Is this sexist behavior and how can I address it with my boss?
March 12, 2019 1:10 PM   Subscribe

My male coworker is being given opportunities that do not seem to be merit based. I am expected to provide support and help with his growing responsibilities while my performance is consistently and quantifiably higher than his and I have more direct experience in this role. I cannot find another reason to explain this situation other than plain old sexism.

I am dealing with growing frustration as my male cowowrker is being presented more and more opportunities for growth, while I’m staying stagnant at best.

He was brought in at the same band and title from a similar department to co-manage a large team, which is layered under each one of us but does the same work, after some big changes took place (people moving on, some were laid off, grand-scale restructuring). My current boss was also brought in at the same time, although the two had not worked together before.

At first, since he did not have direct experience in this role, it was expected that I would help show him the ropes and his overall transition. I did this gladly by almost doubling my own workload because I wanted to build a good rapport and I figured, in the end, this would benefit us both and bring in some much needed help.

However, almost a year later, I am still expected to provide unconditional support for the “greater good of the team” while he is trusted with significant projects or is seeing his team grow with people that I train and prepare for the role, since he is still pulling the newbie card.

As objective as I can be, I do not think his performance is better than mine in any area and on the contrary, the performance of my portion of the team outshines his. I handle multiple tasks at once and anticipate issues he would not be able to recognize yet before they even happen. I have taken initiatives that have resulted in some significant positive changes and despite juggling multiple large projects at once, I have always delivered at or beyond expectations. I write all this not to sound obnoxious but to paint a picture, at least the way I see it.

My manager is largely absent and very hands off but I don’t really mind it since I work better independently. They gave me a good performance review, have never expressed any issues with my performance and find me reliable and knowledgeable as far as I’m aware.

Yet he is constantly being given opportunities that I did not even know existed until they were handed to him. And because he has the excuse of a growing workload, it is still expected that I will fill in the gaps and smooth things over, like finding and training employees that will eventually be added to his team, or jumpstarting work which he will end up completing or sharing credit for, although I have done 80% of the work.

I tried to give my boss the benefit of the doubt the first couple of times I observed it since it was presented as a matter of convience (e.g. project would mainly affect territory that coworker is in charge of) and chalked up my annoyance to me reading too much into it.

However, I found out today that he is being literally handed a project that I identified and already started, which means he will get a pretty much finished product and just add some final touches and call it his. It was presented again in the same light except the location/territory has 0 impact on this project being carried out. Also, this reason has never been a deciding factor before, and I’ve been given only a vague explanation of “we want to align projects with territories more”. While it sounds reasonable at first, it actually has no bearing on the execution or the outcome of the project in 90% of the cases, because the final work is meant for a much broader audience that is not territory dependent.

I’m at a loss as to why he’s being so blatantly chosen over me or why I’m expected to play a generously supportive role in projects where I can 100% deliver a better result. I would like to bring it up with my boss and be prepared to counterargue points that are irrelevant to the projects without sounding like I’m discrediting their assessment or coming off as accusatory.

While the company is generally politically correct, there is plenty of subtle sexism (majority of most important positions are held by men, senior management almost exclusively male, etc.)which I suppose is a reality to most workplaces, so I don’t find this reason to be too far fetched. But it is not something I can really bring up without solid evidence so I don’t want to take that approach with my boss.

Do you have any recommendations on how I can bring this up, what questions to ask and what language to use in general when I address it? I’m anxious about the conversation being shut down with vague reasons again and don’t know how to persist without creating more problems.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that issues like this are extremely difficult for the manager to solve. The way you've stated your entry here is all about the coworker, and not as much about yourself.

The way I would bring this up is to ask for more responsibility. You can handle some tasks that are bigger. You would love to manage the next earnings report or call.

But honestly, this kind of division can be "normal" for what you've described - sex aside. If someone is more responsible, you usually want them in the supporting role. He might have you doing the backbone for your coworker not because he means to demean you, but because he knows it will be done properly.

I would make a list of the changes you would like to see around the workplace (Tasks handed out, recognition for contributions, etc) and try to formulate meetings with your boss around that list. I would try to avoid mentioning your coworker in the conversations if possible.
posted by bbqturtle at 1:49 PM on March 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

Another thing to think about is whether and how your boss is aware of what you are doing to support your co-worker. You do a lot of things for your coworker that contribute to his success -- does your boss know that? And if he does know it, in what light are you casting it and/or is he perceiving it?

Women are expected to pitch in and help -- and we aren't always rewarded for it. In fact, sometimes helping can hold us back, either because we are then perceived to be in a lessor role, or because we are so busy helping that others think we are too busy to take on other tasks. I call this the "getting another chair" game -- if you are in a crowded conference room, where all the chairs are full and someone comes in, 9 times out of 10, it will be a woman who gets up from the meeting and goes to find another chair. Even if she's the only woman. Even if she's leading the meeting. Even if she really needs to hear what is said. No one told her it was her job to get another chair, she just does it. Why can't the new person get their own chair? Why can't a man get a chair for the new person? When you go get the chair (or train the staff or organize the work or whatever) you are passively saying "I'm here to help." You need to think about if that's what you are passively saying, and find a way to change that to "I'm here to work."
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:42 PM on March 12, 2019 [12 favorites]

Assuming your account is accurate, there’s probably no good reason things are happening this way. You can’t be 100% sure it’s sexism, but it’s probably that or something dumber. The most positive, non-controversial way you can deal with this is to tell your boss you want more responsibility. You can say that watching Male Coworker has made you realize that as you already do 80% of the supportive work and also know how to deliver, that you’re very confident you could excel in a more visible role. Driving home the fact that you do ~80% of Male Coworker’s job already, plus you have more experience and a highly tangible plan for how to get great results, is a convincing case and you never had to say anything about gender.

If they keep holding you back for some reason without setting actionable goals for you (things you can work on and prove you’ve accomplished, results you can deliver, etc.) then they might be sexist and/or just regular jackasses and you should look for a new company or a way to get promoted around this particular boss’s incompetence.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:12 PM on March 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also you’re the expert on your own job security etc., but I think you can say 1) this plan is great for the company while 2) implying that you’re looking for growth opportunities and will move on if you don’t find them.

Frankly, I don’t agree that getting chairs for other people holds women back. I think what holds women back is 1) misogyny in hiring, promotions, etc. and on a much more minor note 2) the fact that many women don’t fully realize the impact of misogyny on our careers (because it would be cripplingly sad). You can stop e.g. getting chairs for people, but if your boss gave you the title of Chief Chair Getter (as he basically did here) then not getting chairs anymore isn’t going to help. So you have to find a way to demonstrate that you can do something else besides getting chairs, whether that’s by asking for an opportunity or gathering past evidence or going rogue.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:15 PM on March 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

If at all possible, I’d approach your manager (in writing) re. a discussion of your mentorship of you colleague.

I’d put down in writing something along the lines of:

1. Very happy to have been tasked with mentorship of colleague x this past year; this is what we have achieved together in our respective roles of mentor and mentee:
a. I have been able to prepare him to do x, y z, by doing x1, y1, z1 myself, and b. these are the ways in which what you have achieved together as a mentor-mentee team has contributed to his development and to the company’s bottom line.

b. In your experience working as a mentor for colleague x, these are the things that were most beneficial to colleague’s development and team/ company’s bottom line.

c. Whatever c you can squeeze in that purports to say ‘look how amazing colleague x’s development was’ while surreptitiously highlighting how amazing YOUR work as a mentor/ initiator of projects was. Things like ‘he was able to do x,y,z to finalize the amazing project started by the rest of the team and me’.

2. You feel that colleague x is ready to fly solo and is not in need of mentorship any more.

3. A list of your thoughts for mentorship best practices/ lessons learned, in case they would be of use for anyone else in the company.

4. You want to discuss your own next step now that your mentorship of colleague x allows you to refocus on your projects from A to Z with no need to figure out how to structure them as learning opportunities for colleague x. These are your thoughts on your future projects, now unencumbered by the need to function as someone’s learning curriculum.

Can we meet to discuss 4?

Basically, frame the whole discussion around the idea of your tutelage of him and the fact that it is time for you to relinquish your mentorship role and refocus on your projects from a new perspective (so no more handing over at various stages of completion for ‘teaching purposes’).
posted by doggod at 3:27 PM on March 12, 2019 [46 favorites]

I've dealt with issues like this in the workplace before, as an employee, as a manager, and as a colleague who is giving advice to peers. While sexism certainly is a possible cause, it's on the list along with a lot of other things. And you are certainly only giving a one-sided view of the situation.

But this

he is constantly being given opportunities that I did not even know existed until they were handed to him.

leads me to wonder if you are focused on work/projects/tasks at the detriment of broader relationships and networking in your workplace. This is a really common problem - for both men and women - and it will hinder you in your career. The single best way to get an opportunity in the workplace is to help develop it when it's still just an idea, then put yourself forward for it when leaders are ready to approve it.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 3:37 PM on March 12, 2019 [10 favorites]

One angle you can address is that you want projects that will help you learn and develop -- what are some projects that will help you grow in the areas that you + your manager have agreed are development areas for you? It is reasonable to expect from your manager that they are giving you tasks that will help you improve. Your colleague could be curing cancer for all you care, the important thing is that you are getting tasks that will help you grow. The only extent to which your co-worker's tasks matter is that your support of him is a distraction for you. I like doggod's framework for addressing this.

I would add that as a manager I try to avoid giving people projects where I am 100% sure they can deliver a great result. The entire point is that people are getting projects that stretch them. I have definitely had to deal with people getting upset because they weren't given the high profile project, because I thought the high profile project was too easy for them or would be a good stretch project for someone else on the team whose development areas it aligned with. I would not assume that the manager thinks the new guy is better than you just because he's getting more high profile projects. Your manager may well think you're more competent. That's doesn't let them off the hook for not giving you interesting, challenging work of your own, though.
posted by phoenixy at 4:05 PM on March 12, 2019

I believe you. In my previous career I consistently watched really great women at my level and above (not me) get passed over for men, or rarely another woman brought in by a man. They advanced after a certain point by changing companies, or at least divisions/brands.

That said, I think the advice to a) be really explicit with your boss about what you do and b) network more is sound. I would add, talk to your boss about your goals...and frankly, if what you want is to take a project over the finish line, say that too.

And finally, be prepared to move up by moving out to another company.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:48 PM on March 12, 2019 [10 favorites]

I would ask my supervisor for a meeting. Then I would say “I see Dave being offered opportunities that I did not even know existed. I would love to have opportunities like that. What can you suggest I do in regards to my own performance that would put me in line for that type of opportunity.” Keep it about your own performance not about comparisons to Dave’s, but in the ensuing discussion you may be able to use your experiences mentoring Dave as examples of your excellent abilities. And you may come out with some goals to pursue in your own development.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:55 PM on March 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Not to abuse the edit button I will add this critical point to my post above. This discussion will also put your supervisor on the spot to address why you have not been offered similar opportunities thus far.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:59 PM on March 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi. I believe you. I think most women, especially ones who can describe their situation as thoughtfully as you have, critique their own work deeply before concluding that sexism is what is holding them back.

I don't have any fresh ideas about how to solve this but I think doggod's idea is a good one. Really hammering on how doing the mentoring task you were assigned was of great benefit to the company, now it's time for the company to compensate that good work and let you get back to your regular job description, with the better opportunities you've shown you're prepared to handle.

It may be that your boss needs a nudge to challenge his assumptions about your work preferences. Is it possible to point out to him that you are able to and interested in completing the projects you have finished 80 or 90% of?

I'm sorry, but I think this sentiment is a dangerous one to internalize:
But honestly, this kind of division can be "normal" for what you've described - sex aside. If someone is more responsible, you usually want them in the supporting role. He might have you doing the backbone for your coworker not because he means to demean you, but because he knows it will be done properly.
It reads to me like a recipe for making women do the grunt work while men get promoted. I cannot think of one single time that I have seen a man be the supporting party because he is more responsible while a woman gets to present his work as her own. You are not this man's support staff and it is 100% fair to find a way to avoid that dynamic.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:46 PM on March 12, 2019 [29 favorites]

Personally, I'm skeptical there is anything you can do to fix this situation, but if you're willing to risk burning your bridges on the off chance that you'll accomplish something, you can try going to your boss and saying something like "I hear you're giving ABC project to co-worker dude. I'm not sure if you're aware, but I've already done the groundwork to establish the project, completed the initial documentation, and drafted the final goals [or whatever you've done]. Here's my work [handing over documentation] While I'm sure co-worked dude has some thoughts on the project, I know that if I and my team were to finish up the work that has already been started, the company would save X% and have a Y% better time to market [insert appropriate metrics and projections] because it would be more efficient since co-worker dude wouldn't have to waste time getting up to speed on the issue, and it would prevent him from duplicating work already done."

That way it's not about you, it's about you creating a unique benefit to the company and making your boss look good (delivering a project in a quicker time frame than expected).

As I said, I really don't think there's much more than a very slim chance this would work, but seeing as it was just handed off to coworker dude today, the timing is about as good as it's going to get for you to reclaim this.

I really do feel for you. You're getting shafted, and I doubt it's being done innocently. I'd start looking for a new job (and believe me, I know how hard that is) because I've found that once the business relationship turns sour and management breaks your trust in them and the company, things never get better. They only get worse as you grow more and more resentful and your bosses realize the gig is up and they can no longer pull the wool over your eyes, so they begin looking for an excuse to make you and the problems you're going to cause disappear.
posted by sardonyx at 9:25 PM on March 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

If he’s being given lots of growth opportunities and getting credit for projects he’s barely worked on, while having someone ostensibly on his level do the grunt work, I’d guess he’s being groomed for a more senior role. Time to throw your hat in the ring and ask for a promotion.

Tell your boss you are keen to grow, your performance is consistently stellar, you have taken xyz initiatives that have resulted in some significant positive changes, and you’ve coached a new starter and supported his projects in xyz ways while delivering your own.

If you are told no, ask what you need to do to get there, and ask for the increased responsibility/opportunities you’ve seen your male coworker taking on (no need to mention the coworker, just say ‘I would love to work on xyz project and I think I would add value in the following ways’).

You sound incredibly valuable and I would keep the discussion focussed on your achievements, expanded role, and frustration with your career stagnation and lack of development opportunities.

They are taking you for granted because so far you’ve been a good solider and haven’t asked for more. Let them know you know your worth.
posted by Dwardles at 12:58 AM on March 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is it possible that he is asking for opportunities and you are not? It's a really common pattern that overconfident males will ask for advancement (and get it) while highly qualified women will wait to be recognized for the quality of their work (but be passed over).
posted by Candleman at 1:06 AM on March 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I believe you; I see what you're describing happen in health care all the time.

I love doggod's script above.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:00 AM on March 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

"I found out today that he is being literally handed a project that I identified and already started, which means he will get a pretty much finished product and just add some final touches and call it his."

I think the fact that this is fresh means that you might have a window here. If it were me, I would get a meeting with my boss (or the one who did the assigning) today, and flat out say I heard that Bro was given the assignment, and I'm really surprised. I did X, Y Z on it and naturally I assumed that I would be leading it forward.

Don't ask, don't demand, don't ask why - Just state that you're surprised and let the uncomfortable silence hang. Assuming your boss believes in you in general, they will either explain why, or they will flip it onto you and ask what you want. The explanation can either be countered ("I understand, but how do you think I feel when I work this hard on something and then don't get to see it to completion"), accepted with benefit to you ("I understand, but next time, I'd like to run this all the way to completion"), or put down ("I'm really disappointed. I put a lot into that project and it feels like it was handed off as if I did a bad job") -- Any of those responses let the boss know that you're not willing to be taken for granted. And let them know you're unhappy in a way that shouldn't make them feel defensive about it. "I'm disappointed" is one of those magical phrases that gets results since it's not judgy and it's also not super emotional, so people see it as blaming the system rather than themselves. And "how" questions let them answer you with a solution-based response (rather than "why" which makes them automatically need to defend or justify - which usually backfires). If you're super lucky and they actually ask what you want, say you'd prefer to finish the project.

Separately from this immediate issue, I'd also ask if they have any sort of leadership training program in place (this could be an HR ask). Letting them you want to be taken seriously as a potential leader goes a lot farther in getting ahead than being a good soldier.
posted by Mchelly at 6:14 AM on March 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

I am looking for a new job after spending 10+ years unofficially running my group for my boss and watching white man after white man come in and get promoted above me. In some cases they got promotions based on my work (I.e. I did all of the work on the project and they got the promotion). Old boss retired and guess who got the manager job he’d promised me over and over again for years? That’s right, one of the golden boys.

So, I’d recommend taking the advice above to try and see what can be done where you are, but you may have to find another job to actually get anywhere. The bonus there is that you can reinvent yourself a bit. You can stop being the person who gets the chair, so to speak.
posted by cabingirl at 8:50 AM on March 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Two things I've noticed that can separate people (not always among gender lines) into the promoted and not promoted are-

1. The promoted either sell themselves well or their manager sells them. I recently saw this at my company where a low level employee trapped the CEO in a conversation for five minutes. They are going to have a follow up meeting. I asked someone senior to him if she ever does things like that, and she says she doesn't. In another case, a female director would answer "I don't know" to the CEO's questions, while a male director would say, "I believe it is [total bullshit answer], but let me verify and get back to you." He was the one that was promoted.

2. The promoted ask for more. Your coworker may be asking for the opportunities while you aren't. The author of Women Don't Ask discusses this: When Linda Babcock asked why so many male graduate students were teaching their own courses and most female students were assigned as assistants, her dean said: "More men ask. The women just don't ask."

I would try asking for more and selling what you do more. There might be times where you will have to ask the hard questions though- "Let me get this straight. I am responsible for doing my work plus a portion of male coworker's work. You expect me to be okay with work that male coworker will get credit for?"

You are asking your manager to shift their perception of you. Some managers can do this; others can not. If yours is in the not category, start looking for another job.
posted by Monday at 12:52 PM on March 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

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