Sunday, February 23, 2014

Earn It

I have a friend who is facing a frustrating situation at work. She is smart, competent, and extremely good at her job, but a couple of her colleagues are not treating her with respect, and their mutual boss is insisting that she just needs to "earn their respect."

This is, of course, impossible, since her colleagues have decided not to respect her, and choose not to see the awesome work she is doing. I do not know why they do not respect her, but it is probably a combination of gender bias and discipline-related arrogance (they are in a discipline that considers itself "harder" than hers). I ran into a similar situation once, early in my career, and I am still convinced there is no real solution, and that if you find yourself in a situation like this you should just start a job search. (If anyone out there has figured out how to turn a situation like this around, please share in the comments.)

This sort of situation, though, is my answer to the people who ask me why I default to respecting everyone. In general, I respect people and assume they are smart and competent until they thoroughly demonstrate otherwise. I know many, many people in science and tech who do the exact opposite: they assume people are stupid/incompetent until they prove otherwise. They do not understand my approach and think I am a hopeless Pollyanna, fated to waste untold hours on unworthy people.

This has not been my experience, but even if it were, I would stick to my method of requiring people to lose my respect rather than earn it.

The reason is simple. Who suffers in the case of a mistake? I would rather pay for my mistaken impressions myself, not project the cost of my mistakes onto someone else.

Also, although all of the people I know who insist that others earn their respect are sure that they are unbiased in the application of their rule, it doesn't look that way to me. They are blind to their own implicit biases, which include scientific/technical discipline as well as the usual gender, race, and sexuality biases. I see that people who are not straight white men usually have to work harder to earn respect, and that people working in disciplines perceived as "softer" or "easier" may never be able to earn the respect of their peers in the "harder" disciplines.

And that doesn't even consider the ways in which women and people of color are penalized in this respect-earning competition for behaviors that are completely fine- or even respected!- in white men.

It also doesn't consider the way in which having to continually earn respect can have a disproportionately discouraging effect on members of marginalized groups, who have probably been told all of their life that they aren't meant to be doing whatever it is they are doing. Trust me, the effect of having to constantly prove yourself is like stereotype threat on steroids. I recently joked to my husband that for a woman in tech, the message is: "you aren't as good as the boys, girls don't do this, you aren't as good as the men, you're good at this... for a girl, if you were really good we'd know, this is a meritocracy so if you aren't at the top you don't belong there, if you haven't been coding since you're 13 you can't be any good" until one day the message is "your problem is that you don't have enough self-confidence!" It is crazy making, and I want no part in subjecting anyone else to that nonsense.

I know myself well enough to know that I still have plenty of implicit biases lurking in my subconscious. It is far safer and fairer and just nicer to assume everyone is worthy of my respect until they do something to lose it. Also, I feel better about myself this way.

But of course, saying this is one of the things that makes some of the guys I work with respect me less. Because, of course, REAL scientists/tech people make other people earn their respect.


In other news, this week's Tungsten Hippo post is about steampunk, inspired in part by a recent incident in which a local steampunk group was asked to leave a mall. At first I thought this had nothing to do with today's post, but I actually think it is part of the same theme- it is better to give people the benefit of the doubt. And I'm going to do that and assume that the mall guards wish they had given the steampunk group the benefit of the doubt, and feel a bit foolish now that they know what steampunk is.


  1. My trust, admiration or accolades, yes. Respect, no. I start from assuming that they're able to do the job, watch them and see what happens. I may not simply trust that everything they do will be right from the get-go but that just means that I verify that it's been done correctly, it doesn't mean that I don't treat them like the professional they should be from the start. I've had a fair amt of experience watching both men and women, young and old, come into a professional situation touting all kinds of expertise and they've had their shot, proving they know what they're talking about or deserve the job. Or they don't and then I know I won't use them again.
    I'd rather lower the bar to entry and see how things work out, assuming other things like basic knowledge are there. It's been good in most cases, and terrible in others, but in all cases, they had the opportunity to keep or lose my respect. (Lying is definitely a no-brainer way to lose my respect and it happened a lot more frequently than it should in the workplace.)

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  3. This is one of my favorite posts of yours (so much so that I de-lurked--maybe for the first time?--to comment on it). I love the idea of asking oneself "Who suffers in the case of a mistake?"

  4. Earning respect is not possible under certain circumstances, particularly where bias is concerned.

    I've had my best experiences where the assumption is that everyone is there because they are good enough to be there. If that is not the case, and she was a recent hire, then the lack of respect from her coworkers means they don't trust the decision-making abilities of the manager. So why does the manager put up with that level of insurrection?

    This suggests that the manager doesn't really want her or managerial incompetence.

    Without the support of her manager and coworkers seeking to undermine her, she needs to find another job. Sucks. But, been there. Done that. Bias exists and we have to move on.

    1. Yeah, I think my friend has to find a new job. It sucks, but like you, I've been there, done that, and have yet to figure out anything to do except leave.


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