(How) can I effectively have a discussion about sexism with a coworker?
February 26, 2019 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm a female programmer on an IT team where everyone else is male. There is rampant sexism where I work. I had finally had enough of being ignored, interrupted and steamrolled on a multi-hour call the other today, and let the two coworkers on the call know that I could ask to be taken off the project if my input was not welcome. This evening, one of them (the worst offender) texted me and asked if we could have lunch tomorrow and discuss "how we can work together better". I don't know how or if I can do this, given my current level of anger about this issue. I'm looking for suggestions, and any personal anecdotes from people who have had such conversations.

I am so angry about this issue at this point that I may not be able to have a productive conversation with this coworker. I don't know whether I should decline the conversation, try to express myself in writing instead, or become a Zen monk between tonight and lunchtime tomorrow, such that I can have a dispassionate conversation about this.

This is one of the two worst jobs I've ever had in terms of sexism. Here are some previous comments about it.

Recent lowlights have included my supervisor saying to a coworker "take off your skirt, don't be a girl" when he was trying to convince him to do something for which he wasn't qualified and usually has help from an outside contractor. And the VP of engineering attending one of our IT meetings, making zero eye contact with me until the very end of the meeting, when he cussed and then looked directly at me to apologize.

I've been variously accused by my supervisor and others of not having a friendly "communication style" when I am too straightforward, and of being too soft-spoken. Apparently there's no way I can be that will result in my being heard. It's always just my fault.

Please note that I will not be going to HR about any of this. Just trust me when I say it would not do any good. Instead, I am actively looking for a new job with a better corporate culture.

One thing that bothers me about trying to have a conversation with this coworker is that in his case, I don't strictly speaking know that it's sexism that is causing this behavior. I strongly suspect it because it is rampant and unchecked at this company, because I haven't observed him treat others this way, and because I have no other explanation for it. But I cannot prove it in a court of law, and thus will probably be gaslit if I try to suggest that part of how we could "work together better" would be for him to become aware of his own gender bias.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Save every thing, diary everyday.
posted by Freedomboy at 4:08 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would take the word "sexism" completely out of the conversation. As soon as you bring up any kind of "ism" the conversation will become about whether or not they are, in fact, sexist, so that's a waste of time. (I totally agree about them being sexist, BTW, I just think it's not a productive conversation path.)

Focus on behaviours. List 5 things (or whatever) that he needs to do. Here are the two things you directly mentioned that sparked the incident today.

1. Don't interrupt when you're talking.
2. Acknowledge your input. "Thank you, nirblegee, got it."

The conversation is about how to work together better, right? If he/they do those things, you'll work together better.

Also, I would totally just keep talking over all the interrupters just because. I would not even pause to acknowledge the interruption.
posted by tinydancer at 4:17 PM on February 26, 2019 [52 favorites]

I'm going through this right now. I fucking hate it.

They're trying to lure you into a trap. There is nothing you can say or do, and nothing they can say or do (except start treating you like a human being, which they're not capable of doing) that will fix this. If you have to have A Conversation, keep it limited in focus. "Well I just felt like I wasn't being heard when I tried to give my input."
posted by bleep at 4:19 PM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

You are not obligated to have lunch with your coworker, or you can propose another time.

If you're up for it, can you give very specific examples of behaviors he's doing that are problematic? "When I suggested foo, you interrupted me to say bar." "When I expressed concerns about bananas and apples, you did not address my concerns and simply said that oranges would handle it."

It doesn't strictly matter if it's sexism or not. If you can come up with specific examples (and maybe get his buy-in to point out future examples in the moment), you can work on this. If he argues with your examples, point out that he asked how to work better with you.
posted by momus_window at 4:19 PM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Why do I have a feeling this is a lunch about how he is going to tell you what *you* need to do to work better with the team? Since, you know, they are all fine and *you're* the only one with a problem.

I don't have any specific advice for how to handle this other than to +1 tinydancer to give those specific suggestions on how "working better" can be accomplished, but I wanted to throw out the idea that he may not be planning to show up being receptive to how *he* or the team can make changes!
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 4:28 PM on February 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

Situation: We were on the phone discussing the projects.
Task: It was our job to figure out X.
Action: I was speaking and Bob and Charlie kept interrupting me.
Result: I assume my input wasn't needed and that I don't belong on the project.
Alternative Action: Wait until I've finished speaking and consider what I've said. Try to "yes and" me when you can or amplify my voice.
Result: I'm of value to the team & my voice being heard will contribute to our good work.

There is a pattern. This is sexism. You should document everything. You can document it in the form of STAR to keep things "fact based" (ugh). For the conversation tomorrow, using STAR-AR works because it is narrowly focused and action oriented. I agree that this guy will shut down if you use the word sexism, which really sucks.

I also agree that you do not have to have this conversation. It's not your job to teach men how not to be sexist. However, it's possible that since this guy is reaching out, he is willing to listen and may eventually become an ally. Start small if you want to build allies with giving them simple ways to support women at the company (don't interrupt them & stop others from interrupting them by saying "hold on Bob, I think Carol was still talking" for example).
posted by CMcG at 4:51 PM on February 26, 2019 [50 favorites]

You don't provide any references to sexist actions your coworker has performed. You do mention he is the worst offender, which to me means that he's done something worse than saying "take off your skirt, don't be a girl". I consider a statement like that to be something that is radically beyond the pale. A person that does something worse than a statement like that is hopeless. There's nothing productive that can be had from such a conversation.

I'm generally in the camp to try to work out unproductive behaviors between coworkers by focusing discussion on the specific behavior to be changed. This would not be one of those discussions. I would ignore the request from the coworker.
posted by saeculorum at 4:52 PM on February 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like you could delay the lunch to get a little more information. "Sorry Brad, I'm busy at lunch today/something came up, but if you would like to get feedback I could do next Tuesday." His reaction to a soft no and the idea of "getting feedback" from you specifically should give you an idea of what his real motivations are. You get extra time to cool off and more information for strategy.

If he's actually interested in helping out, try to recruit him as your... football guy who lets the guy with the actual football get through. Blockers? Tacklers? You get the idea. If you work with bullies, and you get the chance to get one on your side, you might as well take it. "Brad, I feel like I get talked over a lot. One way you could really help is calling out when that happens or drawing attention to my ideas." (If he tries to gaslight and say you don't get talked over a lot, ask him to keep a tally any time you're in meetings together. You're not asking the world; just for him to collect evidence for himself.)

Seconding the diarizing. I'd keep an email thread, mailed to yourself, as a timestamped record of what shit goes down.

I'm really sorry you're in such a rough spot. Tech and techbros are so fucking ugly to women. Fingers crossed for you.
posted by snerson at 5:00 PM on February 26, 2019 [34 favorites]

I agree with tinydancer - delay the conversation until you're ready to have it, and give him specific actions he can perform. But I also agree that you should prepare for him to gaslight you, minimize your concerns, and act like you're the problem. His "don't be a girl" comment is fucking reprehensible, and I hope you get a better job offer this week.
posted by Nyrha at 5:04 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Context: I'm a 58 year old female engineer. I've been the first woman engineering manager on a 3000 person site. I'm often the only woman in the room. In fact, I have spent the last 4 hours in a meeting with a dozen other colleagues and our biggest customer and I'm the only female.

I read your post from this summer and this post. I get your need to build your retirement accounts (do I ever!). I echo the comments above that making your colleague aware of his sexism will likely be frustrating and not result in change. If you do want to respond to his ask, I think the STAR-AR model that CMcG outlined is probably the most useful.

It has been a while since I read it and I hate the title, but "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman," has the best description I've seen of what it is like to be a woman working in a male-dominated workplace. I also like the fact that she didn't say "here's what you need to do" but rather "here's what they [men] will expect and here's what you can do to counteract that."

I wish you all the luck in your job search and in dealing with where you are until then.
posted by elmay at 5:10 PM on February 26, 2019 [20 favorites]

In your shoes, I would honestly waste absolutely as little time, energy, and emotional labor as I could on this. This is not a flippant quip response. In all seriousness, spend as few spoons as you can here, including mental energy.

I wish you better days.
posted by Dashy at 5:14 PM on February 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

If I were in your shoes and accepted this invitation to talk, I think it’s likely I’d find myself extremely tempted to quit on the spot. If you can envision this happening for any reason (like you think he’d be rude or bait you, or if explicitly addressing it becomes a channel for catharsis) and aren’t set up to be between jobs, I agree, it’s better to defer until you feel like you can approach this with a cool head and a plan.

This all sounds awful. Hope you get another job ASAP.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:58 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

You are the outlier in this team. In their eyes *you* are the problem. You're being taken out to lunch - by the worst one! - to be told all that is wrong *with you.* Don't go to lunch! There is literally nothing on earth you could possibly say to be heard. Can you brainstorm ways to keep as low a profile as possible, do as little as possible, care as little as possible while you search for another job? I'm so sorry you're dealing with this.
posted by missmary6 at 6:03 PM on February 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

spend as few spoons as you can here

Nthing this. These people aren't going to change. I'm male, so I've never experienced the kind of toxic environment you're in, but I have tried to stick it out in bad work situations where every day had me brooding on the game theory of every little interaction, and my only regret in any of those is not ejecting sooner.

There's tremendous demand for senior developers.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:21 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm looking for suggestions, and any personal anecdotes from people who have had such conversations.

I was in a small group of people working on a project and I was the only woman. I was very part time and the project lead frequently wanted my input at "meetings" which were more like Skype co-work sessions, when I had other work to do. I was told I was being too "strident" in a meeting and I snapped back "You would never say that if I was a man" Dead silence and a lot of O_O. Afterwards my "boss" (technically not signing my paychecks but the lead on this project) wanted to have a big email processing session with him. Wrote out a long "How we can work together" document which was more about me understanding his perspective and interpreting things differently and a lot less of his doing anything differently and especially not anything differently as a manager. I wrote back something glib and non-answery and got off that project as soon as I could. During my exit interview I was asked about that incident (and a few other weird crappy things that I don't think were exactly sexism as just "No one knows how to work with women and do not care" which is similar but different) and did not feel the larger organization really was in a position to do anything about the project, so I just cut bait. Only mentioning any of this because it was early last year and I feel like I took most of the proactive steps but I am also Still Mad about it, so I sympathize and encourage you as others are suggesting to not have lunch with this guy while mad.
posted by jessamyn at 8:01 PM on February 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

I am an early-retired female software engineer and boy, do I hear you on this post and the older post you linked.

One thing I want to add to this conversation: I agree that if you use the words sexist/misogynist/etc, you will win neither the battle, not the war. However, you can say things like "I noticed a pattern where you will say X to me but not to the other people on the team", "you often raise your voice when talking to me, sometimes to the point of yelling. I don't see you doing it to other people so I wonder why that is?" and so on.

To do this you must pick 3 issues because 1 or 2 is too little to be a pattern but more than 3 is too much for your pea-brained co-workers to handle. Then, before getting into what those issues are, you say "Are you sure you are ready to have a frank discussion? Because you may not like what I have to say." When he says yes, you say "Ok great. But I ask that you don't interrupt me. Can you do that?" and only then you proceed with your issues.

He will try to derail and deny but you don't have to let him. If he derails with "I am not sexist, HOW DARE YOU", you say "Can we please not derail this meeting? I am not here to discuss sexism. If you don't think that you treat me poorly just because I am a woman, I believe you. Now can we get back to the issue where you interrupt/raise your voice/etc? I need to know that you are willing to address these 3 issues". If he denies with "I don't do those things, HOW DARE YOU", you say "You don't interrupt me or raise your voice at me? Wow, ok. Well, I am glad to know I was mistaken. I guess we didn't have to have this meeting after all." - and then you walk out.

Finally, for what that's worth: I have a brave female friend who used to talk a lot about "going into the fear" and I've always found this framing/mental imagery really helpful in extreme anxiety-laden situations like these. But I am the type where the more mad I get, the more stone cold I get. YMMV.

Good luck. Keep your head high, and please update us on how it went. I am rooting for you!
posted by rada at 8:11 PM on February 26, 2019 [41 favorites]

I would advise you not to say something like "Well I just felt like I wasn't being heard when I tried to give my input."

Much better to make statements of fact about behaviours rather than your feelings. Then [assuming goodwill on their part] your co-workers will know what behaviours should be changed.

If you just talk about how you felt they will have no idea what to do about that.

tinydancers suggestion is a good one.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:30 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have worked in majority-male workplaces my whole professional life and this sounds like a complete shitshow.

I think there are a couple of possibilities here. One is that this lunch invitation is basically a trap, and you're going to get an earful about how your (and only your) behavior is undesirable/inappropriate and needs to be improved. Another, less likely, possibility is that this guy realizes he crossed some kind of line and is nominally acting in good faith, but will not in fact be receptive to much honest feedback and is mostly looking for reassurance that there is nothing wrong with him.

Don't accept the lunch invitation tomorrow. You might not be able to keep your temper, and it gives the impression that this guy is doing you some kind of favor and gets to control the conversation.

Leave discussion of sexism out of it. Guys like this have never done anything sexist, tech is a meritocracy and everyone is judged strictly by their work. Even men who will admit to the theoretical possibility of sexist bias in the field will become defensive and shut down if you question their own behavior.

However, you'd be happy to give him some feedback at a time and place of your choosing. Schedule a regular meeting room for this. This is a conversation you want to own. Make your feedback strictly, unassailably neutral. It's not polite to interrupt someone when they are speaking. If a team member raises a point during a meeting, it should be acknowledged. Etc. It's not about you, it's about the health and productivity of the team.
I've been working with my current stack for almost 2 years. Prior to that, I had about a decade of development experience.
Sounds senior to me (I'm a software engineering manager). Don't sell yourself short.
posted by 4rtemis at 8:42 PM on February 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

Do not have this conversation alone. You don't need to have HR there, but you should have an ally. You should not be having any conversations about workplace conduct without a witness.

Post conversation send an immediate email with your take aways and mutually agreed upon next steps. Document!
posted by brookeb at 9:01 PM on February 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

There are so many great suggestions here - I want to favorite them all. I've been in this boat so many times myself. I definitely agree with postponing the lunch until you can speak rationally rather than angrily.

I agree too that bringing up an "ism" or threatening to go to HR will put a target on your back.

Last time it happened to me I wrote a list of things that were bothering me and tweaked it multiple times. I tried to leave out my own accusations, negative comments, and make it as neutral as possible. Try to frame your concerns as "I would like to participate more on project X, specifically by doing y and z."

I honestly don't know - I've never been able to avoid this problem. I think your best solution here is to look for a job at a different company.

My parents raised me to "never trust your manager." I thought I had a good manager last year and I made the mistake of trusting him and I was lied to, gaslighted, blamed, ignored, etc. Never trust your manager.
posted by bendy at 9:21 PM on February 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

This evening, one of them (the worst offender) texted me and asked if we could have lunch tomorrow and discuss "how we can work together better".

Would this guy or any of these guys earnestly comply with such an invitation if initiated by you?

Yeah no I didn't think so.
posted by desuetude at 11:07 PM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

I‘m considering how an alpha guy would react to this invitation. Yeah, alpha guy would probably either tell the guy to stuff it and that if he wants to work with you better he needs to stfu while you‘re talking, no meeting required.
Or if he wants to meet up he‘d demand to reschedule to some time and place that works for him but inconveniences the asker.

I don‘t know if that would work for you as a woman (probably not). But it does imply that this meeting, as is, is not going to work in your favour.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:26 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

F, games industry here.
Rada's and 4temis responses are fierce, and ring spot on for me.

( By the way, I found Crucial Conversations offered some useful tools. And hell yes, I hope you find a healthy place to work.)
posted by spandex at 11:37 PM on February 26, 2019

I‘m considering how an alpha guy would react to this invitation. Yeah, alpha guy would probably either tell the guy to stuff it and that if he wants to work with you better he needs to stfu while you‘re talking, no meeting required.
Or if he wants to meet up he‘d demand to reschedule to some time and place that works for him but inconveniences the asker.

I don‘t know if that would work for you as a woman (probably not)

Works for me as a woman just fine.

It's like training dogs. Be either very mean when they're bad or very friendly when they are good. People rapidly adjust their behavior if you're consistent with your punishments/ rewards.

As far as lunch: Never complain and never explain. Just do you. Tell him lunch isn't appropriate for what should be a meeting and that really you don't have time and as far as you are concerned the matter is settled.

If they don't like it they can act different towards you next time and get a different result. Their anxiety surrounding their own unprofessional behavior is not your problem
posted by fshgrl at 11:51 PM on February 26, 2019 [17 favorites]

lunch isn't appropriate for what should be a meeting

100% this.
posted by Miko at 3:57 AM on February 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

YES to all these fantastic comments.

No lunch. Never. If it happens at all, it's a meeting about the project, that YOU initiate at YOUR convenience. It's never about behavior or people or male/female ANYTHING. It's about how work is impacted by blockages. It's about how status reporting or feedback was impacted by lack of time. Etc. Etc.

No more texting- that takes the situation out of scope. He was wrong to do that in the first place.

Keep job-hunting and talk over those assholes as if they were not there. Do your work. Excel. Never derail. It's work and only work. Try your damndest to bcome a gray rock.

And GTFO as soon as you can, and hope by God the next place is better.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:06 AM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just a suggestion for everyone who's tired of being interrupted/talked over:

(In a testy tone) "Pardon me for talking while you interrupt."

Repeat as necessary.
posted by Lunaloon at 6:00 AM on February 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

Good for you. They sound like spoiled little children and sometimes you just need someone to say so out loud for things to improve.
posted by fshgrl at 4:15 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I bet it felt good to speak those words to him. When you "go there" and actually give voice to things that usually seem verboten in the workplace, it can be incredibly freeing. I hope that in the midst of your (very righteous) anger, you got at least a little of that.

Cheering for you! In the depths of all this crap, if it helps at all, remember that there are lots of internet strangers throwing their support your way. I've been there. Don't let the assholes get you down.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:43 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

> He rationalized it as being "just the way he is". However, 1. I don't observe him acting like this with S.

If you can get your brain to cooperate, it is satisfying (uh, in a manner of speaking) to turn this sort of rationalization right back on the other person as a neutral matter-of-fact question. So, S says "that's just the way he is" and you skip as few beats as possible before politely saying "that's the way he is with you?" And then just look him in the eye cooly. If he tries to bullshit a "yes he's like that with everyone" you can say "when was he 'like that' with you most recently? Just for an example."

Don't get defensive and don't make the comparison yourself. Don't do any cognitive work for the lazy-minded enablers. Extra fantasy mic-drop points: Feel free to get bored and excuse yourself during the babbled incoherent answer.
posted by desuetude at 6:47 PM on February 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

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