Resources for a woman in tech facing a lot of gender bias at work.
June 9, 2016 1:25 PM   Subscribe

A friend is a senior engineer at a small company—the only woman in a senior technical role at the company—who, after years of working for them (she was literally the first hire) is hitting a lot of resistance from the men above, most of it the typical "Women in the workplace" b.s. She strongly believes in the work and the company, but is getting regularly undermined. I'd love to find some resources (books, blogs, forums, strategies, etc.) to help her deal effectively with the people making the workplace ridiculous.

Communication and authority are the main problems. Any time she expresses a work-related concern, the men dismiss her out of hand, saying she should quit being an emotional woman, making it about herself, etc—even if she chooses identical words to those the men use to express the same problem. (Needless to say, this tends to indeed make her emotional. Rightfully so.) Since she's both head of a department and co-leading projects, having her voice dismissed out of hand means she's being overworked on troubled projects. HR has, frustratingly, advised her to keep her head down.

Despite all of this, there are a lot of great things about the job and the people she works with, and there seems little chance they're intentionally forcing her out. (And equally little chance of her quitting in the near future.) They're just bumbling around like a lot of clueless guys (and a few women) stuck in the middle of last century. What are the best resources and strategies for navigating gender discrimination in an office?
posted by Ookseer to Human Relations (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What are the best resources and strategies for navigating gender discrimination in an office?

Finding a new company.

This is not a flippant answer, it is a recognition that the chances of a single person changing the culture at a small company where even HR doesn't care about sexual discrimination are so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from zero.
posted by saeculorum at 2:09 PM on June 9, 2016 [29 favorites]

She's sunk. She can either keep doing what she's doing or move on. If she's blatantly gotten "women are too emotional" and told by HR to "keep her head down" then she's got no chance. She should be documenting each and every one of these instances on a non-work device and look for a new, better job for better pay.

Honestly, she may never find a workplace where she gets equal treatment to the men. I kind of don't believe it is possible but she could clearly do better. The best thing she can do right now is look around her workplace and figure out what's in it for her. Is there a skill she enjoys or wants to learn? Best to do that on someone else's dime and then use it to get a leg up elsewhere. Is she spending too much time on low-recognition projects/tasks? She's probably getting dumped on. Unless those things are fun for her personally or somehow lucrative to a bonus structure or will bring her fame in her company or industry, she should not do those tasks. "Team player" for women tends to be code for "do the grunt work and don't expect diddly."

Fun, fame or fortune. She should apply that logic to any current task on her plate and anything that comes her way. She should take skills-based classes in things she wants to learn or that are lucrative to her career and be mercenary about milking this company for any good it can do her so she can get a top position elsewhere. It's what all the men do anyway.
posted by amanda at 2:17 PM on June 9, 2016 [6 favorites] has a lot of good advice on it, including about this problem.
posted by michaelh at 2:19 PM on June 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think how she responds in the moment really depends on the particulars - she's going to have to do something different if these are subordinates disagreeing with her about a technical decision, or managers not giving her enough resources to work with, or peers being generalized assholes or whatever.

Definitely she should look for a new job, and askamanager is great.

My only other recommendation is that she get involved with some kind of "women in tech" or "women in her specific engineering field" meetup or support group if possible. I've been pretty lucky as far as sexism goes in my short career as a woman in tech, but I still find the local women's meetup for my primary programming language so helpful! It's just nice to get a sanity check and have somewhere to vent about the dumb stuff that does happen that *doesn't* rise to the level of "this needs to go to HR." And it's great for networking and potentially finding a new job!
posted by mskyle at 2:25 PM on June 9, 2016

She could look for material by Jessica Livingston, the only female co-founder of Y-Combinator. She mostly talks about women founders, but perhaps your friend would be interested in starting her own company rather than futzing with the glass ceiling.

She can look for movies with good examples of cut throat negotiators, like The Devil Wears Prada and Kingdom of Heaven, and a stack of negotiating books, like Getting to Yes.

Erin Brockovich would be another good movie to watch and is based on real life events. After Erin gets fired and her boss comes back with questions, she won't answer any questions until he gives her the job back. She also plays hardball in some other scenes with other people.
posted by Michele in California at 2:49 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm halfway through Lean In, and the author has a culture that gets it, or wants to get better. It will give your friend some context and examples of actions to either cite or replicate. It's imperfect, certainly, but other corporate cultures are evolving and people are writing about progress, so if she reads, inspiration for continuing on. Some of the examples in lean in are about working on what has been internalized as well.

Networking with similar professionals and finding a coach that gets this through that venue might be a ticket for personal development, too.

Zootopia is preparing our kids for navigating cultural change.
posted by childofTethys at 3:21 PM on June 9, 2016

In a company whose culture is like this where there's no interest in improving it (evidenced by HR's response), there are three options:

(1) Play the game their way. Find a male ally to be her proxy. He says her words. They will likely be better received and acted upon than when she says them. Things will move forward. If her main goal is getting the job done and staying at the company, this is the best strategy, but it obviously will hit her when it comes time to review who has done what, who receives credit, and who deserves raises/promotions. It also doesn't do anything to change the culture.

(2) Play the game her way. Double down on her assertiveness and asking for what she believes is needed, for her and for her projects. Speak up in response to the criticism - "so and so, my male colleague, asked for the same resource last week and you provided it. Why are you saying I'm being hysterical for requesting it?" "I believe that's sexist of you to say." "Your criticism of me is very gendered, and that's inappropriate. If you don't like what I'm asking you to do, come up with a better justification for disagreeing with me." Things like lawsuits can be threatened. She might win the moral high ground, but this is incredibly stressful and emotionally draining, and will become a second full time job on top of the one she's already doing. She may end up being forced out.

(3) Stop playing the game. Find a new job with a more 21st century culture.

I'm a woman who works in tech and who has been a project manager. I'd go with option 3.
posted by olinerd at 3:45 PM on June 9, 2016 [11 favorites]

Been there, done that. I'm with Olinerd also. Just tell her to find a new job.

Single-handedly trying to change company culture is pretty much nailing jello to a wall. Ignoring it isn't going to make her happier. Learning to cope might, but why do that when there are other companies without shitty cultures?
posted by ananci at 1:52 AM on June 10, 2016

If your friend is in computing, she might find a supportive community in the Systers e-mail list:
posted by esker at 8:02 AM on June 10, 2016

Sorry to hear your friend is facing this! How awful.

Is the company open to addressing its gender bias? Perhaps even if they don't realize how they're affecting your friend, they've noticed that they're not attracting/retaining female talent? If so, Paradigm does some amazing in-depth work around unconscious bias.

Also, if a little self-promo is ok, I conduct trainings around negotiation and gender. I help women form new strategies for negotiating effectively when they're facing gender bias, and I help everyone learn about the situation so they can support women better. More info here.
posted by equipoise at 11:32 AM on June 10, 2016

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