Q. I read with interest about the way women are treated at Harvard Business School and it sounded exactly like my office. I need this job but I’m not respected here – last week I hosted a meeting (I am a woman and was there as a senior professional.) One of the male participants came to me to complain we were out of coffee. What to do?
A. Great question! One possible answer is, “Out of coffee? Gee, I was just going to ask you to get me a cup." In other words:
- I assume you are just informing me rather than asking me to wait on you;
- Getting the beverage is no more my responsibility than yours, and;
- I have a sense of humor.
If similar behaviors happen regularly you probably are facing some gender bias, even if it's unintentional or subtle. This could t be holding back a promotion or a salary increase. In that case keep your sense of humor but you need more than quips.
You need to speak up, ask for change, and/or plot your escape. If you can't leave, the serenity prayer can be your guide. What can you change? What do you have to accept? Here is a list of escalating actions you can take:
- Stop smiling all the time -- and especially if you don't feel it.
- Give up the "disease to please."
- Demonstrate real expertise and win respect for your abilities.
- Talk informally (and in private) with your boss or human resources.
- Ask for assignments that challenge you and prepare you to move up. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you."
- Volunteer or step up to roles usually held by men – chair (not vice chair or secretary) of a group, be the first to speak, ask for what you want, disagree.
- Limit extra work that doesn’t achieve your career goals– set boundaries and, if your boss keeps piling it on, insist on clarifying priorities.
- Keep a record of bias (for yourself to validate your experience) and include emails or other examples. You need to document a pattern so yours doesn’t seem like a petty complaint.
- Note the instances where you would like different behavior: what happened, why was it a problem, etc. and share concerns with your boss or human resources in a formal way.
- Bring a complaint or law suit (but get professional advice first, is a serious decision that could have long term consequences for you.)
And if you are tempted to pour coffee on the lap of an offender, make sure it's not too hot. (I recommend hazelnut because the lingering fragrance will stay with your colleague all day.)
Ever get asked to get coffee or take an inappropriate subordinate role? What did you do?