Attack Fashion Vivienne Westwood

When reading this recent piece by Tara Merrigan from the Harvard Crimson, I got mad. Really mad. The article, entitled “Harvard Business School Grapples With Gender Imbalance” talks about a walkout of NINE female business school teachers in 2007.

“There is a subtle difference in treatment that men and women receive,” one of the nine former faculty members recalls. “These small differences in treatment accumulate. It damages women over time.”

“…in reality, we all left for the same reason.”

What was the reason? Unconscious Gender Bias.

“The nine women who left in 2007…cite various instances in which they felt subject to pressures that their male colleagues escaped—inappropriate remarks directed at female faculty or a constant pressure to spend less time with their children, for example.

“I was once advised to get a nanny so I could do more work,” one of the nine who chose to leave the Business School says. “A woman can fit the mold and pretend to be one of the men and sacrifice family life—but if they want to do both, it’s harder.”

Another professor recalls an end of the semester evaluation in which students commented on a female colleague’s fashion choices as opposed to her teaching.

“It seems empirically that women have a harder time being respected and getting that credibility in the classroom needed to be a good teacher,” adds another female professor, who wished to remain anonymous.”

The reason this makes me mad is that even though we have made strides in this country, we have not succeeded in producing a culture which allows women the same leeway as men.

What are the small things that build up over time for you?

Here are the subtle differences that accumulated over time for me.

1. Fashion Criticism
In a previous nonprofit job, a male colleague in a supervisory role came into work wearing jeans and t-shirts often. By contrast, I was a model of fashion. I lived on credit to get more fashionable clothes from a trendy women’s resale store. I always wore a dark blazer with the company pin, professional blouses, long skirts or professional pants, closed toe shoes, and NEVER wore jeans, t-shirts or sneakers. I kept hair, nails and skin neat and clean, and wore a small amount of jewelry. My colleague was not penalized. However, I was criticized for not dressing “more like Hilary Clinton.”

I wasn’t having it. I refused to cut my hair into a helmet bob, or find a pantsuit or get a manicure or wear makeup. The fact is, how I dressed had NOTHING to do with how I did my job. This was discrimination and harassment, pure and simple.

2. The false cry of competence: AKA you are not allowed to make mistakes
I bought a mailing list of 5,000 names at a previous job. It turned out not to give us any new donors. The cost of the list? $250. The fallout from my boss, (despite raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, and much community awareness) was huge.

I created a powerpoint presentation for another boss. She reviewed it, and then went to a meeting with it. She said afterwards, “I was so embarrassed!” over the fact that it didn’t have music, even though she had reviewed it and knew it didn’t have music. She cited this as the reason for disciplinary action.

According to HR Management Magazine, “The truth of the common saying “women must try twice as hard to achieve half as much” is documented by more than a quarter century of social science. Women need to provide more evidence of job-related skills than their male counterparts before they are viewed as competent. Women are allowed fewer mistakes than men before they are judged incompetent.”

3. Expectation that I would be “nurturing” or “office fix-it person”
If I didn’t want to smile and be nice to everyone in the office and help them with whatever computer issues they were having, no matter how much work was on my plate, I was labeled dismissive or cold. By contrast, my boss, who continually snubbed people, never had to worry that his leadership would be called into question. He was never helpful, warm, understanding or even competent as a leader, and yet, female workers were all expected to be so.

4. Pressure to work longer hours despite agreements to honor family commitments
Racial and gender discrimination at work can also take the form of criticizing your time spent at work. If you only work 9-5 these days, you come under criticism as “not working hard enough.” As if more time at the office means you work harder. My boss criticized me for not staying after 7pm. Yet when I worked 10 and 12 hour days, I did not receive any more respect from my boss, or more money. Don’t kill yourself over your job.

5. Questions about your personal life
Another board member at a nonprofit asked me in an interview if I was planning to get married or have children anytime soon. I didn’t realize at the time that those kinds of questions are inappropriate and illegal.

Alexander McQueen Butterfly Hat

When these small things build up over time, like butterflies on your head, it can create a lifetime of lowered salary, lowered self-esteem, and lowered expectation for you. Don’t let this happen. Don’t give up, and don’t let how they treat you affect your self esteem.

Here’s what you can do.

If you are attacked for wearing business attire that meets personnel handbook standards but doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard in your boss’s head, ask them if your attire has anything to do with the quality of your work.

If you are attacked for making the tiniest mistakes, keep track of your accomplishments, and trumpet these at board meetings. You do not deserve to be nitpicked to death, and you need to stand up for yourself.

If you are attacked for not giving up your whole life to the office, but “merely” working 9-5, tell your boss that employee law and the employee handbook dictates that you stay from 9-5, take a half hour for lunch, and then go home. Tell that person if they think that the employee handbook should be rewritten to say, “Stay until the boss says it’s time to quit,” then they should take it up with the board and the bureau of labor.

If you are attacked for having family commitments, you need to tell the board that no job is worth more than your family. And ask for flex time to be put into the employee handbook.

If you are attacked for refusing to answer a personal question, remember, by law, they are not allowed to ask you if you have children, or plan to get married. This is an illegal form of discrimination. You are allowed to say, “Do you realize that question is illegal?”

For other ways to make organizational changes, and for proof what your organization stands to lose if it doesn’t make changes, read this article by Consuela Pinto and Joan Williams here

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