Thursday, September 10, 2015

3 Ways To Stop Sexism Now

If I were a man in the modern workplace, I would be confused about how to treat my female colleagues.

I would want to treat them politely, just the same as everybody else. But sometimes being polite can also be perceived as sexist, overly personal or condescending. For example:
  • I wouldn't know if I should hold open the door for them, or let them walk in through a doorway first.
  • I wouldn't know if I should ask them about their families and kids.
  • I wouldn't know if I should offer them help or not with a work assignment.
The list of confusing situations goes on and on. Can one make a joke? Can one ask a female colleague to do something, if they are not a subordinate? Can one mentor a female subordinate, without that being perceived the wrong way?
The first thing to know is the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they want to be treated.
But of course if things were all that simple, we wouldn't need a whole bunch of specific rules, right?
Let's face it, complication is a part of the picture, because we are all human. Misunderstanding comes with the territory.
  • Most of us are set in our ways. It's tough to put oneself in somebody else's shoes, and then we're surprised when we don't understand one another.
  • We are controlled by our unconscious drives. We aren't aware of what we aren't aware of, which means that other people see us as we cannot even see ourselves.
  • We are shaped by culture and environment. Our parents, our friends, our teachers and our peers all influence how we think about things. The influence of culture is often so taken-for-granted as to be invisible.
  • It's genuinely difficult to understand the opposite sex. We will never, ever stop debating whether women and men think differently or not and once you add layers of class, race, religion and nationality into the picture, the complexity grows exponentially.
  • We are all very busy, and the busier and more stressed-out one is, the more rigid one's mind becomes. Anxiety actually makes the brain shut down and roll into defensive mode.
So I get it. But still, here are 3 fairly straightforward things I feel pretty confident about suggesting here, regardless of whether one is male or female.
Because we often forget: A woman can be sexist against other women. Men can be sexist against other men. A woman can be sexist against men, too.
Here are some things I personally keep in mind. I don't pretend to have invented them, nor to be a perfect practitioner.
But they are important. The big incentive is that they help you avoid unnecessary problems at work at a minimum. At a maximum they provide you with the strength and stability you need to achieve an executive-level position.
  • Know what things other people are likely to find offensive, and do not do them. You don't have to overthink this; just start by thinking about the other person as a person; know what things are typically not okay; and really stop to consider how they might feel before you act.
  • Don't take it personally when other people are offensive. Most likely it has nothing to do with you, and it is also possible that you are misreading them.
  • Calmly and clearly communicate to other people about behaviors you will and will not tolerate. Often people don't say anything, and then they expect the other person to magically know what is weighing on their mind. Also, choose your battles; if you frequently feel like there is a problem, that particular environment might not be worth your time.
Beyond this, what specific behaviors do I find sexist at work? Honestly I find that most people are pretty careful about this. But if there's anything that bugs me, it's condescension. For example, take my profession: Many think communication is somehow natural, automatically female, and not really a skill - especially when women do it. I think communication is pretty challenging!
What else? It's things that are so very subtle they escape ordinary notice. But when men talk to men, almost over the women's heads, I find that very annoying. Or when there is this assumption that women will somehow, again, automatically play the role of "office housewife," like making plans for group events, or bringing food or even cleaning up after we've eaten together, that just drives me up the wall.
I invite everyone join the conversation. What do you see as hidden sexism at work? What do you find confusing or unclear? What would you recommend as a way to make things fairer?
This topic can generate discomfort, I know. We've all seen other people at their best and worst. So here's a plea to be respectful. Your professional colleagues want to hear what you have to say.  
Photo by st. steele via Flickr (Creative Commons). All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.