Candide Modo Fortiter Re (Gentle in Manner, Strong in Deed). This is the motto of the Winchester-Thurston School (WT) where I spent many years developing not only intellectually but also interpersonally. Being an all girls’ school, I was sheltered from sexism and sex-discrimination. No one told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t have particular ambitions because of my sex. Although looking back, preconceptions about what women should or should not do did influence some of my career choices.
What WT also sheltered me from is how downright mean men can be in the workplace and because of that, perhaps coupled with my eternal optimism, I never anticipate just how ugly things can get until I am in the middle of them. I get blindsided and ambushed and then behave suboptimally because I was not steeled for a battle I did not foresee. Sometimes I cry. That is not my biology betraying me; it is because I am profoundly disappointed in my fellow humans.
I do not derive any pleasure out of humiliating, intimidating, or harassing other people. I remain incredulous when I am on the receiving end of this kind of behavior from male colleagues. It infuriates me that I have to write about this. I just want to be doing science, not having to bark yet again about sexism in the workplace. I believe the older and more accomplished I get, the worse it has become. Many men simply cannot deal with accomplished women and they have to put them down in order to build themselves up. The very men who should defend us in this situation are bound by some silent bro-code and sit idly back and watch the abuse.
I read all of these “How to deal with sexism in the workplace” articles and many miss the mark. You can’t fix sexism on the job just by having meetings with women and building female coalitions. It helps, and it makes us feel supported, but is just one piece of the solution. We can meet all we want, but we’re still segregated. I recall a revealing story told by a colleague in the UK who was deeply concerned about inequality in the workplace. They organized a monthly meeting called “Women in the Workplace” and invited colleagues of both sexes to attend. No surprise, only women showed up and men presumably used that hour to get more work done. Frustrated, they renamed the meeting, “Sex in the Workplace” and the next month the place was packed with women and men! Then they could make headway.
I firmly believe that displays of egregious behavior at work would decrease if we had more women at the table. Not just one, or two, but an equal number. I have seen this on teleconferences. The more women there are on a call, the more the women speak freely—not just when queried or from pre-scripted presentations, but true creative and scientific discourse.
A close colleague recalled a meeting of muckety-mucks—mostly men. Many of the men knew each other; she did not know most of them. The chair launched straight into the content of meeting. My friend asked whether they could start with introductions, as she did not know everyone in the room. The chair said, “Oh, OK, fine, well then why don’t you start since it’s so important to you.” On how many layers is that demeaning? The bros know each other so let’s dive into it. Overlook the social etiquette of meetings. Demean and trivialize the woman’s request. Send the clear message that “We are going off topic for you.” Are you done now? Anything else the little lady would like before we get down to real business? Nothing worse than a token actually having a voice. Had there been more women in the room, someone could have partnered with her and chimed in saying, “Great idea, it’s important to me too to know who’s at the table, so I’ll start.”
Nick Kristof wrote a good piece in the NYT about old white men not actually realizing when they are being biased. While this might be the case, I think plenty of them are entirely aware and it is a conscious strategy to get to the top. Ninety percent of the people who read this blog will be women. The men who read it will be the ones who already get it. We need to reach the rest of them and hold them accountable for their behavior. If it can’t happen naturally, then it has to be legislated.
I can see how dealing with sexism year after year in academe, the corporate world, or politics can harden women. It would be easier not to care about cooperation, harmony, respect, and humanity. It takes energy to have a conscience.
I fantasize about becoming a battle-axe at times (full ironic use of term intended), but then I see that placard on the wall in WT: Candide Modo Fortiter Re and remember that is not who I want to be. I want to do excellent science, be collegial, and retain my respect for others.
Don’t get me wrong; I am infuriated that I have to spend my time writing this blog. I should be working on a grant right now. Straight old white men don’t have to take time from their work mission to raise awareness and strategize for equality. They line up at the urinals, on the green, or at the bar and make things happen without us there.
How do we get these men to behave better in the workplace? My first thoughts turn to sports. We need more referees like in soccer. We can walk around with yellow and red cards in our purses. If we get manterrupted or mansplained, we hand out a yellow card. If we get manmiliated, we hand out red card and kick them out of the meeting. Men can give us cards too, but for the same offenses, not for requesting introductions. The number of cards you get becomes public record and goes into your job performance and salary considerations.
Although the soccer idea is appealing, real change is necessary. The European Union is taking concrete steps to legislate female presence on corporate boards. According to the NYT, Norway, Spain, France, Iceland, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands all have quotas. Germany has recently passed a law requiring that 30% of seats on corporate boards have to be held my women. The 30% club is pushing the issue globally with branches in 10 countries. As reported in the NYT, legislation has been necessary to address inequality, as greater representation of women, “has not happened organically, or through general pressure.” The same should happen in academe, which in many ways remains the most impenetrable bastion of the old boys’ network.
This PEW Report on Women in Leadership is not a new story but it is a current snapshot. No wonder I do not feel as if my interests are represented by my government, by corporate America, or in my workplace.
We have a problem and it will not change on its own. One very real consequence of speaking out against inequality is being labeled as militant, a malcontent, or another word used to describe women with strong opinions. Labeling is just another strategy for silencing. You can call me anything you want; the numbers speak for themselves.
To help with this, we need more men of conscience to work with us. The bro-code of silence needs to be broken and more men need to request and even demand the presence of women in leadership positions. Gentlemen, it is not emasculating to advocate for equality, in fact, quite the opposite is true.
My motto for the day is, “One is not enough.” Men in leadership positions cannot assuage their conscience by making room for a lone woman at the table. Having us there in numbers will improve your ability to make decisions that represent your stakeholders, make the team smarter and more creative, and keep your behavior in check. Yellow card!