Why We Shouldn't Pretend The Workplace Is Gender Neutral


Woman working with men


Georgene Huang
Georgene Huang

A version of this article was originally published on Forbes.

How much does gender matter in the workplace? For the over 50% of women who believe they do not receive equal opportunities to men in the workplace -- it would seem to matter a great deal.

For most of my career, I was part of the other 50%. You’ve all met women like me: a hard-charging, Type A personality convinced that gender issues at work were a dangerous issue to avoid, with little upside and a lot of downside to “playing the victim”. Despite working in law and finance on all-male teams with only male bosses and earning the nickname "George" in the office, my faith in meritocracy was stubbornly unwavering. I witnessed countless “jokes” and off-color comments and inappropriate moments, participated in sports outings, and joined in fraternal bonding drinks and events. Throughout it all, rightly or wrongly, I believed I was generally getting a fair shake.

And then, came the day when my gender finally hit me. I was two months pregnant, and keeping the “news” discreetly hidden under my blazer as I went around to job interviews. Men become parents, but they don’t become pregnant. And men are typically not judged less competent or committed to their careers once they become fathers. As cliche would have it, it was one of the first times in my life when I realized that I could no longer pretend I was experiencing the world as a man might.

Let me be clear: there was no scandalous punch-line in my moment of awakening. My story is not one where I told an interviewer I was pregnant, got the cold shoulder, and then was unceremoniously booted out the front door. If you want those kinds of tales, all you need to do is turn to places like Pregnant Then Screwed and Elephant in the Valley where women share their experiences of pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. For me, all that happened was the fear of being judged unfairly and denied an equal chance. That fear was enough to jolt me out of my complacency and help me understand that gender did impact me in the workplace, whether I admitted it or not.

Being two months pregnant at the time, how often did I ask about maternity leave? Never. What about my desire to speak with other working moms at the office about their schedules and promotion opportunities? Again, I didn’t mention it. In fact, I instinctively steered clear of any questions that might remind the interviewer of my gender (as if it were something I could skirt under the rug). Instead, I stuck with the safe inquiries about the company’s growth trajectory and business operations. I worried about being labeled as anything less than fully dedicated, and wanted to avoid any stigma. Instead of addressing my questions with the hiring managers and HR reps, I turned to the internet.

Once again, I had to confront the reality that my gender mattered. For better or worse, the internet has largely been built by men. Nowhere was this more apparent than when I started to research questions like: What was a company’s maternity leave policy? Were women mommy-tracked upon their return? How many women were in senior management? How are older women treated at this company differently than older male employees? Were younger women taken seriously as professionals, and were women paid and promoted fairly overall?  The job sites and employee reviews online didn’t address these issues at all.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve been on a journey of discovery, seeing all the ways in which many women experience the workplace differently than men. If I were an academic I would have launched a long-term research study. Instead, I enlisted the help of a former colleague and together, we launched Fairygodboss.

Fairygodboss is a community of women sharing job reviews, opinions and data to help other women in the workplace. Our mission is to improve the workplace for women by creating transparency. Essentially, we’re building a fear-free zone for female job-seekers. No question or topic is too taboo to ask or discuss, and we’re sure the best employers for women would want it that way. In fact, employers who embrace transparency have become our partners and customers because they realize they cannot “control” the internet and job-seeker opinions by dictat.

Instead, they can attract highly qualified female employees by being authentic and sharing their side of a complex issue. As Accenture's CEO of North America, Julie Sweet puts it, "We believe that transparency creates trust. Fairygodboss is helping to change the game for women who want to easily identify companies that enable them to succeed both professionally and personally. We are excited to be part of a new level of collaboration and connection among women in the workplace."

We all instinctively understand that restrooms and locker-rooms need to be built differently for women. Our differences and different experiences should receive attention and, sometimes even celebration. Women comprise half the labor force so it's high time that gender awareness in the workplace isn't only equated with issues and problems. To me, gender awareness simply means that we don't pretend that workplace issues are the same for women as men. They aren’t, and sometimes that is the result of deep-seated issues and bias, and other times, it's the result of fact that we (men and women) don't leave biological and social constructs behind when we walk through the office door. By accepting that we simply don't exist in a gender neutral world, we can work towards building a more inclusive future and harness our differences to drive better business outcomes, too.

The voices of Fairygodboss are by no means a unified consensus. We are individuals of all political persuasions, millennial and Baby Boomer, feminists and non-feminists, mothers and non-mothers, straight and queer, urban and rural, white-collar and blue-collar. But we all self-identify as female, and that shared experience matters. Even (or especially) when we don’t all yet realize that it does.


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