Options for asking about perceived gender-based behavioral bias at work
July 26, 2016 1:25 PM   Subscribe

At work (USA), I believe myself to be the victim of gender-based bias with regard to attitude, expression and other attributes. I want to ask HR about it.

I'm a woman in a male-dominated field. I get a lot of flack for things that are 100% observational-based, IMO gender-prompted perceptions that I bet no man ever has to put up with.

My work is never questioned. They love my work. But that seems irrelevant - instead, I am called in to be lectured about "not looking happy" or "my attitude" etc.

Some Unknown Behavior Monitors are apparently informing on me to my manager since I rarely come into contact with anyone outside my own team, and they are not the initiators of this. Also when I ask to be told who's got a problem with me, that info is withheld. I really hate that anonymous tattle-talers get the benefit of the doubt, and I am required to defend myself. I feel watched and judged all the time. It's affecting me in all areas of life now.

I am getting more and more upset over this, especially since there is an element of "attitude and personality" built into our performance eval process. To know that I may get dinged at raise time because some yahoo thinks I need to smile more is really NOT helping matters.

I would NEVER presume to complain to someone's manager in this manner. I would chalk it up to "they're having a bad day" or maybe even "he must not like me" but that's life. No one gets along with everyone. I just keep doing my work and living my life. Yet around here, there is this culture of "look happy regardless!!!"

HR was present during the last go-round of this circus, and as I think about it over time, I am more and more convinced I want to ask them about the gender ethics of this type of... I want to use the word "persecution" because that is how I feel... but I guess that's maybe too harsh. "Attention" is perhaps better, albeit not truly representative of my feelings.

I am a very private person. It galls me to feel obligated to share my secrets to HR (with whom there is NO guarantee of confidentiality) in order to "get off the hook" about why I might not be smiling like a madwoman 24/7. That's one of the takeaways from the last meeting. "We are here for you!" etc. But- guess what- I don't want to talk about it with someone I do not trust.

Again- I would bet any amount of money that men simply do not get this handed to them. And I want HR to tell me whether that is true. I think they should be able to share that information. Other women in my workplace have shared similar stories with me. We really feel unfairly targeted in a way that men are not. Do we have rights to this kind of information? What are my rights with regard to "subjective persecution" when it comes to such non-work-related attention?
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Work & Money (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
EEOC: Sex-based discrimination
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:42 PM on July 26, 2016

"I would bet any amount of money that men simply do not get this handed to them. And I want HR to tell me whether that is true." HR will never ever have this conversation with you. HR works for the company's management and does not have your legal rights or best interests at heart, and confronted with someone who thinks they are being discriminated against, they will never admit to discrimination or the suggestion of it, they will close ranks for management and for the organization as a whole, because that's their job.

Do not tell them your private business or attempt to explain away why you do not look chipper, and definitely do not go into their office talking about "gender persecution." Even hearing the words "sexism" or "discrimination" will put them on the defensive ASAP and paint a target on your back. In the US organizations are very aware of the the possibility of litigation over these kinds of disputes, and so are hyper sensitive to these kinds of conversations.

Write down a timeline of what has happened and who witnessed the problems you are having and file a complaint with your city or state's anti-discrimination agency, if you want to do something about it. If other women in your office are experiencing this, they can do the same. The more complaints from a single organization, the stronger everyone's case is to show a pattern of discriminatory behavior.

Most women probably won't file complaints because they don't want to make themselves targets or cost themselves opportunities in the future, and probably accept this as the cost of working in a male dominated field. Unfortunately, the person who stands up for herself becomes perceived as being difficult and abrasive, and that has an impact on your success with the organization in the long run, even if you are doing good work.

Seek documentation of "I may get dinged at raise time because some yahoo thinks I need to smile more" in writing. If you have an evaluation that goes poorly, or are denied a raise, seek an explanation of specific reasons for that outcome by email and say you want to know these reasons so that you can improve going forward, to clarify what is expected of you.

If the person ignores your email and/or just responds verbally (they probably will because they know better than to put anything like that in writing) follow up with another email like "Thanks for speaking with me about my questions on (day) morning/afternoon. Let me just make sure I understood what you said correctly- you said a, b and c then, right? Feel free to respond if you need to clarify anything! If I don't hear back then I am going to assume we are on the same page about this! Thanks!" This is how to document.

You are correct in assuming that male run workplaces generally want their female members to present a cheery, positive attitude and to do the emotional labor of encouraging everyone to get along, and to be smiling and positive/sociable to visitors and clients regardless of what might be going on in their lives.

This is a very common and universal thing, even though it sucks. You cannot claim anything unlawful is being done unless you show that the organization is discriminating against women by treating more than one female employee in a way that they wouldn't treat a male employee, in the sense that it results in a measurable damage, like being denied a raise, denied certain work/accounts, fired, harassed, etc.
posted by zdravo at 1:44 PM on July 26, 2016 [26 favorites]

Editing to add that when I was in law school I worked for a statewide agency that investigates discrimination in employment, among other sectors, and worked on cases like this at their initial stage where we were supposed to decide whether or not the case should come before an administrative judge for a hearing. So that's the perspective from which I wrote the answer above.
posted by zdravo at 1:53 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am called in to be lectured about "not looking happy" or "my attitude" etc.

Who is calling you in? Your immediate supervisor?

If it's your immediate supervisor, take in a pen and paper and politely grill your boss. Make them explain what they mean. Ask for specific examples of things you did "wrong" and what the boss would have preferred you did. You might also say things like "So you don't think I smile as much as the rest of my team?" "Is there someone on my team with an attitude you think I should emulate?" Your goal here is to not let things be vague. And also to alert your boss that just maybe he is singling you out unfairly, or might appear to be doing so; if he has any sense, he will want to avoid that.

After the meeting, go back to your desk, type up your notes, and send them to your boss "Re: our discussion as of [date] regarding work demeanor." Even if they don't respond, you have created a trail. Copy your personal email address.

It's a hard thing to do, and it's very unfair that you should have to, but clarity will help you know what to do next. If your boss comes right out and says something horribly sexist, you will include it in your complaint. If they don't, and you continue to be called out despite doing what was set down in your meeting, you have an avenue for complaint as well.

This is not a guarantee. As someone mentioned above, HR departments are mainly effective at getting rid of unwanted/troublesome people, and if you are less powerful than someone else, you are easier to get rid of. HR gets paid by the same people you do. Even documenting sexism may not have an immediate effect, in which case you file your complaint with the EEOC and move on to somewhere else.
posted by emjaybee at 2:19 PM on July 26, 2016 [27 favorites]

I'm a woman in a male dominated field and I've been on multiple all male work teams. I am not a perky person. Nobody has ever said anything like this to me. Did you have a really negative encounter with someone? I would also agree you need to ask for examples. I bet someone was very offended with you to report this. There are likely really specific complaints, and you should probably already have an idea of what they are. Otherwise I'd definately ask.
posted by Kalmya at 4:44 PM on July 26, 2016

This could definitely be a result of sexism. Maybe make your HR person read about how women in the workplace are judged more on their "attitude" than men are. http://www.fastcompany.com/3034895/strong-female-lead/the-one-word-men-never-see-in-their-performance-reviews
posted by a strong female character at 5:31 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would say this entirely depends on the job. If "looking happy" is part of the job, then this is certainly a valid criticism - especially if it's part of the performance review as you suggest. My suggestion is that "going to HR" here will be a complete dead end, as suggested above, they are not your friend - and if it's in the performance review they will rightly indicate that giving such feedback is part of your managers job.

One other point of feedback - don't get defensive, ask your manager how you can improve. If they give you specific suggestions they are on your side and you should think about whether those suggestions might actually help your interactions w/ others. If they just say be "happier" then decide they don't have your best interests at heart and think about finding another job...nothing can fix a crappy manager.
posted by NoDef at 5:52 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

It can be 100% true that women at your workplace are expected to smile and look happy more often than men are AND be something that HR is not going to be able to do a thing about. I absolutely get how frustrating it is, but I don't know if this is something that is actionable in the way you want it to be.
posted by MsMolly at 6:24 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm with MsMolly. I highly doubt this is something you can pursue up a chain of command, and it's just something women are gonna get judged on. (My office is mostly women and I have heard sooooo many comments about how off-putting I am any time I interact with the public.) I hate to say it, but putting on a fake SMILE every time strange eyes are upon you really does work to get people off your back more.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:40 PM on July 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm an older woman in a male dominated field, and I maintain a consistently moderately-cheerful demeanor and attitude, which has served me very well and is a complete opposite of my routine when I was much younger. I don't believe that "resting bitch face" means the owner is hard-working, brilliant or dedicated. I work with plenty of men who have been told to get with the program and stop being cranky bastards.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:41 PM on July 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I agree that it is possible that this is a result of sexism.

It may also be a work cultural mismatch. In my office, a small for-profit consulting firm, the cranky guy on our team who does not take pains to address interpersonal issues smoothly has NOT been promoted, despite being quite intelligent and producing good work. It is because be has not yet shown he can be trusted to act independently with clients in the manner expected by our firm.
posted by samthemander at 7:31 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're way more likely to get the outcome you want by pretending to be open to feedback, but then drawing the conversation back around to how it actually affects your work under the guise of asking questions to learn more about how to improve yourself.

Example statements would be:

"Gee, Ted, it sounds like you're saying ( repeat what he just said to you ). I want to take that to heart because I want to be a productive member of the team / enjoy working here. I want to better understand how this impacting my work so I know what to focus on."

At this point, either keep pressing your manager for specific things you can do, then prove you're doing them so this feedback doesn't remain in the realm of nebulous "we don't like your personality." Or, your manager might realize this doesn't actually impact your work performance at all.

Go into it with an attitude of open curiosity though, really play up the naive ingenue -- if your manager thinks you're trying to lead him to conclusions or litigate the feedback, this won't work.
posted by hyperion at 8:55 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some Unknown Behavior Monitors are apparently informing on me to my manager since I rarely come into contact with anyone outside my own team, and they are not the initiators of this.

Stop dignifying this bullshit with a response or a concern. Raise an eyebrow, deliver some totally professional assurances, shake your head, soldier on.

Internal monologue: "So, you have no issue with my work, correct? Okay, well, uh, I don't know what these anonymous feeeeelings have to do with the price of tea but...it appears there's nothing further about MY PROFESSIONAL CAPABILITIES OR PERFORMANCE. So, I'll keep doing my fucking job really well, and you can keep paying me, and if anyone manages to articulate an actual relevant problem to solve, uhhhhhh lemme know. [boggle]
posted by desuetude at 11:32 PM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What do you hope to get out of this? When my first level supervisor mixes performance based stuff with conduct or attitude, I call her out. You said it's part of your performance eval. How is it worded? Works and plays well with others? So you'd be rated 'less than fully successful' for having what they characterize as a poor attitude? That's what you need to raise with your HR people and maybe senior management. I'm sort of in the same boat as I'm willing to do whatever is asked of me but I'm not my bosses dream employee. That guy is on my team - he's a super duper boy scout eager beaver, but he's not me. You can't compare me to him, you've got to compare me to the standard.
posted by fixedgear at 3:50 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was once the only male in a otherwise female-staffed & managed department. When I started getting weird nebulous unattributed negative feedback claiming that other colleagues had minor attitude-based problems with me, it turned out to be pure fiction- just the opening salvo in another manager's attempt to make things difficult for me politics. It was just nasty office politics but it escalated. I say watch your back - someone may be gunning for you.
posted by jcrcarter at 8:43 AM on July 27, 2016

This happened to me recently at a tech company, so much so that I am SUPER CURIOUS about where you live because it sounds so similar. I ended up getting a different job because I don't think I could possibly have dismantled the system that says women should be positive and men are allowed to have opinions. It goes so deep that if it's already happening at that institutional level in your organization, you're not going to get anywhere. Like, where I worked was literally having classes on Unconscious Bias, and STILL doing this shit where "well masquesoporfavor had feedback that was negative and we don't like complainers even though her criticisms are totally valid." So I'm sorry but either smile or look for a new job. If you want to fight it, feel free to leave it in their Glassdoor reviews or in your exit interview. Also if you feel like it, send me a MeMail?
posted by masquesoporfavor at 8:51 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great replies, thank you all. And thank you for the link neworder7.

I am inspired to look for more research (scholarly is best, vs Buzzfeed et al). There appears to be a lot out there...

I'm hoping to gather some good info to help illuminate this to a bunch a people who seem to have no idea how offensive they are being in the name of "culture."
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:48 AM on July 28, 2016

Smile or Die
posted by neworder7 at 8:07 PM on August 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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