Tech & Work

Workplace sexism: Glass ceilings are supported by glass walls

There is often a disconnect in the workplace because of subtle gender discrimination. Why is this and what can be done about it?

Scene: I'm in a meeting with both female and male colleagues. Lots of information is flowing back and forth between the guys in the room. At one point a female colleague of mine begins to speak and, in unison, two of the male co-workers she's speaking to begin to check their iPhones and very obviously (though, I will concede, unconsciously) tune her out. The woman speaking had perhaps the most procedural knowledge of anyone in that room but for some reason, these guys didn't see fit to listen.

This is not the first time I've witnessed something like this in my career and it won't be the last. [Quick note to all of you TechRepublic members who like to go ballistic when I write a blog about the female experience in the American workplace. You are welcome, as usual, to point out how delusional my observations are. But you can't argue what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. Please send all death threats to toni.bowers@techrepublic.com.]

The exception but not the rule

I have worked with some wonderful men over the years. I have never, thankfully, been witness to any blatant quid pro quo discrimination ("You go out with me, and I'll give you a raise."). I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen, only that I have never personally witnessed it, so I won't speak on it.

However, I was once taken out of consideration for a promotion because I was on maternity leave and the VP felt that my "place was with my new baby." I did not take exception to his personal beliefs on the subject, but I took exception to how he brought his personal beliefs to bear on MY career.

A couple of years later a colleague of mine at the same company hired me in a lateral move to work as a manager in his group. He was chastised by his boss for bringing me in at a salary that was equal to that the guys were making, saying specifically, "Her husband works. We could have gotten her for a lot less." Thankfully, my colleague knew my capabilities and thought I should be paid appropriately, regardless of my marital status. He was an enlightened, upstanding guy. His boss was not.

For the ensuing years, I had dream work experiences. I've had great bosses — both men and women. Men have sought out my management expertise. They didn't always take my recommendations but they considered them. That is all I ask for.

Is there a glass "wall?"

Now, let's hop forward 15 years to the present day. Here at TechRepublic, there are four of us — two men and two women — who do informational videos on the site. I'll let you guess which two have received suggestions in the forum from members who would like to see mud-wrestling or a bathing suit competition. After I posted one of my videos in which I wore a short-sleeved top with a slightly scoop-necked tee shirt, one member posted that he liked the information but that "too much skin is distracting." (Note to that guy; I have news for you, buddy. Your glandular-induced attention deficit disorder is your problem, not mine.)

I don't want special treatment because I'm a woman. But I would most certainly like to be afforded the same respect as my male colleagues, until the time I do or say something which makes that impossible. Let me note for the record that most of TechRepublic's members do not make obnoxious, gender-based observations, and I love them for that.

Now, atrocious, over-the-top behavior aside, I would like to introduce here a new term to give sociologists something to chew on — the "glass wall." We've all heard the term "glass ceiling" (which refers to the invisible but real barrier that keeps women and minorities from advancing in their careers). I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. It has been my experience that it is not an invisible barrier above that keeps minorities down, it is the one that sometimes exists between men and women who work side by side.

Since I've been in the IT publishing business for so many years, I can only speak for the behavior I've witnessed among the people there.  I can say that it hasn't been very often that I've been spoken to in a sexually inappropriate way by an IT guy. The bias that I see more often is a little more complicated. I don't hear inappropriate comments from IT guys I've worked with because many of them seem very content not to speak to women at all. Obviously, I'm not saying that all men in IT have some sort of complex about women, but I have noticed that the ones who do,  make it pretty obvious in their actions and demeanor.

Shyness or hostility?

I don't have a problem with shyness, but it sometimes goes beyond that. Some guys don't even respond to a "good morning." I hear them yukking it up among themselves but, as a woman, I often sense an attitude that feels like hostility when I or other of my female colleagues attempt to converse with them. (I would be completely accepting of this if they knew me and just hated me. But that's not the case — they don't, if you will, know me well enough to hate me.)

Occasionally in the TR forum, I and others have lamented about this perception of unfriendliness.  Here are some of the common explanations we get from some IT pros themselves:

They're introverted. Fair assumption. But I am, at my core, also introverted. I consciously forced myself out of my comfort zone (and the self-inflicted isolation) and learned to greet people and to smile. It may be a herculean effort for some people to interact on a superficial, small-talk level, but it should at least be attempted. They don't have social skills. No one's asking you to be the office MC. But try to make the minimum effort. They're too intelligent. This places them on a separate plane that has nothing to do with gender. That's fine and good if you reside in a Plexiglas bubble at the top of a Nepali peak that is unreachable by airplane. But you happen to be in a workplace among people who have to work together to make a company succeed. As young men, IT pros faced rejection by women. You have every right to hold a grudge against that vapid cheerleader that stood you up in the 10th grade if she's in the cubicle next to you. But don't blame every other women for her. Men are just as wrong to carry their emotional baggage over to all their relationships with members of the opposite sex as would be a woman who has been burned in a horrid divorce who now thinks all men are reprehensible. I once knew a woman whose self-esteem issues made her react to her male co-workers with just plain meanness. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frankly, if their perspectives are that limited, I wouldn't want to work with any of those people, male or female.

Not only are workers indirectly downplaying the validity of another co-worker when they can't even bother with civility, but they are injuring their own careers in the process. Eventually, well-meaning co-workers will stop tapping on the glass walls that surround those kinds of people.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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