IT Employment

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.

469 comments
syedasimmahmud
syedasimmahmud

i think women should wear BURQA in work place,so men can focus on work.....so women in this way will be treated not as sex symbol but will be judge on her performance....secondly to tell you no matter how well behaved man is working in your office he does compare breast size among women,as this is an obvious sign that differntiate womem and men......so women is not a sex symbol,...she must be respected , her ability to do work must not be judge by her beauty....(when two bosses talk alone they do some time discuss each others female co-workers.)....

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Treating somebody differently at work because of gender is just as wrong as doing so based on any other physical characteristic. BTW, why'd you have to go wake up the Neanderthals? I've been in the thread an hour and haven't made it halfway through, yet.

jaehn_barbara
jaehn_barbara

Thanks so much! In an early tech position I was at having my male co-worker offered cross training into network. My cross-training? Filling in for the receptionist during her lunch. And still attitudes continue to repeat themselves. I had a very similar experience within the past year.

Big Owl
Big Owl

Frustrated with getting hired, a young man once shared with me that, "No one wants to work with their mom." If you think that a young woman breaking into this business is struggling, try being a woman over 40. At least the "boys" will hire eye-candy every once in a while to answer the phones. The problem with arrogance is how limiting it can be to one's social and business health.

gueibor
gueibor

Oh my, oh my, oh my. People, really. All this flame war because of an article on how NERDS ARE AWKWARD AROUND WOMEN? Wow. I hate to break the news to all of you Holy Sextifada Warriors, but it seems to me like you've just been PWNED by Toni... big time. I bet she's already got the picture framed in her living room - boat, lake, smile, fishing rod, and the bug-eyed lot of y'all hanging from a hook in her hand. Well played, Ms. Bowers. Well played indeed.

lindsaychilds
lindsaychilds

Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your article, I completely understand this. I actually work on a cruise ship in IT and if you thought there were few women on land doing IT try it at Sea. I find that I often get talked around as opposed to talked to about issues. The other dynamic I face is the older generation technical men from non- north American countries. So they really almost try to avoid me until anouther one of my male colleagues informs them that they don't know the answer and they need to talk to me. :)

zhaj78
zhaj78

Actually I agree with You TONI, is it not enough 'The Glass Ceiling" now the "Glass Wall". Friendliness never or will hurt anyone. What about "May the Best Man or Woman WIN"???

santeewelding
santeewelding

Understand, also, your kind of talk will get your head blown off in places other than where you are.

AV .
AV .

I'm amazed that some men have such attitudes about their female counterparts. It is neanderthal behavior. I always thought in my working lifetime I would see equality, but it seems to be getting worse. AV

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

"Treating somebody differently at work because of gender is just as wrong as doing so based on any other physical characteristic." But that's exactly what some -- in my view, too many -- women do. "Why'd you have to go wake up the Neanderthals?" 20 years ago, I wasn't a Neanderthal. It was abusive treatment from women that turned me into one.

AV .
AV .

Oh great. Bias because your a woman and age discrimination to boot, though I think older men and women both experience age discrimination. I'm a woman in my 50's and I work with a guy 17 years my junior. I don't think he looks at me that way, but you know what, too bad if he does. He ought to thank me. Everytime he takes off to be "Mr. Mom" to his kids, I cover his job. AV

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

My experience has been that older (and less conventionally "pretty") women are precisely the ones more likely to "act like men", and treat male employees profesionally, rather than as threats. If you have a copy of "Lonesome Dove", browse the last chapters and find the section where Clara Allen psychologically brutalizes July Johnson.

jacobhlms
jacobhlms

perhaps in Argentina things are a bit different. its amazing how fully this issue has imbedded itself up here and how strongly people feel about it. for men it adds a new invisible mine field that is ever-present in our workplaces. we must always be aware of who is nearby and imagine every possible way what we say or do could possibly be twisted in a courtroom. its kindof like being forced to speak in nothing but legal contract vernacular and any slip into normalcy could, potentially, result in your companies downfall. highly stressful any VERY one-sided. they perhaps don't realize that these laws don't only protect them from the rare caveman but are being used to a much greater extent by unscrupulous or just lazy women to make money or to 'get back at' an employer who terminated them. accusations can be purely made up and are difficult to disprove. the only 'safe' path is make sure you have many witnesses to your 'obvious' dislike of this person. whether you dislike them or not. they put us in these circumstances then get pissy when we just don't bother talking to them to avoid the risk and get angry about our silence. the age old catch 22. you cant make em happy..lol.

JCitizen
JCitizen

It seems the Neanderthals are out, eh, santee? I just read breaking news that with the exception of Africans, all other world locations of early man have Neanderthal DNA. This just in from a supposedly respected science study! Seems there was some mixing going on in those days! Er, if you believe these results, that is! HA! :^0

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

I agree, things are getting worse. But it is not only men fault. Many things will get worst first before getting better in a recession environment with a magnitude like this one. The society will embrace many segregation behavioral patterns. Sexism is only one of them, many will still have to follow.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Ever watch the dominant male in a troop of baboons or a mob of chimps? ;\ ]:)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]But that's exactly what some -- in my view, too many -- women do.[/i] And you've never ever done it, of course, the content and tone of your posts notwithstanding.

Big Owl
Big Owl

I hear men talk about how scary it is for them that they have to "be careful" what they say and do around women and I'm unmoved. Imagine how awful the mine field is for women who have to be on alert at all times for everything they say, the way the say it, how they look, even the quality of their voices (more than one study has shown that men and women do not respect high pitched voices)... we only ask that men be respectful of us as co-workers and team members. I understand that not everyone knows "the rules" and that can cause us to feel unbalanced and afraid, but the rules are not hard to learn: be nice, be caring, and above all be professional.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

We were all young back then and even though we are all in 40s right now we are still talking with each other with "girl" and buddy. Did I mention we are still friends ?

santeewelding
santeewelding

Regardless of whether you wrote that intentionally or not -- it sums you.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

but the 2 cases I witness and I still think about were not innocent mistakes like the one you described. I can remember even now the frustration and anger the entire team was sharing. On the other hand I did work with more capable and serious women than those 2 over the years. But again I know what you say. It did happen to me a very very long time ago while I was a student. I did not notice my jeans got a small hole in , well, in the back. I was the only male in a team of 10 there. One day one of my colleagues came to me and told me that this is embarrassing for them. I was simply unaware about the issue. I apologized and bought a new pair of jeans. No harm done. It didn't even reach the boss. Needles to say, I am still friend with many of those girls after all these years.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I've been chewed for wearing inappropriate clothes as a man, so turn about is fair play. I had just moved to a new contract and my good clothes hadn't caught up with me. I have a very long spine and it is hard to find shirts that tuck in. As a technician, it is easy to imagine the "Joe the plumber" situation. My boss chewed my behind for complaints from women for my butt crack disease; and I deserved it; fortunately the new clothes came in that evening and I never got into trouble ever again. I wasn't trying to gross out the women in my work place, it just couldn't be helped. I guess the same could be said for the "sluts" that have been mentioned here. Maybe they just had a bad day like mine.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

I failed then to make my point understandable here. On the other hand and totally outside the sex harassment laws, complimenting a woman for the simple fact that she is beautiful and nicely dress is not a bad thing. As long as we are civilized it is a natural behavior. Of course, we can not practice this kind of social interaction at work, here we have laws, and God knows who and when might want to turn that against you. Hope you understand why most men are playing it safe and do not get involved too much with the opposite sex at work. As for the dressing code I agree it is subjective. Depending on culture and many other personal preferences we can vary from burqua to g-string. However I am pretty sure we can come up with a pretty decent dressing code that we can agree is appropriate for working into an IT environment and not for Hooters. Of course, I am talking here from some pretty sad personal experience. I am not making accusations. Just to be clear.

maecuff
maecuff

I am the female audience. What one person might find provocative another might find flattering. Or something they feel comfortable in. It's very subjective.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

If you do not know what provocative dressing is you either still live in your parents basement or you are another incredible hypocrite like many others on this forum. I have seen this happen, and I consider it is an abuse from lets say less professionally capable women. If you have not seen it yet you are lucky. I also do not consider this a man weakness. I wanted to call it so because all the fuss that goes around in this forum is about women weakness. I was trying to reach female audience more than you.

maecuff
maecuff

Wow. And what constitutes provocative clothing? Anything that shows a little cleavage? Clingy material? If a woman wears something that YOU deem provocative that makes her a slut and therefore not deserving of your respect. In fact, it shows a LACK of respect for your inability to look beyond some skimpy clothing? So, what you are saying, is that the responsibility lies with women. Because men are too weak to deal with a beautiful woman? Dude, I wouldn't be so hard on men in general. I happen to believe that most of them are stronger and more emotionally healthy than that. That is one of the most funny/sad things I've heard in a long time.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

If a beautiful woman is dressing in a provocative way trying to gain unfair advantages from it, yes , it her fault as well. Lack of respect for men weakness doesn't beg for reciprocal respect either. We do not respect sluts. We respect smart women who can be nice colleagues and work as hard as we do.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

So you're going to blame an attractive woman for the way you think of her? "If she wasn't so good-looking, I wouldn't be having this problem." IIRC from psych class, that's called 'transference', one more way people put off their responsibility for their own choices.

syedasimmahmud
syedasimmahmud

HOW INNOCENT...this is what you think ...when an ordinary face women is working around every men give her respect as she is REJECTED on quality ground......but when a nice smart young girl is around then men start.....heating up.......

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Maybe only one or two at a time, but they were always there. And, in most cases, I preferred to work with them than with most of the males in the shop. Had more to do with competence and work ethic than anything else. In retail, of course, the percentage of women is higher. Not necessarily in the support side, but definitely on the end user side. I just treat them like people; they seem to like that.

AV .
AV .

Sheesh! Chimps, baboons, lions, tigers and bears. Oh my! Some guys have too much testosterone and a male ego the size of NYC, to boot. Some women are pretty nasty to. I think they deserve each other. I've been lucky, after reading many of these posts, to have worked with some very cool network guys. We had an atmosphere of mutual professional respect. AV

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

human and chimps genomes are identical more than 90%. It is amazing we are not more like chimps or baboons. On the same line I wonder if there ever was or is a feminist movement in any baboon clan group. Judging by some responses in this forum I assume the chances are pretty big for a positive answer. We need though some scientifically prof for that though.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

I was obviously not talking about your previous posts which sadly I read them all. I was talking about an answer to post 392 "my point" for which you made like in many other cases simply some idiotic comments and you ended in a climax of your "work" with the probably infamous by now "words don't exists"/"your opinion of me doesn't matter to me".

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I have stated my opinions, experience, and how I behave at work here. Read the second paragraph. Yes, it's that easy. etu

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

Nick, I said this earlier and I repeat: please stop pretending you are a moron and try to participate into an intellectual polemic here. You know this answer is idiotic and immature. Please give us some better reasoning and your true opinions.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

to express how much your opinion of me doesn't matter to me.

jacobhlms
jacobhlms

Awww damn nick.. There goes any respect i might have developed for you. Your shot at humor to distract from topic and the rebuttal that doesn't approach or address anything in my response disappoints me. Even if at some point i had condoned judging peoples ability based on sex, color or creed (which i didn't), "Cuz my momma said so" will, unfortunately, never win a debate. See this is how the respect thing works. Everyone starts with none and has to prove they deserve it. Gl

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I don't know how I behave when I'm unconscious; I'm never awake for it. I suspect I just lay there. As for my subconscious behaviors, I was raised to show everybody the same respect I expect them to show me, [b]regardless of race, creed, color, or gender[/b]. You tell me you're incapable of looking past gender to do this and I'll say you should grow up.

Slayer_
Slayer_

The Comment. "Wow your fat" Guy's possible response: Gal's possible response: Fill in the blanks.

jacobhlms
jacobhlms

obviously your confused. the examples you give are personal veiws not cultural ones. not even stereotypical male anymore. see, like it or not 'nick', most men (and i'll assume your one) even you, engage in the culture. the culture being unconscious behaviors that the majority of a certain peoples engage in. you tell me that that when alone with members of the same sex you behave the same as when in mixed company and i'll say you should 'reevaluate your beleifs'

jacobhlms
jacobhlms

males do not not behave or communicate in the same way as females. many books have been written on the subject. pick one. not just for the human species but in all species of animals. an example might be ( in its most basic form) on a construction site: a game is made to pass the time where insults are feilded among men all day long. during the course of a day men will verbally abuse, make suggestive comments, question eachothers sexuallity, make demeaning comments,etc... women, of course, may never witness this because the men clam up OUT OF RESPECT when any womans in the room. it is an exercise that helps pass the time and most men understand this. every so often you'll see some guy get angry and then not talk to anyone for a half hour till he sees an opportunity for a decent jab. they're all still friends at the end of the day. fact: women dont handle this well. i've met only a couple women who braved the more..uh.. coarse atmospheres that exist in framing and concrete pouring industries and while at first the guys try to keep them out of it eventually, after a resonable amount of time for them to 'veiw and learn' the game, they are expected to join in. the guys are just trying to involve them in the group. this never goes well. women just dont get it. many are reduced to tears, many manage to play along for the day then cry at night.. which most of the guys never know about. i use the jobsite only because thats where it happens with the least amount of political interferanc. the same can be seen at most offices in a more 'glossed over' way. or when a bunch of guys get together in almost any circumstances. rumor has it women also behave differantly in groups than when men are around. theres your culture. now men are tolerant of women doing this at work. they know that y'all are talking about them behind their backs, discussing your love lives, revealing your husbands/boyfriends most intimate secrets as though discussing a shopping list, etc.. we keep our mouths shut and figure "they're women. what are ya gonna do?" imagine if men started leveraging slander charges against women.. what a mess that would be eh? we understand its in their nature to be this way though. AND WE ACCCEPT IT.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

"Imagine how awful the mine field is for women who have to be on alert at all times for everything they say, the way the say it, how they look, even the quality of their voices (more than one study has shown that men and women do not respect high pitched voices)... we only ask that men be respectful of us as co-workers and team members." Men has to do this as well in almost any usual competitive work environment. So why complain that you as a female have to do the same things? Isn't this a fair and equal treatment? I am not sure I understand what you mean. God forbid to say something technically stupid regardless if you are a male or female. We all have to be polite, control our voice, respect the dressing code, etc. Again, I am not sure I understand your post here.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]If women dont want the kind of experience dipicted in this artical then they need to be more tolerant of the male culture. [/i] Male culture? What male culture? You mean the culture where men are men and "he who dies with the most toys wins"? The culture that includes bullying and belittling those that are different? The culture that relegates women to "their place" because it feels threatened if they are anywhere else? What a crock. People are people and getting along is easy. Simply show your co-workers, male or female, the same respect you believe you deserve, and treat them the same way you would like to be treated. I've been doing this for years and, amazingly, have never been the subject of a more formal complaint than "Time to get back to work."

jacobhlms
jacobhlms

my point was that its far beyond being appropriate. not that we have to behave... but that we must be obsesivly sure about all the possible ways any word combination may be taken and used against us. the law offers no penalty for those who attempt to abuse it. if women dont want the kind of experience dipicted in this artical then they need to be more tolerant of the male culture. basically if you want laws that crucify those who joke, insult, flirt or jab fun at you then be prepared to be shunned from the group of people who do that sort of thing. you cant have it both ways. it would go a long way for women who understand what im getting at to stand up and admit that these laws need to be more specific or to defend people they know are being unjustly accused in their own circles.