Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Surviving as a Woman in a Very Male World

I don't think I'm giving anything away if I say that I've been struggling a bit at work lately. Some of that has nothing to do with my gender, and some of it has everything to do with my gender. And some of it, its hard to say. I should also say: some of it is probably my own damn fault. I'm not perfect, by any stretch.

A lot of the part that has to do with my gender is due to cracks in the plasterwork I've put up to cover the disconnect between me and the male work culture I inhabit. The cracks have been growing lately, and I'm at a bit of a loss as to why. The particular guys I'm working with now aren't unusually sexist or obnoxious. In fact, I rather like them all. I've got some women on my team (I hired most of them) and there are other women at the company. It is, in other words, about as good as things are likely to get, at least on paper. Still, something is... not right for me. I suspect it is something about the company culture, but haven't pinned it down, and even if I had, I would not blog about it at this point.

It may also just be timing. Maybe I'm running out of my patience for trying to gracefully handle sexism in the workplace, and am coming up to the time when I'm going to going to go out in a blaze of glory...

But I'd rather not.

Still, the cracks are showing, and even growing, and I have been thinking a lot about what I can do about that. I need to up my sanity maintenance game, which has got me thinking about how I've survived (and even occasionally thrived) in my very male dominated work world. Here are my top three sanity saving techniques:

1. Maintain perspective

Even when my work is at its crappiest, I live a pretty great life. This is not to say that I'm going to stop trying to fix the crap, just that I won't let the crap obscure the awesome things in my life. I am (mostly) healthy. I have a great family, I live in a great place, I have enough money to go on great vacations... Etc., etc.

Lately, I've been consciously reminding myself of this as I turn the corner towards Pumpkin's school in the afternoon, and see this:

Seriously. I can't complain.

 Which brings me to my second technique...

2. Use mindfulness

I've written before about how I use mindfulness to maintain my equilibrium at work. In that earlier post, I mostly wrote about using a mindfulness practice to build my reserves of patience. I also use mindfulness techniques to fight the tendency to be derailed by BS at work. When someone does something that is BS, I try to recognize it for what it is, name it as BS, and then consciously put it aside.

This works for egregiously sexist things, but it also works for what I call the "accidental gaslighting" that pervades work places that are lacking in diversity. Since everyone (or at least everyone with the power, authority, and automatic respect) is of the same basic type, a lazy assumption that their way of thinking and responding is the one and only "right" way can take hold. If you respond differently to something, it is a problem with you, not with the thing to which you responded. This happens even when everyone thinks they respect you and value your input. They will in fact tell you that they respect you and value your input, but that you just have to learn to handle X or not be so sensitive about Y or what not.

And that is BS. Because often the X and Y are things like a confrontational discussion style ("it is the only way to make sure we don't succumb to group think!"), a tendency to talk over you ("you just need to talk louder!"), a tendency to make everyone earn respect ("but we do that to everyone!" ), and so on. Somehow they miss that their confrontational discussion style silences some group members, leaving only the ones who tend to think alike feeling comfortable speaking up. They miss that they don't talk over everyone equally as often, or in the same way. They do not realize that in fact, they do NOT make everyone earn their respect in the same way. Some people start with more baseline respect than others.

And they have never considered that their "male" way isn't the default "right" way. Of course, everyone should adopt their way!

Basically, they're Henry Higgins:

In fact, our entire culture is Henry Higgins. We have to have entire books written about What Works for Women at Work and how we can successfully be just the perfect amount more like men. Where are the books telling the men not to be such insensitive asses?

(No, I haven't read that book yet. I'm sure it is very good and helpful, but I'm not in a mood that would be receptive to its advice right now.)

All of this cruft tends to accumulate in my brain until I start believing that there is something wrong with me, too.

And that is the biggest BS of them all.

I fight it with the mindfulness trick of observing the BS thought, labeling it, and putting it aside. I imagine a big, sturdy box in my mind. I shove the BS thought in that box and lock it up. This works until something breaks the box open.

I also use side projects to help me remember that I've got some strong skills, and when I do come up against something I don't know or can't do right, I consciously put myself in a growth mindset by reminding myself that I can get better at anything if I work at it. (If you aren't familiar with the idea of growth vs. fixed mindset, check out Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

3. I only fight the battles I choose

I realized early on that if I fought every single sexist thing, I would wear myself out from fighting and not have any energy left to do the actual things I want to do. And by early on, I mean roughly half-way through college. Here is a tweet that sums this up well:

Not only does each battle exhaust some of my energy, but each battle damages me. Being a geek, I imagine this like the health points in a videogame. Each time I fight sexism in the workplace, I pick up negative health points, in the form of people perceiving me as a "complainer" or "not a team player" or what not. If I deplete my health points too much, I'll be out of the game.

The insistence that I'll only fight the battles I choose annoys some other women, who want me to fight the battles that matter to them, particularly when they perceive me as being in a more powerful place than they are. I understand this, and I am sorry. But I can't fight them all. I will not let anyone- not even myself!- guilt me into fighting every battle. I fight some of them, but I have to pick the ones that matter the most. I try to be cognizant of the need to help the women coming up behind me, and I will almost always make the time to give advice to a younger woman who asks for my help. I try to help as much as I can, but I cannot promise to fight all of their battles. I have to choose strategically. I get to decide when I fight, and when I walk away so that I can be there to fight another day.*

Those are my tricks. Does anyone have any others they want to share?

*Interestingly, calling out racism, homophobia, or ableism does not seem to deplete my health points as much as calling out sexism. Also, since I am in the privileged group in all of those cases, I feel it is my responsibility to speak up when I see these issues in the workplace, so I almost never walk away from those battles.


  1. I have now lectured two big (white) men in the field on implicit bias when they said something that seriously ticked me off. (#1 accusing a woman who will someday get a Nobel Prize of bragging while at the same time saying that my braggart unlikely to get a Nobel white male colleague is really something special, and #2 for saying nasty things about a woman candidate because she wanted to negotiate her job offer and she wanted the offer in writing.) Tenure, I guess, has advantages.

    1. p.s. I don't know if it did any good, but it made me feel better.

      p.p.s. I've found that senior white men (and students) don't seem to mind much being talked to as if they were 3 years old. They, in fact, seem to prefer that to being treated as if they're equals in a spirited debate kind of situation (in which we seem "uppity"). I suspect this has something to do with the madonna-mother-crone thing... it's ok to discipline if we remind them of their mothers or their preschool teachers.

  2. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Things that have worked well for me involve "sticking to the facts:" lay out the data and walk through its logic. E.g., 'so both the percentage and numerical increase of my raises over the past 3 years has declined. what do you think this tells me about how my sustained work and increasing contributions to the company are rewarded? (answer: they aren't. give me more money.)' similarly, calling out BS with non-emotional terms. 'you actually can't tell me how I feel, that's not how it works. the only thing you can do is give me more information so I have a better foundation for my judgment of the situation, which will give us a better meeting point for working out a solution/compromise. so share your fee-fees and let's move on, k?'

  3. I use a lot of the same tricks as you. Another one that's been helpful for me is to find other women to vent to, and do that before discussing with others (read: with men). I'm a venter. I just am. And I need to get my frustrations and emotions out. But I've found that if I start venting my frustrations to men, I get eye rolls, get the equivalent of there-there-there head pats, get labeled a complainer or difficult, etc.

    I've made close relationships with a few women in similar positions to mine, and I've been able to go to them and get my venting out, talk through why I'm so frustrated and discuss how I want to address it. Then, when I do go to address the issue, I am able to do so in a calm, pointed way.

    Although I will note that when my women friends and I discussed issues in meetings using our typical style with each other, the men in the group said it wasn't appropriate and definitely felt threatened. This is why my women friends and I started going for coffee before and/or after difficult meetings, and in the meetings we'd switch to a style the men found more acceptable. And that pissed us all off, and though we did bring it up to the men, the end result was still that we only vented to each other.

    1. Hi @caramama! Welcome back! And good tips.

  4. Have you caught any of the new HBO comedy "Silicon Valley"? It's a complete mockery of the "bro-culture" in IT-tech, not to mention the TEDification of entrepreneurship.

    I've recently asked some former female colleagues about the degree of sexism and harassment that they've encountered in the work place and have been appalled at the response. Some have been direct reports and I asked them how come they didn't tell me. The common answer was that they didn't think I could do anything about it and they were afraid of being labeled "troublemakers". I'm afraid they're probably more right than I'd like to think.

    1. I have not seen that yet. In general, I am years behind on watching shows. I only know about Game of Thrones, Scandal, Breaking Bad, etc. through Twitter....

      I think it is really hard to respond to even blatant sexism. I know that there have been times when I have heard someone say something incredibly racist and been so taken aback and surprised that I have missed my chance to say something. I feel terrible, and try to do better... but we're only human. We can't always be the best person we want to be.

      And to be clear- the stuff at my current job is not like what you described at your old job. It is just a culture that has evolved that I think men will in general be more comfortable in. There are some women who are doing really well, though, and there are aspects of my own history and personality that make this particular culture a particularly tough place for me... so it is complicated.

  5. Anonymous1:41 PM

    It is great to be reminded to pick battles mindfully! Nice post, thanks.

  6. #1 Find allies! I don't mean that in a Survivor kind of way, but find a sympathetic group to vent to, as @caramama does.

    I'm not in a position where I fight many battles publicly. But I pay attention and make note, and plan for when I have a stronger voice. When I was in grad school, I learned how to smile and shake it off, but I never forgot it, or pretended to myself like it didn't matter. That's what I learned: that swallowing it and playing along are not the same things as normalizing or forgetting. It drives me bonkers when I run into women who insist they have never encountered nor seen any discrimination or harassment (with the implication of therefore it must not exist). But sometimes you have to bide your time and play along, too.

  7. Congrats on your decision (I see in your twitter feed). You're in good company... (not me, but...)

    1. Thanks! And if the other person is who I think... pass along my congratulations, too!

    2. She may be sending you a copy of her resume, but it looks pretty good right now--her grad school's career office does skype appointments with graduates and made really good suggestions. I don't know why more graduates don't utilize those services.


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