Combating Sexism in the Office
Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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As a senior woman in the investment industry, I am consistently appalled at how my male colleagues think nothing of talking about a woman’s physique, “beauty” or personality in my presence. We might go to a meeting together and my colleague will comment on the person’s dress, smile or something of a physical nature. I’m focused on the content of the meeting, what we need to do next and how best to serve the client or close the deal. I feel that my colleague is more focused on the fluff.
It irks me because I sometimes wonder what they are saying about me when I am not in the room. If they are comfortable talking about strangers around me, what do they say to one another about a colleague when she isn’t present?
What is most tactful way to bring this up? It’s hard to be the only woman on a team of six men. I don’t want to be portrayed as the complaining female or the outlier. I don’t want to bring attention to the fact that I am so different from the rest of them. Every single one of them is married with small children at home and only one has a wife who works. I’m a single woman – by choice – who lives alone and doesn’t have a lot in common with any of them. We work fine together otherwise and it isn’t like this is a bad culture or they are toxic or inappropriate directly toward me but it is uncomfortable none-the-less.
Would I be better off not saying anything, bringing this up to all of them at once, or taking one of them aside and hoping he speaks to the rest of our colleagues?
I want them to stop commenting on women in my presence – nothing more. Is it as easy as asking them to do this?
I recently delivered a keynote presentation at a conference on the topic of diversity – the research shows us that the best performing teams, by many different metrics, are those that are diverse in gender, age, ethnic background and other factors. However, your experience illustrates why it isn’t easy to bring about diversity in an effective and meaningful way. You are the outlier and feel as such when you all are working together toward a common goal.
It is difficult for a woman in what remains largely a male-dominated business – not too pushy, not too weak, not too “feminist” and not too uninterested. Striking the right balance is challenging at best.
Much of the answer to the way you should proceed lies in the style and approachability of your colleagues and the strength of your relationship with each of them. If they respect you and value your contribution and they view you as a partner, they might inadvertently include you in these comments and think of you as “one of the guys.” This is a compliment, although it doesn’t have a pleasant outcome for you. I’m going to guess they are largely unaware that their comments are disrespectful toward you. They might believe these are innocent observations that aren’t personal in nature.
If you have a good relationship with all six of them, bring it up when you are all together in a lighter fashion – “Hey, there is something you all do that you might be unaware of as hurtful to me but I want to point it out and ask that you notice it and stop doing it.” If you start with that, you will have their attention! Then just explain you doubt they mean anything by it, but it is uncomfortable for you.
If you don’t want to take on a conversation with all six at once, then I would pull one or two of them aside with whom you have close relationships – without making too big of a deal out of it – explain that you find these comments to be uncomfortable. You could ask those colleagues you are close to, to bring this up to the others. Explain that you aren’t a sensitive type of person, but the consistent comments about another woman’s physical attributes of whatever nature are bothersome to you.
Unfortunately, working with six men, you have to downplay it a bit. You can’t be too emotional, accusatory or angry – you have to handle it directly yet be a bit low-key lest you be painted as someone who “can’t take it” or lest they start to leave you out of meetings for fear they will do something to offend you.
While unfortunate, this is often a reality for women in a male-dominated environment. You need to address it, but I wouldn’t ask them what they say about you behind your back or talk about anything related to you so that they begin to be uncomfortable around you.
I am being promoted to a senior role amongst people who have heretofore been my peers. I am now a senior financial advisor while the other four people remain financial advisors. I am supposed to coach and mentor them. But we’ve worked together for many years and I don’t think they see me as a boss. To add to it, I’m not in the boss role – I won’t write performance reviews or control their salary. I’m supposed to share my experiences because I have been the most successful advisor to bring in new business.
What’s the best way to show my own boss I can rise to the role but not alienate people who have been my friends? I already was disinvited from going out for drinks next Friday because they told me I could no longer be a part of their complaining in case I run to management to tattle on them.
I had several different roles when I worked for a large investment firm and one time I was promoted to a chief operating officer role within a very large unit. After a few weeks I noticed the people who had always been my friends and confidants, and who had come into my office just to chat stopped talking to me. I reflected on this to my boss, who was very senior in the organization, and I’ll never forget her response – “Once you assume the seat of boss or leader or the senior person in charge, even your peers will perceive you differently. It’s nothing you have done, it is a factor of the position.”
So some of what you are experiencing, especially with the un-invitation to drinks is that you are now senior to them, whether you are effectively the “boss” or not. They will see you and treat you differently no matter what you do simply because you are perceived as management or as being aligned with management rather than with them.
A big portion of this is how you respond and treat them, however. If you start acting like you are better or more important, or you make it clear you are privy to information they aren’t, they will see you as alienating them. Your bigger issue is proving that you have something of value to offer them. Explain to each of them individually that your goal is not to overpower them, but rather to empower them with new ideas and new ways of approaching their clients and referrals. Let them know, with confidence, you believe you can teach them new things and you hope they will at least listen and try and implement some of the ideas you bring to them.
You can let them know you take the role seriously and want to do a good job, but you are open to their feedback about what’s helping them and what’s not. Stay very clear about the importance of succeeding in this role. Your boss will likely be watching you, and will also know it is challenging to support and coach former peers so you have to do your best job to separate the friendships and put your efforts into the role.
Eventually, most of them will respect you for striking a balance between not wanting to be “the boss,” but be the person who is there to help guide and support them. Just remember they may not be succeeding because they don’t have the aptitude or they don’t care to make changes from what they are doing now. Both of these are challenging for a coach or mentor. You can’t push them to do things differently – you have to help them do so. The more genuine and supportive you are, the more responsive they will be.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.