I recently had a discussion with a colleague about benevolent sexism. In the exchange she highlighted the numerous studies that show how women are interrupted far more often than their male peers, and that it often goes unnoticed by individuals because we are preconditioned. I do not dispute that benevolent sexism exists, but the last piece of her comment got me thinking. It actually angered me a little. Does it truly go unnoticed? Who is making that determination?
I would suggest that if it is truly unnoticed, that’s an even bigger problem than it actually occurring. But from my own personal experience, I find it hard to believe that a woman in an elevated professional capacity isn’t astute enough to realize that she has been interrupted, or is being dealt with in a condescending or patronizing manner, or is being unfairly challenged. Give those women more credit, please. It is insulting to them to suggest they are unaware. But it raises an interesting question – how should one react?
Frankly, there is no textbook answer because each situation will be different. How I handle it depends largely on the who it is coming from, and context. Benevolent or overt sexism, intentional slights born of hatred or ignorance, rudeness, disrespect, or even unintentional offences all fall into the same category – things that needs to be dealt with or addressed. Whether or not I am exposed to it more frequently because I am a woman is ultimately irrelevant in my opinion. I am not saying it is right or fair that woman or other minorities may face this on a more frequent basis, nor do I feel we need to accept it as status quo. But how or why this occurs is a complex problem and not easy to overcome as they often stem from biases and norms that were interwoven into the fabric of our society over the course of time.
In my previous article, “If It’s Good for the Goose, It’s Good for the Gander,” I stated that I didn’t feel that 50/50 representation of the genders was the only metric to measure equality or diversity. Getting women into positions of power is only part of the equation. We need women of influence. And influence is not solely derived from positional power. Influence is affected greatly by personal power, and personal power is bestowed upon you based on your actions and efforts. It is earned. In light of that, I ask again, are those interruptions and slights truly going unnoticed, or is it possible that women are choosing their battles so that they can win the war? Is it possible that they are taking a more subtle approach as a means of increasing their personal power? Is it possible that they are choosing the most expeditious and efficient means of handling the situation such that they can focus on what is truly important, doing their job?
Who you are, your personality, is the sum of many things – gender, race, socio-economic background, marital status, education, employment status, etc etc. I believe human nature means that people interact with you in a certain way partly because of what you are comprised of, and partly because of who they are. Complex and varied as the reasons may be, unfortunately there are certain demographics of our society who are subjected to unnecessary or counter-productive behaviours more frequently than others. My advice to these people? Deal with it, especially if you are in management or in a leadership position. You cannot control the actions of others, but you can control how you respond. It is your credibility that is on the line, and while there may come a time where you need to engage others to help you address the issue, that is likely the exception. Be smarter than them. Be better than them. Use your influence, your position, your ability to communicate, all of the skill sets that put you in that position in the first place to get the job done in spite of everything. Rise above. Silence dissenters through performance as it can be far more impactful in the long run.
There may be times when a very direct and outspoken response is warranted, and do not hesitate to act when those arise. But consider the long game. An expression comes to mind – you get more honey with sugar than salt. As I read in an article written by Bernard Letendre, Did you just say what I think you said???, “Outrage is the rightful reaction to some situations but it should be invoked with care.” At the end of the day, you control your reactions. Nobody can provide you the answer on how you should react.