Saturday, 18 February 2012

Help: I don't understand women

I've been thinking a lot about women recently and I have come to the conclusion that I need help.

I am trying to understand the different strategies and responses women use at work to deal with either overt or subtle sexism. I think I have a pretty good intuitive understanding of how to handle overt or subtle racism as I have wrestled with this on and off myself during my career (as I outlined here).

But I don't intuitively understand how women tackle these issues and I am finding it is actually quite difficult to get women to talk about how they handle the sort of mild sexism that sometimes is taken as the norm in the workplace. I am more interested in the tricky business of mild sexism rather than the outright sexism that just has to be confronted come what may.

It seems to me that there is a "one of the lads" approach. This is quite a popular model, I think. Give as good as you get. Laugh it off. Even initiate it to show how relaxed you are about a bit of banter.

Then there is the "I'm not a feminist" model. In this one, you don't really get involved in the sexist banter but nor do you challenge it. You don't allow yourself to hear it. You are there to do a job as a professional and you get on with it. You will be judged on your competence (you believe) and whether you are male or female is irrelevant (you believe). You are not interested in that feminist nonsense.

There is the "challenger" approach. You just won't accept it. Zero tolerance. Someone makes a mildly sexist comment and you turn to them, very professionally, and say "sorry, I don't feel that's appropriate is it?" Okay, you get a reputation for being uptight and people talk in terms of "walking on eggshells" around you (because they are incapable of being relaxed or amusing unless they are at liberty to make mildly sexist remarks, I assume) but at least you don't have to put up with silly boys with their silly comments every time a female secretary walks in to the room.

For example, here's a scenario. You are a manager and you go in to a meeting room with a group of managers. You are the only woman (as usual). Catering bring the tea in. Everyone sits down, shuffling papers. Some jovial wag calls over to you "hey Margaret, are you going to pour the tea?" Everyone laughs a bit and carries on shuffling papers ready to start the meeting.

If you are "one of the lads" you probably call back "oh, yeh right and why don't you come and paint the wall/fix this broken light/do some other "man" thing?" Everyone laughs again and relaxes. Good old Margaret. She's a good laugh. She can take a joke. Get on with the meeting.

If you are "not a feminist" then you smile faintly to signal that you are not too bothered and send over a very slight look as if to say, "Come on, let's get on with the meeting. There is a lot to cover. Shall we start?". It's no big deal, no tension. He doesn't feel told off but the conversation moves on.

If you are a "challenger" you say quite confidently "Come on, that's not really appropriate is it?". The room goes just a little bit cold. Laughter dies quickly. A few of the men think "good on you" but don't say it so you feel quite lonely at that point. The meeting starts and everything gets back to normal. Mildly sexist guy certainly doesn't make that comment again, but he and a few others also think "that Margaret can't take a joke. Bloody feminists. Political correctness gone mad".

So lots of different strategies. I'm sure there are others. There seems to be a bias towards the "one of the lads" strategy as far as I can tell, which I find interesting as a black person. For the most part black people at work we have moved on from the once popular "one of the lads" model and mildly racist comments are dying out (or at least I don't think they are thrown around casually in the presence of black colleagues without someone remarking on them). But women seem to accept the "one of the lads" approach and I don't really know why. I assume that if a group of women in an organisation decided that the so called constant drip drip of not-very-funny-mildly-sexist banter had to stop, it would take about a week for it to be wiped out completely. So why don't they do it?

Anyway, I am confused. I feel I need to learn. Women - educate me please! Men - probably best to listen and learn!