We’ve all seen it happen before. Your favourite colleague, the one cracking jokes around the coffee machine, reciting each spreadsheet off by heart, and charming their way into the good books of every client, enters a team meeting to offer their opinion and is almost instantly interrupted. Surprise, surprise; this colleague is a woman.
Succeeding as a woman in industries that are saturated by older, male voices can feel like a near-impossible feat. Regardless of if you are male or female, it’s time we take responsibility for not just ourselves, but for how we support the women we work with. Being complicit towards sexism within your team, even if it is not being instigated by you, is still damaging to the efforts that we are making towards achieving gender equality in the workplace.
It’s not just about being prepared to speak up against sexual harassment, sexist slurs, or explicitly degrading behaviour. It’s also about noticing the small actions that occur every day, that may be hardly noticeable to you, but play a fundamental role in silencing your female coworkers. From interrupting them halfway through a sentence, to making assumptions about their personal life, all of these small gestures should be noticed, pointed out, and challenged.
Here are some of the simple yet effective ways that you can support the female voices in your company.
A classic example of the everyday sexism that women experience in the workplace is through being interrupted. Women are silenced in all sorts of ways during their working day – from their presentations being met with exhales of disinterest to literally being spoken over and hushed when trying to make a point. Not only is this behaviour disrespectful, but it undermines an woman’s right to be treated equally against her male peers. Take action, and challenge this behaviour if it happens in front of you. You can do this by drawing everyone’s attention back to your colleague, and asking them to elaborate on what they were previously explaining. Sometimes, apologising on behalf of the individual that interrupted them can play a subtle role in letting your female colleague know that you share their frustration, while reminding whoever spoke over them that their actions were inappropriate, and should be corrected.
A large assumption that is still made about female colleagues is their desire to have children. The casual way in which maternity leave is treated, expected, and even used as a reason to doubt a woman’s ability to commit to a job on a long-term basis is destructive to the careers of women everywhere, and fundamentally untrue. This behaviour is not only toxic to each woman’s chances of succeeding in their field, but also to the success of the company, as a large proportion of their staff may not be considered for senior positions on the basis that they may need time off to care for a new-born baby. Not only is it wrong to assume that every woman will decide to become a mother, it is also outdated to assume that if they did choose to have children, they would therefore not be a good candidate for a promotion. If you are asked to provide an opinion on who should be considered for a new role, make sure to fight against any sexist assumptions you may have about the personal lives of your female colleagues, and challenge anyone else who tries to draw the same assumptions.
The culture of a team is largely reflective of the people who are in charge. So, if the majority of your company is still made up of white, middle-class men, it is understandable that the company culture may be inherently non inclusive towards the women who work there. A lot of the social activities that occur at male-dominated companies rotate around gentlemen’s clubs, golf weekends, and other types of social events that a lot of women would love to participate in, but are historically excluded from. This can have a drastic impact on the relationships between colleagues, and is yet another way that men are given an instant advantage in their ability to get ahead in their careers. If this sounds like your company culture, then take a stand and suggest a new way of socialising with your team. Take the initiative to plan some after-work drinks at a bar, a cooking class that everyone can try, or suggest forming a sports team to play against local rivals. There’s no better way to debunk outdated assumptions about gender than through a bit of healthy competition!
If there is one thing that you can do today, it’s to stand in support of your female colleagues. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you witness sexist behaviour, no matter how passive or casual it may be, it is your moral duty to challenge it. If you are not the one being objectified or intimidated, you have a duty to speak up for those who are being made to feel undermined and small. You are a member of that company, and therefore you represent a small but essential part of the company’s culture, values and attitude towards equality. Make the most of it.
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