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Monday, June 27, 2022

I don’t like how my female colleagues are treated. How can I support them without being targeted? | Life and style

I work in a recruitment company. I am male. I enjoy my job, I’m quite driven and I’m looking to get promoted within the company. The issue is that I’m starting to notice that my female peers aren’t treated as nicely as us men and I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid I will be made redundant if I speak up as they’ve been making redundancies getting rid of the “inconvenient” people.

I’ve witnessed my female colleagues being put in a position where they had to justify their actions that were the same as other male colleagues. Female managers have to put extra effort into putting their point across and the HR is barely existent. I’d gladly speak to the CEO, but he acts like a bully. I’ve witnessed him excluding people in the pettiest ways. He’d buy everyone coffee, except for one person. It bothers me, but I’m not feeling safe enough to discuss this in the office. I’m afraid I’ll be seen as weak and inconvenient.*

* Edited for brevity.

Eleanor says: It’s good that you’ve noticed this and named it for what it is. A lot of people would prefer not to – they’d find ways to topiary the evidence into something that looks less unfair, choosing to believe it’s a coincidence that the “bad workers” or “difficult people” are women.

The question of what to do next depends on what your goal is, and it’s worth being really specific. One goal might be to confront the people responsible for this culture so they feel challenged and held accountable – like someone’s seen them in their piggish unfairness.

It’s delicious to fantasise about that goal, imagining exactly what you’d say – or even tastier, what they’d say – when you held up the mirror to their behaviour. I think that’s the sort of goal you’re wondering about whether to pursue; you talk about “speaking up”, going to see the CEO, discussing it in the office or even with HR.

Unfortunately, this kind of change has a high “degree of difficulty”.

Think about what we already know: we know the people responsible for this are bad at responding to evidence (otherwise they wouldn’t have this attitude towards women); we know they’re bad at handling conflict (otherwise they wouldn’t pick on people in these petty ways); we know they’re uninterested in the possibility of improving (otherwise there’d be a feedback system or an avenue for anonymous reporting).

With those as our data points for the psychology of the culprits, I’m pessimistic that you’d be able to talk – or confront – them into changing. Besides, if trying to extract accountability from them puts them in a bad mood, it’ll be the women around you who suffer its spray.

But you can still hold on to the goal to change things. Here’s a lesson many people learn when they have to band together under an oppressive eye: you don’t have to announce what you’re doing for it to be an effective form of resistance.

I wonder if you could make it your goal to change things in ways that will – by design – escape the culprits’ notice. I promise you the women in the office are wise to what’s going on. Given that, how can you materially make their lives easier? Are there tasks you can take off their plate; private ways you can give credit for work well done? Are there moments you can increase airtime for women in an interaction – “I think Sandra mentioned this earlier, but …?”

Instead of trying to cut the unfairness off at the source, you could start by trying to minimise its impact on particular people. It takes very little to privately signal to someone “I saw that too”, but to that person, the sense of being seen is anything but small.

In time, these small acts of solidarity might embolden you to do more. The way gender warps your workplace is going to be a lot more complicated than some sexist “bad apples”: together you’ll be fighting a robust history of pay gaps, harassment, stereotyping, and worse.

But if you focus on lessening the way those things affect specific people you might find it less daunting to start making change. Never forget the insight of revolutionary-with-a-guitar Paul Kelly: “From little things big things grow.”

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Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

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