Warming Up the “Chilly Climate” for Women in the Workplace

sandlerHello! Been a while. What better way to ease myself back into blogging than to spend some time acknowledging a trailblazer for women’s rights in education! Last week I went to a presentation at the College of Education given by Bernice Sandler, a longtime activist for eradicating gender discrimination in academia. I didn’t realize at first that this woman is actually kind of a big deal, but quickly caught on during her introduction: among other accomplishments, Dr. Sandler is a Senior Scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in DC; she was recently inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; and perhaps most famously, as one of the law’s key developers and champions, she is referred to as the “godmother of Title IX.”

In fact, soon after she earned her doctorate in the 1970’s– also at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, where I study– she filed a lawsuit against the university for sex discrimination! It soon became a class-action suit, involving 250 institutions. She told a funny story upon taking the podium. When the College invited her to speak, Sandler thought that whoever issued the invitation must not have known that she had once pressed charges against the institution. She was a bit nervous about coming to speak here, so she decided to be totally aboveboard about it. As she met the Dean, Donna Wiseman, for the first time she said up front, “You know, I filed a lawsuit against the University of Maryland for gender discrimination.” And without missing a beat, Dean Wiseman responded, “Good for you!” So perhaps it’s a sign that things have changed around here.

Unfortunately, things aren’t changing as fast as they should be. And it actually may be due to the fact that in this country where gender discrimination is both gauche and illegal, discrimination carries on in subtle, not often measurable ways. Dr. Sandler claimed that feminist movements may have lost a lot of their steam because we don’t have “horror stories” of sexism anymore; therefore we have less to incite us to active protest.

To demonstrate the sluggish progress toward personal and professional progress for women, Dr. Sandler cited a study by Jo Handelman where a stack of identical resumes were sent out to universities across the country, half of them with a man’s name on it and half with a woman’s name. The researcher asked if the universities would consider hiring this person as a faculty member. Disappointingly, the hypothetical male candidate was found to be more hirable, and when the female candidate was considered hirable, she was offered less money. Not only that, but some respondents even expressed doubt about the truth of the woman candidate’s accomplishments. (You can read more about the study here.)

When was the study published? 2012.

Unfortunately, the issue runs deeper than simple prejudice against women. Everyone– men and women– hold deeply rooted beliefs about gender roles. Even those who are deeply committed to equity have unacknowledged conceptions about how genders should act. Women can be viewed as the symbolic wife, the nurturing mother, the dutiful daughter, the secretary, a potential sexual partner. And, of course, sometimes we want to hold these roles; these roles constitute our identities. However, when we’re at work or at school, we want to be seen as what we are: professionals. And so it gets frustrating when compliments from male colleagues are more likely to pertain to our attractiveness than our effectiveness. (The reason, by the way, that Dr. Sandler filed a suit against UMD was that, when she discussed with a professor the possibility of applying for a faculty position after receiving her doctorate, the professor discouraged her, saying that she “came on too strong for a woman.”)

What is perhaps even more alarming than the fact that everyone has unconscious beliefs about gender roles, is that women often enact their role as the weaker sex. Ask a man how he got his job, and he’ll say that he earned it, worked for it, deserved it. Ask a woman, and she’ll say that she was lucky. (Sheryl Sandburg tells a similar story about a college course she took with her brother, and with a female friend. Though her brother studied the least of the three of them, he felt most confident about his performance on an exam. If you haven’t already, you can watch Sandburg’s great TED talk here.)

Historically, men speak more assertively and women are softspoken and nurturing. However, Sandler claims, these speaking styles should not be viewed as black and white, good and bad. Clearly, speaking assertively is not always appropriate, whether you are a man or a woman. Sometimes you are in a context (teaching, perhaps) when you don’t want to simply authoritatively dictate, but you would rather build consensus and participation. Both genders should therefore become fluent in both manners of speaking, argues Sandler. Both men and women should be comfortable with leading sometimes and facilitating other times, depending on the context, and manners of speaking should not be associated with one gender or the other.

At this point in her talk Dr. Sandler offered several strategies for dealing with subtle (or blatant) discrimination in the workplace. Most of these strategies make sense for anyone– they don’t need to be employed only by women, and they certainly don’t need to be used only in response to gender discrimination.

1. If someone interrupts you, just keep talking. Yes, it’s awkward. But just keep talking. If the interrupter persists, turn to him or her and say, “I wasn’t finished,” and then finish.

2. If someone tells a sexist or sexual joke, look at the joke-teller deadpan and say, “I don’t get that joke. Can you tell it again?” Upon re-telling, say, “I still don’t get it. Can you repeat?” If the joke teller doesn’t realize that s/he is being a jackass by that point, simply respond with a curt “Oh.” and walk away. (I don’t know why, but I was laughing at this one for several minutes. There’s something about playing dumb in order to highlight idiocy that strikes me as hilarious.)

3. If someone calls you out for being too strong/too smart/too assertive, flash them a brilliant smile and say, “I knew you were going to say that!” If they call you a flaming feminist, just tell them, “It’s probably only going to get worse!”

4. This one may not be as feasible in real life, but sure had us in stitches. If someone says something obnoxious to you, take out a folder and write in big letters on the front “SEXUAL HARASSMENT NOTEBOOK.” Turn to the harasser, making sure s/he sees the notebook cover, and say, “Excuse me, I’m doing some research on sexual harassment, and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions?” The person will be so caught off-guard they might actually say yes, so you might want to be prepared with a question or two. A good one to start with is, “Of all the women here, how did you pick me?”

5. The Letter. This one is a bit more practical. If in a meeting you propose an idea that no one acknowledges, but then later a male colleague offers the SAME idea and everyone warmly approves it, you can write a letter to your supervisor/department chair, composed of the following parts. Part 1: a factual account of what happened, eg, “Last week at the faculty meeting, I suggested that… .” No emotion or evaluative words, just the facts. Part 2: In a separate paragraph, talk about how this person’s behavior affected you. No accusations, just “I-statements,” eg, “I felt demeaned and ignored… .” Part 3: In one sentence, describe the action you’d like to be taken, eg, “I would like for you to acknowledge that the idea came from me.” Don’t ask for an apology, don’t even ask for the idea-stealer to be informed. Dr. Sandler pointed out that most of the time this letter goes unacknowledged, but at future meetings, you’ll notice a change in behavior.

It’s often hard to imagine sticking up for ourselves in the ways listed above. Sometimes it’s simply too awkward or embarrassing to do so. Sometimes it might even feel like we’re putting our job on the line by doing it. Of course, pick your battles. But as a friend and I were discussing Dr. Sandler’s tips on the phone later, she pointed out that sometimes you’re caught in a situation and you don’t know how to react until later. Sometimes the boorish behavior of others surprises you into silence. So now, if you want to respond in the moment, you have some options. And maybe these small interventions will start to chip away at the subtle but nefarious behaviors that perpetuate the inequities between men and women.

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