Little warning signs for women in the workplace

DISCLAIMER: I’m writing this as my experiences of – yep, you guessed it – being a woman in an office environment. This is not about all men. I have also not had it worse than other people – going by the horrific lawsuit filed against Activion Blizzard in July 2021, absolutely, categorically 100% not. This is an article of personal observations.

On the 22nd July, many of us in the gaming industry woke up to a raft of horrific allegations about the workplace culture in Activision Blizzard, featuring systematic harrassment and discrimination against women – particularly against women of colour. If it’s happening in one company, it’s likely happening at this scale in others.

I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve never been part of one of those environments where this toxic culture is company wide – and I’ve not experienced the horrors the women at Activision Blizzard have – but it made me think about a couple of managers I worked with several years apart in different industries and of the women impacted by workplace cultures that quietly, insidiously work against them.

The second time it happened, I had the learnings of the first, more seniority and to be perfectly honest – an attitude where I was not going to let this behaviour go unchecked, and I had people around me who listened and helped me avoid the worst of it. That doesn’t mean I was a total badass – I absolutely dissolved at times – but I had more confidence in knowing what was bullshit and in standing against it.

So here’s a few warning signs for women to watch out for (they may be found useful by some men too) – and, I hope, to help you to realise that you’re not mad, weak or being hysterical.

  1. Pitting women against each other in a male dominated environment

This could take the form of group meetings, where you and another woman (or a small group) are told by your boss who is performing better, who has more authority or who has the more important project. In a male dominated environment, making sure women don’t have a similar support system makes these employees instead dependent on their boss as they feel they cannot rely on each other fully. Seeds of division can also be sown in one-on-one meetings with information and opinions about female colleagues discussed and unecessary competitions constructed, rather than a culture of collaboration.

2. Power grabs in withholding information

Keeping non-sensitive information unecessary concealed (my favourite being an old boss building up to the reveal of a brand new presenter to our radio station being… himself!), keeping you out of project meetings you should be invited to as the person responsible for delivering that project, denying crucial information – or at least denying it until the last moment so you cannot have any steer or impact on the final result even though you are expected to see it through.

3. “That’s too many women”

From “too many women” on a radio playlist, to a lineup of talent that is still 60 percent male, these managers see female dominance of a space as “shoehorned”, or upsetting the “natural order of things”. However, they do not take issue with male dominated line-ups or lists. Also, if your skin crawls when you hear someone ask “what does she look like?” as opposed to “what do they all look like?”, you are not being oversensitive.

4. Swerving career development

This could include one-on-one meetings where they take you to task over a missed comma in a piece of writing, but don’t actually talk to you about positively taking your role forward and professional development, or using reviews to emphasise your faults, while overlooking your future.

5. Unecessary company or office wide emails

The type of managers I am discussing like to feel at the centre of the office universe – perhaps because once they leave it for the day, they don’t experience the same in their personal lives. Therefore being seen as the centre of the staff solar system is very important to them. They could do this by delaying announcements until they have an attentive audience (see point two) or finding ways to admonish you via a company wide email (I genuinely had a feature cancelled on a radio show I produced not via a face-to-face email or direct email, but by an email that went out to brand departments not even associated with the radio station while I was in bed on antibiotics with tonsilitis.) Another habit to watch out for is someone using this method to take credit for your success.

6. Micromanagement that obstructs your larger responsibilities

By focusing on that missed comma in a one-on-one meeting, pulling you up on small, inconsequential moments, only delegating you admin tasks and disapproving of your individual decisions. Ignoring the data you’ve collected to support an approach and simply deciding they prefer their own direction. Not giving you any autonomy over your role despite years of experience, and making you reliant on their approval for every small decision. Even gaslighting.

I was once given a dressing down because my email – unbenknowst to me – had been searched by management and they found a single email where I told a potential interviewee I’d reply in the morning. As far as I’m aware, there was no complaint on their part – the meeting took place after they had been interviewed and appeared on the show. It’s true that I should have just left it to the morning to reply, but it was a very bizarre situation to know I’d been spied on despite no issues with my work.

It is the foundation of good management to give your direct reports responsibilities and a sense of purpose. These managers will cut you out of the chain you were hired to be a key link in and leave you floundering. It removes your sense of workplace indentity, and given that we spent so many hours of our weeks working, it impacts your overall identity. It is a form of mental manipulation that can lead to stress and worse. It is ten years since I left the most toxic workplace I have ever encountered, during which I developed a painful food intolerance – I wasn’t paid much, so was eating some form of tinned beans twice a day, unaware that it was causing the mysterious agony I experienced on the daily. Obviously there are worse things in life than losing your ability to comfortably indulge in houmous, but ladies if you find you’re developing stress-induced IBS on the job, you need to make changes before you come the liability of every caterer, restaurant and dinner party throwing friend you come across.

7. Specifically treating you differently because you are a woman

From verbal assumptions you would not want to be involved in something because “women don’t like that sort of thing”, to organising male-only activities (after work football is fine, but open it up to everyone), calling adult women “girls” because the word “women” makes them “uncomfortable”. Declaring your working relationships with third parties benefit from your percieived attractiveness or presumptions your relationships with them are personal.

So, what can we do about it?

In the case of the first toxic environment I encountered, the answer was simply to leave. I couldn’t make it better – it was too small a workplace and I was too broken to put myself back together. Instead I went to London on a short term contract with a broadcaster where I learned my enthusiasm and willingness to throw myself in head first were very much wanted.

In the second, older and finding some of the will and resolve that had previously been beaten out of me, I refused to toe the line and indviduals in my workplace took it upon themselves to help me, such as changing my manager. I found people I could trust to discuss the behaviour with and we gradually improved my surroundings. I do also think that was down to the wider company environment being a place that truly wanted women to work there, and I really liked the people I worked with. Also the boss who caused the issues was given a female manager and left not long after. In contrast, when I spoke to the CEO of the other company about the issues I was facing, I was ejected from the building three days later – my nine months of paid employment meaning I had no protection from contract termination, despite a solid professional track record. And you know what? I did so much better as a result. Still can’t eat a pot of houmous without catastropic results, but I’m happy.

I know it is awful to have to think about, but if there aren’t people you can trust at your dream job, then maybe it isn’t your dream after all. Research and take steps to find out where you could find the place that deserves you and your skills.

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

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