Pragmatism in the real world

On respect in the workplace

I recently came across Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic, an article covering 20 actions that the author identified as things that men do everyday to perpetuate inequality. A number seem specific to the academic world, but the majority are relevant everywhere.

Now, 20 items is a lot to remember, so I want to call out a few that I see regularly when I’m in offices and at conferences. They are all about respect for the individual and while they aren’t necessarily gender specific, I personally have seen many more men doing these things to women than vice-versa and cringe every time I notice.

Don’t talk about someone’s appearance

Don’t comment on a woman’s appearance in a professional context. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are; it’s irrelevant. Similarly, don’t tell someone they don’t look like a scientist/professor/academic, that they look too young, or they should smile.

Complimenting someone on they way that they look rather than what they have achieved or do is demeaning and disrespectful. Nobody tells me that they like the way that I’ve ironed my shirt, but I’ve been in meetings with potential clients where a man has introduced his colleague to me by saying that she must have dressed up today because of the meeting. He didn’t comment on the dress sense of any of his male colleagues when introducing them and left me feeling uncomfortable. I have no idea how the woman felt; different and unwelcome I expect.

Be aware of what you say about people, especially women. If you find that you do seem to mention your colleague’s clothing or (lack of) makeup, then train yourself to stop talking about it. If you feel like you must make small talk, then find a different topic: something in the news, the travel situation, anything else!

Don’t interrupt

Don’t talk over your female colleagues. There is a lot of social conditioning that goes into how men and women communicate differently. You may not realize that you’re doing it, but if you find yourself interrupting women, or speaking over them, stop.

The general case here is don’t interrupt. However, it’s much more common to see a man who listens intently when his male colleagues are talking, but interrupts and talks over a woman in the meeting. I think this happens because the man doesn’t even hear the woman. This is especially frustrating for me as when if you’re paying for my time at a meeting, then everyone’s input is important.

Pay attention to your own behaviour in meetings. In particular, check that someone else isn’t talking the you want to make your point. If you notice that you are interrupting someone else talking, then start consciously waiting for a pause before talking. Your point won’t be less important because you waited a few minutes before speaking.

Make tea for and minute your own meetings

Volunteer when someone asks for a note-taker, coffee-run gopher, or lunch order-taker at your next meeting. Don’t let this task fall to women, even if they tend to volunteer (we’re socially conditioned to do so). Make sure that women aren’t being asked to do this more than men.

I see this all the time in client meetings where there is a mix of gender in the room and I now get a bit embarrassed as I used to be that man.

At a previous job, I didn’t initially even realise that I was letting a woman team member do much more than her fair share of the tea making rounds. Once I did realise, I told myself that as the senior lead, it was a better use of resources to let the junior members do tea making. That was rubbish. At some point I was educated on this phenomenon and worked on changing the culture by explicitly asking different team members to make the tea.

I have one client where the rule is that the host of the meeting is the note taker and lunch handler which works really well too as it’s clear that if you want this meeting to take place, then you get to do some of the leg work. I don’t know why they introduced this system: I suspect that it was to promote fewer meetings, but the end result is fairer too.

To sum up

You should read the full list of 20 points as all are worthy of consideration and behaviour change. I’ve called out the three that I’ve had to personally work on and improve at and are the ones that I most want to see change on.

In this day and age, be a professional; show some respect.