A Guide to Managing Encounters with Gender Bias
Written by Susan Clark Muntean, Ph.D.
As successful, ambitious women who deserve the utmost respect and support, how do we best handle disrespectful encounters in the business and professional world?
As a researcher who has interviewed hundreds of female entrepreneurs, I have found subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination, bias, and disrespect to be all too common. Frequently this falls into the category of microaggressions, defined as everyday slights, insults, other subtle forms of disrespect or dismissal that the perpetrator may not even be conscious is offensive or hurtful. Women express their experiences when seeking resources for their businesses with decision makers and gatekeepers, for example, as feeling condescended to, second-guessed, ignored, belittled, or unduly questioned.
Women are too often dismissed as less intelligent and less competent relative to their male counterparts, and this is more frequent the higher they climb up their career ladders. Further, women with intersecting socio-demographic characteristics related to age, race, nationality, ethnicity, or disability are more likely to experience invisibility. Being mistreated as if you do not exist or matter is one of the worst affronts a human being can experience. Too often women respond by questioning their own sanity or denying that they are experiencing what they are indeed experiencing.
Other times, we experience death by a thousand cuts, and simply give up or blow up, losing our cool with “the last straw” experience. But there are much better options available to navigate through this challenging and common phenomenon.
When feeling the experience if invisibility or anticipating that you may not be fully seen, it is useful to provide yourself with affirmations of your existence, essence, sovereignty, and sacredness in the moment or in advance of the interaction. When experiencing dismissiveness and condescension, it is essential to communicate calmly and clearly your worth and value. When experiencing second guessing and inappropriate behavior, it is critical to hold the mirror up to the one questioning your ability, expertise, and worthiness of support. In these situations, I recommend strategies based upon the concepts of advocacy and inquiry.
Self-advocacy involves representing yourself confidently in the most positive light possible. The advocacy of others involves you seeking out and receiving the advocacy of respected insiders who work on your behalf to showcase your potential and ability. Seek out mentors that will introduce you by singing your praises in advance to gatekeepers and decision makers such as investors, potential clients or customers, and resource providers. Pay it forward and advocate for other women and people who often experience microaggressions and discrimination.
Make advocacy a daily habit, for yourself and others.
When someone asks you something offensive, does something inappropriate, or says something hurtful, start asking questions. Inquiry is a powerful tool that transforms the power relationship from one in which the person making the comment, taking the action, or asking the question as the offender holding the upper hand transitions to you taking your power back. The next time you encounter this behavior, ask the person why they asked you that, why they did that, or why they said that. You might phrase your response “That’s interesting, why would you ask me that?”, for example, if being second-guessed or inappropriately questioned.
What this approach does is to buy you time to collect your emotional and physical responses while allowing the offender time and space to reflect upon why they indeed asked the question or made the comment in the first place. This is a judo communication strategy that temporarily holds negative energy–even if not intended to harm you— and thrusts it back on them to defend themselves, while holding you safely in a bubble of self-protection and self-respect.
Most decent people when asked why they said, did or asked something will immediately retract and apologize for offending you. However, if there is ill intent, the person might continue down a rabbit hole of justifications for their position, line of questioning, or what they did in a defensive move to win power over you. If this happens, the person will just reveal to those around them their problematic assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs, and then it becomes about them and not you, as it really is about them in the first place.
Either way, what inquiry does is put a mirror up for the ignorance or negativity to be reflected at the one who dealt the card, and not the recipient. Protect your dignity, self-respect, and emotional and psychological health from these painful encounters in the future by incorporating the tools of advocacy and inquiry and we will all be stronger warriors, together.