By Elizabeth Putfark
Despite growing in numbers and rising through the ranks, women in male-dominated workspaces still face down gender stereotypes every day. Whether it’s that they’re passive and overly emotional, or that they’re bodies are open for public appraisal, these preconceived and often subconscious notions can keep working women from achieving the recognition that they deserve.
For help addressing some of these sticky situations, we turned to workplace diversity and communication expert Claire Damken Brown, founder of Damken Brown and Associates and author of numerous books on gender conflict. We asked her about three specific situations that many women face in the office that might leave them feeling powerless or unheard. Below, she offers her take on each scenario – why it happens, how to address it in the moment and how to prevent it from happening in the future.
Situation #1: “Seriously?! I just said that!”
When you voice an idea or opinion and conversation quickly moves on. Ten minutes later, a colleague (often male) repeats it as his or her own and suddenly it’s greeted with applause.
“I don’t think this happens out of purposeful actions – no one is thinking “I’m going to steal this idea in five minutes!” It’s a kind of systemic dynamic that most affects women working in a male-dominated environment where men are viewed as having more power.
“One way to handle this is to pull attention back to yourself by making comments like, “Glad you like the idea, let me go back and flesh it out for you.” It also helps to know going into a meeting that you’re going to be interrupted, so that you’re ready to voice your ideas and get the credit. Some ways to do that are to write down your ideas ahead of time and pass them out or email them to the group ahead of time. Another way is by using what I call the Buddy System – find an ally, man or woman, who will support you when the idea gets picked up by somebody else and say, “Oh, that’s what Sue was saying earlier. Let’s go back to her!”
“When I talk to men and women about this, women think this might be overdoing it. They worry that it’s not playing fair, or that it’s somehow
sneaky. But the men, they say they do this all the time! When they go to a meeting and present their view, they’ve already built a whole group of allies who are going to push that idea through.”
Situation #2: “Oh no, she’s getting fired up!”
When your natural heat and enthusiasm for a subject gets misinterpreted as evidence that you’re overly emotional, and thereby being irrational.
“I’ve also heard, “You have to be careful or she’ll start crying,” or “It must be that time of the month.” It’s a tough situation to try to handle. Sometimes if you feel like you’re passionate about a topic, it’s helpful to say, “I’m very passionate about this topic!” That way, when they say “Oh she’s getting fired up,” you can say, “I sure am!” And if you’re feeling angry, it’s okay to say, “I’m getting angry!”
“Women are generally sensitive to non-verbal’s going around the room, so you’ll see that eyebrow raise, or the glance shared between men. And I would just suggest that you say, “I can see that some of you are questioning my direction, and this is obviously something I care about, but I’m open to discussing more questions about it.” I wouldn’t suggest something that’s detrimental, like saying “Wipe that smirk off your face!””
Situation #3: “WHAT did you say?”
When a male coworker drops a suggestive, inappropriate comment and everyone looks to see how you’ll respond.
“It’s best to call it out when you see it, when it first happens. Women have a tendency to second guess what the other person meant, or to make excuses like, “Phil’s a nice guy, I don’t think he would have meant it like that.” So they’re quiet, but by being quiet, it often makes the situation worse. Of course, that’s difficult because calling it out goes against some of our socialization as women, which is to be very polite and always try to save face.
“You can say, “I’m not sure how you meant for that to sound, but this is how it sounded to me…” or “I know you thought that was funny, but it wasn’t to me.” That gives the person the opportunity to say wait, I didn’t mean it that way.
“Because of my background, I tend toward not giving the person a second chance. If you say something inappropriate and offensive, you need to know you do not say that in front of me, behind me or to other people. And the next time it happens, I will go to the manager or human resources and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Claire Damken Brown is the founder and president of Damken Brown and Associates, a group committed to helping companies improve in areas of workplace diversity, gender communication and conflict resolution. She’s coauthor of the management resource book, Conflict and Diversity; the business book, Code Switching: How to Talk So Men Will Listen; and, the trainers’ resource, The Gender Communication Handbook: Conquering Conversational Collisions between Men and Women. To find out more, visit www.damkenbrown.com.