Recognizing and Breaking the Cycle of Sexism and Discrimination
In the past year, many stories have emerged of systemic sexism and discrimination, often by companies that were supposedly leaders in diversity and inclusion. We all know that sexism is still alive and well, especially in tech companies, but very few people talk about how it often starts out, the severe toll it takes on those affected and what to do about it.
The problem starts with the fact that most people (yes, men and women) deny that there is a problem. I’ve heard all kinds of excuses, but what stands out are the most common ones, namely that sexism doesn’t exist, because “I surely don’t discriminate against women,” or that there is nothing we can do, because “it’s always been this way and I can’t change it, so why even try?” There is a difference between conscious and unconscious biases and it’s the unconscious ones that are so difficult to fight. If a person doesn’t even acknowledge that there is a problem, how would they change their behavior? And because they don’t acknowledge the problem or their part in it, it feels a lot like gaslighting, when you are pointing out discrimination or favoritism, and they in return tell you that you are imagining it, are too dramatic, too emotional or otherwise wrong, all the while drilling it in that you are the problem and that you have it all wrong. Here are some obvious signs for sexist or discriminatory behaviors:
1. Different Standards
The obnoxiously rude male in your team who is notorious for belittling, insulting and intimidating others is seen as “a true leader!” The boss usually chuckles at all the feathers he’s ruffled, praises his straight forwardness and feels we should all be more like him. Granted, no one wants to work with or go near that guy, but that only shows how great of a leader he is.
You are compassionate and practice constant and candid feedback (please read the book “Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Candor implies that you care a great deal, instead of just spewing whatever comes to mind without filter), but you are told that you are too harsh, too abrasive, negative or emotional.
The less than stellar male coworker barely met requirements in his last performance review. The boss talks about him having a hard time and therefore gives him extra attention in form of better projects, more headcount and more direct feedback to fix the problems.
You have met all your goals, but the boss feels that you are too judgmental when you pointed out how the lack of performance of this guy is affecting your team. As a result, he labels you as vindictive, malicious or mean.
You have come forward and pointed out how things are not always fair and how there seem to be different standards based on gender. You’ve never had performance issues before, were never disciplined or written up, but as a result to you voicing concerns, your boss responded in the following ways:
a. Gave you a negative or harsh performance review without warning or coaching, using vague language and speculations/judgments about you
b. Your promotion and/or advancement was blocked
c. You were demoted
d. If you were a people manager, your team was taken from you
e. You were told that you are a threat, disruptive, abrasive or unprofessional
f. Major projects are taken away from you and given to less experienced or qualified coworkers
g. You are no longer included in important meetings and/or the hiring or interviewing process for new team members
h. You no longer receive feedback or 1 on 1s, and no one engages with you anymore
i. Your position was eliminated
3. Breaking You Down
The final step in the chain is the systematic dismantlement of your identity, your reputation and your career. Usually, bad leaders that engage in the above listed actions, will ensure that they cover their bases by spreading lies, half-truths or greatly exaggerated stories about you to their superiors and HR. Why? Because they can’t expose the company to potential lawsuits, bad press or complaints. Just know that once your boss’ narrative is out there, he’s got the upper hand, so make sure you document everything! Once they’ve started to discredit you, it is easy for them to get execs/managers or HR on board to join their campaign.
The problem with these actions is not just what they do, but how they make people feel. Worse, they often create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the person feels so isolated, beaten down and demotivated that their performance does start slipping, because they can no longer concentrate or focus. The destructive cycle has come full circle and now the aggressor has reason to discipline you, manage you out or fire/eliminate you.
What most people don’t realize is that these patterns are the exact same patterns we find in abusive relationships. They’ve kept attacking you and telling you that it’s your fault, and you keep engaging in an endless loop of feeling hopeless, thinking that you were to blame or deserved the treatment you’ve gotten. Once you reach that stage, your confidence diminishes, making it hard or even impossible for you to interview or even apply for other jobs. Women who have experienced these actions start believing that they truly are incompetent or flawed, so they remain petrified, stop speaking up and either vanish into a lackluster performance, feeling stuck, or applying for lower jobs because they don’t think they can perform at a higher level. Hello imposter syndrome, my good old friend. I thought I’ve beaten you, but I’m back again!
So, what can you do?
If you have kind words or recommendations from your employees, keep them! As a matter of fact, if you are comfortable with it, ask your employees to evaluate you or to write a recommendation for you. 360 reviews are already used in many companies, so this shouldn’t be an unusual request.
Also, ask people from other teams that can attest to your leadership abilities or competence to write recommendations for you. The more the merrier!
Find people that are in upper leadership positions and ask them to sponsor you. There is a difference between a mentor (gives advice) and a sponsor (takes an active role in helping you reach the next level). Sponsors can also act on your behalf in setting a record straight and in getting into a different team, or company that values you for your contributions.
Keep any type of documentation that can disprove what is being said about you, like emails, text/instant messages, etc. It is good to follow your gut instinct. If you know that a person has a track record of lying it’s best to keep any and all correspondences with them, so when they decide to lie about you, you’ll have the evidence to the contrary of their words.
4. Speak Up
The reason that so many women are still dealing with sexism is that we’ve created an environment that makes it unsafe for whistle blowers to come forward. When one woman opens her mouth, she gets discredited and her career destroyed, and this is possible, because there are many bystanders who simply don’t want to rattle the cage, get involved, fear their careers are destroyed or simply that people will like them less. I say that we have a responsibility to help others! Not just because it’s the right and ethical thing to do, but also because it is impossible to ignore many voices that say the same. Think of all the companies that were in the news in the past due to systemic sexism, and think of what happened to their reputation and how things were changed when not one, but the entire staff spoke up and everyone stood with the victims! When people unite their voices into one, and when they use their privilege to help protect those who have less or no voice at all, systems get dismantled, change takes place and retaliation is no longer possible. So, when you see injustice, speak up, or find others who will stand with you.
I believe that great companies are created by those who have visions and dreams that shape the future. I believe we should focus more on leaders that inspire and drive change, and less on leaders that are simply subject matter experts that couldn’t care less about anyone else.
I believe that caring and empathy should become the base requirements for anyone who is put in charge of others. I also believe that they should have a proven track record of elevating others, instead of knowing how to climb the ladder and influence those above them for their own gain and promotion. Maybe it’s time for us to start demanding a different breed of manager. I think the time has come to ask for equality at all levels, for all genders, races, ages, sexual preferences, ideas, ways of being and performances. So, don’t give up, find those who believe in you and godspeed to you living your life to the fullest.