At one point in my life, I had a corporate office job, where for a time I was the only female employee at my location. As the only one, I ran into strange problems that my male colleagues didn’t. Most notably, our boss wouldn’t let my colleagues work from home if he and I were in the office because he feared how being alone with me would be perceived. He would often go out for drinks or meals with my colleagues, but not me. Unfounded fear of sexual impropriety put me in a situation to both be resented by my co-workers and excluded from important meetings.
I am not alone. In a post #MeToo world, many men fear interactions with female employees. To talk about the problem that this poses for women in the workforce, I reached out to Dr. Victoria Mattingly, an organizational psychologist and expert in workplace inclusion and allyship.
Where do you think this fear of being alone with female colleagues stems from?
Social norms as to what’s acceptable in the workplace are shifting, so men don’t know what to do. Instead of dealing with the discomfort of doing the wrong thing, or actually having a conversation with women about this, men are avoiding the situation altogether. This avoidance is causing more harm than good.
Women are being left out of the conversations where key business decisions are being made — this is bad for the business in cases where diversity of thought could result in better solutions and products — AND it’s bad for individual women who are left out of opportunities to demonstrate their value and build social capital.
Have you experienced this yourself?
Yes. No one ever explicitly said that I was being excluded because of my gender, but when you look around and see everyone on the “strategy” team is a man, and you’re on the “tactical” team of all women even though you’re the one in the room with the Ph.D., you can connect the dots.
That’s the hardest part about gender discrimination in 2020. Whereas previous generations of women in the workplace had to deal with explicit sexism (think Mad Men-era physical and verbal abuse), current day discrimination is far subtler … yet still damaging, like death from a thousand papercuts.
What do you think women should do when they encounter these work situations?
I’d love to be in a world where women can call out instances of exclusion without retaliation, but we’re just not there yet. Research shows that women and minorities risk damaging their credibility when promoting diversity and inclusion (D&I) agendas. But when white men bring up the value of gender equity, people listen.
Allies can’t do this work in isolation from women, though — inclusion "champions” often miss the mark because they are doing what they think is right. True allies partner with those they’re trying to serve to ensure they are amplifying others’ voices, not speaking for or acting on their behalf.
How do you think that organizations should change to make it a more inclusive environment for women?
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Clearly define what inclusive behaviors look like so there is a clear expectation and shared language to have otherwise difficult conversations. Develop these behaviors among everyone — this is where allyship fits in because adding allies to the conversation now includes the people who typically don’t see themselves as part of D&I initiatives.
Research shows that when majority group members (commonly men) are explicitly invited into D&I, many will step up to the task because they now feel welcome and part of the conversation. It’s a shift from “stop causing the problems” to “help us work toward the solution.”
Dr. Victoria Mattingly is founder and CEO of Mattingly Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in developing and measuring workplace inclusion. You can find her at mattinglysolutions.com