Bridging Gender Dynamics in the Workplace

A few years ago, a friend had a “great” idea that would compete with Groupon (this is when daily deal sites were just on the precipice). He wanted us to help him launch the business, but it was just an idea in his head. There wasn’t a website, no merchants, and certainly no customers.

Always up for a good challenge—and excited by his passion—we agreed to help him get started. In our very first meeting, he spent two hours berating his team in front of us, an outsourced communications firm. He talked over and interrupted his chief operating officer, a woman who was highly educated and had experience taking two startups public, so often that she finally resigned herself to not contributing at all.

And then he turned his attention to us. This was the first time he’d met my team—mostly women—and he was not shy in telling them what he thought about their looks and their “supposed” resumes, which he had culled from LinkedIn. We all sat through it, shocked and not really certain of what to say. And then he capped the meeting off by saying, “Don’t screw this up” (but “screw” was a different word).

Fuming, I went back to the office and resigned the account, on only the second day of doing business with him. Needless to say, he’s no longer a client or a friend.

My experience is repeated in board rooms every day, with smart, capable women being interrupted and talked over. Having their agenda items pushed aside as a male colleague goes on a tangent that eats up the entire meeting time. Being called bossy or intimidating in our performance reviews for having the audacity to speak up and speak over our male colleagues when we finally get tired of not being heard. Or, worse, sued for breach of contract after resigning a client on day two.

A recent study by McKinsey and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org group uncovered these examples of the workplace gender gap in action:

  • Women are more likely to be ignored at meetings, with 74 percent of men "able to participate meaningfully" vs 67 percent of women.
  • Women are less likely to be consulted for input on important decisions, with 63 percent of men being asked to share their thoughts as compared to 56 percent of women.

While these findings aren’t surprising, what has been (pleasantly) surprising is how much more we’ve been talking about this issue lately, which I credit to the 2016 election media coverage. If there’s been one silver lining to what was an unprecedentedly unpleasant and less than civil election campaign it’s the new awareness amongst many men of the gender dynamics going on in their workplaces.

Although these issues have been going on since women joined the workforce, there was something about seeing it on the public stage—televised into our living rooms—that made it unmissable. There was Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton across the stage, constantly talking over her in the debates, or calling her “a nasty woman.” Not that the other side was without their faults—we still remember Bernie Sanders snapping “let me finish” at Clinton.

Since the election, I’ve had several male colleagues stop mid-sentence while talking to me—realizing they hard started talking down to me, “mansplaining” if you will, on a topic I was just as well-versed in.

Why, in fact, I can wrap my pretty little head around that concept, thank-you-very-much!

Unfortunately, being talked-over for years means I—and many other women— have learned that if you want to be heard in a business setting, that means you have to interrupt and talk over other people. After a recent team meeting, in fact, several of my team members checked in with each other horrified to realize they had been doing just that—not out of disrespect but because of the years of deep conditioning.

So how can we stop bullying each other in the workplace and start listening? Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t hold free-form meetings. Have an agenda with scheduled blocks of times for specific topics and speakers. Make sure all involved parties get equal time to speak. Schedule a follow-up meeting if time runs out.
  • Ask interrupters to wait. I hate to say you should interrupt the interrupters, but you should. Politely let them know they’ll have their turn. Their colleague has the floor and should be allowed to finish speaking. If you work somewhere you worry this would get you fired, it’s time to find a new job.
  • Don’t accept being talked down to. Hold your ground, claim your position, and own your area of expertise.
  • Don’t be catty. Yes, we all have opinions from time-to-time about other people’s appearances. But as a professional you need to keep them to yourself and model professional behavior. That way, when a sexist comment about someone’s appearance is made, you can feel confident about turning to the person who made it and saying “It’s not professional to speak about your colleague’s appearance.
  • Don’t just “let it go.” No matter how many times you’ve sat through Frozen recently (and for some of us it’s many, many times), don’t just let the casual sexism and sexual harassment in your workplace go. Speak up and ask the person to stop, and involve your management team or HR if necessary.

The only way we can bridge gender dynamics in the workforce is to work together. Be kind to one another. Speak up for one another. And don’t put up with sexism or harassment.

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