This story in the New York Times this week caught my eye, about men in tech complaining (and in some cases, filing complaints) about gender bias against men in their workplace. Have you ever experienced gender bias as a man? I did.
It was a long time ago, about two decades ago while working for a marketing agency. I suppose it’s taken me this long to speak out. But I can remember what happened and how I tried to deal with it.
The agency I worked for had a majority female workforce. Some of the clients were selling products and services focused on female customers, but the majority were tech companies selling products, if anything, marketed to a male customer. The agency principals were a husband and wife couple. So there wasn’t really a reason for the agency to have more female than male staff. If I’d asked, it might have been explained by the principals as a result of the majority of graduates in marketing and PR being female at that point (remember this was two decades ago, before the iPhone… jeez!).
I first became aware of possible gender-based exclusion when I was repeatedly not invited to a few meetings where the female members of my client team collaborated on new ideas for client projects. They still sought my input, but would email me the outcomes of their meetings and ask me if I had anything else to contribute. They’d often use my contributions—so it wasn’t like my work was not valued — it was more that I wasn’t collaborating, I was only contributing.
Sometimes these collaboration sessions would happen in a casual setting like a nearby cafe or restaurant, sometimes in a glass-walled meeting room at our office. Usually I’d wonder why the open-plan section of the office was so quiet and get up to get a coffee to find them collaborating together, otherwise I wouldn’t even know they were doing it.
Things got next-level when I noticed the female staff were going out to lunch or morning tea at nearby restaurants to celebrate birthdays, engagements and the birth of a child. I wasn’t invited.
I had two choices at this point: address those involved individually or take it to the agency’s principals—my bosses (the company wasn’t big enough to have an HR person).
First, I approached the male agency principal, said I’d been experiencing some exclusion with the members of my team, who weren’t including me in their collaboration sessions, and weren’t inviting me to their offsite social events. I asked him if he knew about it, whether he thought that was an issue, and what he thought I should do about it.
Things could have gone a bunch of different ways at this point. I suppose the worst that could have happened is that he’d flag me as a trouble-maker and start giving me a hard time in a thousand different ways to try and push me out of the agency. If I’d been a woman working in the tech industry, I suppose that would be a fairly common outcome.
But thankfully, that didn’t happen. He asked me if I’d spoken to the rest of the team about it. I told him I hadn’t, that I wanted to seek his advice about it. He said (with a sigh) that I should go talk directly to the people involved. They might not even be aware of how I was feeling. Oh.
Great; I’d just been given the brush-off by the agency principal and told to work it out for myself.
It took me a few days to work up the courage to approach a woman in my team about this. I considered her a friend and hoped she’d approach the issue constructively and not take it as criticism of her personally.
“How come you and the rest of the team hold these collaboration sessions and don’t invite me?” I said. “And why don’t you invite me to the offsite social things you organise to celebrate an engagement, birth or birthday?”
What she said next totally floored me.
“We honestly didn’t think you’d be into that!” she said. “In the collaboration sessions we probably spend about a third of our time gossiping and talking about entertainment news. Sometimes we bake muffins and cup cakes. It’s only partly about the work. It’s more about our relationships with each other. Anyway, do you really want to come along for Aperol spritzers to celebrate Cheryl’s engagement?”
I couldn’t believe she’d make so many assumptions about my gender and my preferences. Couldn’t she see that I was feeling excluded from the team? That I was feeling isolated and marginalised and starting to fear that my career at the firm might be limited because I wasn’t a woman?
You won’t believe what she said next.
“But we’d love it if you came along. Of course you can! In fact, it would be great if you did. Our next collaboration workshop is at 11am tomorrow. You don’t have to bake anything for it at this stage, in fact you don’t ever need to if that’s not your thing. You could always pickup some doughnuts or something.”
So I did.
In fact, Thursday morning doughnuts for the whole team became something that I practiced for the next decade, across several jobs at different companies.
More importantly, participating in those collaboration sessions and learning how to contribute without dominating or trying to ‘win’ became a really useful skill that served me well many times in my career.
Studying how women tend to work together on a problem in a different way to how a group of men would approach it was both fascinating, informative and hugely useful. Whether your team is all-male, all-female or a mix, someone who can listen, support, engage and collaborate with the rest of the team while also leading it is an invaluable skill and… feels great.
See what I did there?
As the New York Times reports, in some departments, in some or organisations, there probably is some gender bias against men. But that definitely doesn’t mean the ‘pendulum’ has swung too far anywhere, much less Silicon Valley. If the pendulum should come to rest anywhere it should be at 50/50, and wherever it’s sitting now, it is definitely nowhere near the halfway point.
But if men experience gender bias in the workplace, luckily they now have access to all the tools, processes and avenues to address their complaints that exist only because it is necessary to continue to address gender bias against women, which is significant, wasteful, and won’t go away on its own because so often it is unconscious bias.
Men experiencing gender bias are unlikely to be threatened with violence or sexual violence, unlikely to be trolled in any way. It’s not likely to get you sacked or even limit your prospects for advancement in the organisation. Particularly if you’re a straight, white male. The world still belongs to you and people like you.
If you’re a marginalised man in the tech industry workforce, your first step should be to learn how to communicate constructively and inclusively about what you’re feeling, rather than joining some modern-day monastery for picked-on software engineers.
There’s training you can do, but there’s a much simpler and free way to make progress. And it’s a one-step program. It goes like this:
Talk to women. Tell them how you’re feeling. They’ll listen. They’ll try to help you. You’ll find that all women are different, but many of them are great at that stuff.
You will never need to learn how to bake if that’s not your thing, though I highly recommend learning how to wash up without being asked.