policies and procedures followed in investigations, and importantly, mitigate the stress associated with reporting harassment.
- Be prepared for a backlash. When you educate your colleagues about gender bias and explore ways to overcome if you’re likely to face resistance in the form of anger, ridicule and subtle or even overt forms of discrimination. While men are rewarded for being strong decisive, uncompromising leaders, women often get criticised for similar behaviours and honoured with adjectives such as bossy, shrill and hysterical (recall Donald Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ comment about Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate that was ostensibly about policies and agendas). When you hear yourself being described in this manner, take heart; you’re doing something right.Cultivate friendships with like-minded female colleagues and male allies. Join an online or offline forum (or start one) to discuss work-related gender issues. One of the best strategies to deal with the isolation that we might feel when we live by our feminist values is to create community. As a pioneering anthropologist and ‘bossy woman’ par excellence once (almost) said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, ‘bossy women’ can change the world.” (with apologies to Margaret Mead).
Featured Image Credit: Wall Street Journal