We live in a world designed by men for men. We ascertain that the world is designed for men, but I don’t think we are aware to which extent. Today’s offices are about five degrees too cold for women since their ideal temperature was calculated for men’s body temperature. This leads not only to women feeling slightly uncomfortable but also to them being less productive.
Today’s technical gadgets are mostly built in one size - the size that fits men’s hands. It is nearly impossible for women to take a smartphone picture one-handed, which for men is an easy task. A 2016 research paper on Google’s speech recognition software found that it was 70% more likely to recognize male speech compared to females. Cars are also not designed for women. When a woman is involved in a car accident (which, by the way, is less likely compared to men), she is 71% more likely to be moderately injured, 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to die.
Seatbelts are less safe for women, medicine is less safe for women, technology is less likely to work for women. All those biases are here to stay for a while longer because there is a lack of women in testing, designing, and working on those products. And all this while we still pay the same price for the same products. All these seemingly small differences have a negative impact on equality of opportunities which by extent gets us to unequal outcomes. So, to say that we live in a world designed by men for men is not an overstatement but merely a fact.
Over time these structures have solidified and quietly guided our perception and behavior. Moreover, people are not used to adopting another person‘s perspective, and instead, we rely on the assumption that we all share the same frame of mind, meaning difficulties arise for men empathizing with a woman’s day-to-day obstacles. I have encountered this lack of mutual understanding most strikingly in the workplace. Companies tell us career success depends only on skill, however, reality often looks different. Disregarding this issue only makes things worse. When we take a closer look at the structures from different areas of working life, we find that the conditions are not tailored to people but rather to men. The lack of gender diversity is still present at top decision making positions. For me, as a woman with a couple of years of experience in IT, it is impossible to not be confronted with these unjust structures on a daily basis. Therefore, I decided to write this article in order to enhance our understanding of each other and encourage empathetic behavior at work.
The term sexism is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on a person's sex or gender. When asking myself, if that is also my truth, I have no choice but to accept that it is; especially having hands-on experience in fields dominated by men, like the tech industry. Our society has been patriarchally oriented for most of history and only recently has it started to change. It is evident that the world is still established as sexist since societal change always progresses slowly and with challenges. Therefore, the path to achieving gender equality will also take time. To me, the word sexist does not have a good or bad connotation, nor does it say anything about the meaning or intent behind the sexism itself. Instead, it is solely descriptive of behavior. However, quite often, and increasingly so, people get offended by even remotely being linked to sexism.
For many, calling someone sexist is strongly associated with calling them a bad person or even worse, implying a serious offense or malicious intent. This is not and should not be the meaning of the word. Because being sexist is generalized onto a personality trait instead of being an indicator of behavior, it ultimately makes people get defensive before a conversation even starts. As a consequence, it is increasingly difficult to talk about sexism openly and reasonably, including sexism in the workplace - a place that has a most dire need for such conversations. Since nobody wants to be sexist, we are too afraid to critically reflect on our behavior and admit that we might think or act sexist. We are scared of it. Hence, we try to defend and excuse our behavior. We are quick to distance ourselves from sexism. Considering this, a person called out for sexist behavior feels unjustly treated rather than inspired to reflect on their own behavior. But in fact, accepting the possibility of acting sexist and not being afraid of it is the key to open up a conversation that offers the opportunity for positive long-term change.
I found most men want to treat women equally and respectfully, but they do not know how to. Their intents are rarely bad, but they still have conscious and unconscious biases. Making people aware of their biases offers them the opportunity to reflect on them instead and alter their behavior. With this in mind, we should take the criticism as a chance to grow and to better understand the inequality within this world. Even though men are the ones who are privileged and in positions of power and women are being discriminated against, it is my belief that change has to come from both sides. We can sometimes even be sexist towards ourselves. So we should try to also recognize this kind of sexism and act to change without undermining the impact of sexism directed towards us.
My experience of being a woman in the workplace can be divided into three sections:
Everyone is happy to have a female developer, but they do not realize how good you really are. Most coworkers still expect you to be good in general, but not to exceed them. They see you, but limited.
It starts early when teachers expect you to be smart, but hold the male peers as more competent. Once you prove yourself, they see how good you are and start respecting you. Therefore, a woman's skill is usually seen as less compared to her true expertise. I see incompetent men fiddling their way through situations without any actual knowledge. Men get away with it so much more often than women do, giving me the impression that I have to work harder, look better, and be smarter to achieve the same as men. It sometimes hinders my ability to fulfill my true potential, because it seems to me that I will not be rated objectively.
When I think of coming into new situations, moving teams, projects, new offices, or a new workplace, I know I will have to prove myself against the wall of prejudice against women in tech. Instead, I want women to be treated and valued for their skill set and not for the subjective impression.
I would like to start with a couple of personal stories and reflect on how I felt during these situations, to illustrate both sides of sexism in the workplace. I was once told that men can wear shorts and women cannot, because they might distract the men at work. I responded by wearing the shortest shorts I owned the next day. Sexual objectification was not the main issue for me in that situation. What really bothered me was that I was restricted because someone else could potentially not handle themselves around women. No one asked me if I get distracted by overly arousing males.
Another experience I had was when I washed all my "proper" work clothes, so I came wearing a shirt with a low neckline. Quite quickly I found out that a bunch of my male coworkers were talking about my cleavage. Moreover, they sent messages around saying that I was worth an extra look that day. One even asked me for a picture because he was not at the office. When I found out what was going on and openly showed my disapproval, I was told I should take it as a compliment. Sexual objectification is one thing, however, that they only realized how good I was at my job after I left is the real concern.
It took them a year after I left the company to realize my skill level but only ten seconds to notice my boobs. To be clear, I do not think the issue lies in checking out people at the office. My problem is that with a majority of men in a workplace, those behaviors are amplified and reinforced and all of a sudden you feel ganged up on and not just someone noticing you look nice.
I was told programming is not for girls. I was told I should not be on my own on the streets at night. I was also told I should find a man to take care of me and provide for me. When I say I do not want children, people tell me I am just a rebel and I will change my mind regardless - something men are almost never asked about and even if it comes up, they are not questioned about their choices. Hearing those words gave me the impression that my path in life has been set, without me having a say in it. In each of these conversations, I wish that they would not push me into a societal role model but start trying to really understand me.
At a job interview, I was once asked the question about my strengths and weaknesses. I answered that one of my strengths is my self-reliance. I told them that I lived alone and was used to taking care of myself, with proper self-management skills. In response, a man in the room pointed out that he would not let his daughter live alone at my age - an answer that a man of the same age would never have gotten.
Considering all the comments I got during this interview, I began to wonder what must be going on in his mind. How does he picture me as a woman in my early twenties living on my own? Does he see me screwing around? Or being mugged at night because I look too fragile to be on my own? Whatever he thought back then, and it might be neither of those options, it left me with an unpleasant feeling. This man was a trained HR manager, by definition required to be free of any gender stereotypes and yet, he was not trying to figure out if the company and I would be a match. Instead, I felt like being judged within seconds, and each time my responses did not fit their picture of a young woman they showed disapproval.
It is sad that a lot of men are confident and comfortable enough to express generalized opinions about one gender; for example, the assumption that all women should want and (actually deep down) do want children, that all of us women are hysterical or at least way too emotional. In contrast, I have rarely seen these generalizations made by women, especially at work.
Women's behaviors are often perceived as being emotional and hysterical while men’s are perceived as aggressive. From my perspective, it is not about a true gender difference but rather about the way people perceive these traits. Being aggressive is often mixed up with being assertive at work while being emotional is seen as inferior or unsuited for the workplace. Still, I have worked with men who are often as emotional or even more so than my female coworkers. In discussions at work, I am often not judged on the basis of my character, but reduced to my gender. This results in me being perceived as provocative, yet I only want to contribute my point of view and my opinion to finding a solution to a problem.
It is generally agreed upon that diversity in companies positively influences efficiency, but only if it is implemented correctly. Therefore, it is not simply about listening to each other, but about truly understanding where the other person is coming from. All of us will profit when we improve our communication.
We need to communicate more openly and not be scared of revealing ourselves within the work setting. I do not want to hide my true self, instead, I would like to create an environment in which every opinion is valued, regardless of any characteristics or traits of the person sharing it. If you want to shape a more tolerant workplace and improve the office culture, you have to get to know and understand the people who work with you and for you. Not as a woman but as myself, I can be strong and tough but I can be fragile and emotional as well. I do not want to hide anything about myself to fit into the idea of what the workplace should look like. I got tired of fighting against the constant sexism I encountered at work. After a while, I started to just smile and nod because that is the only way to avoid conflict.
Deep down, I knew the whole time that avoidance is not the solution and at some point, when I can not stand it anymore, the bubble will burst. When that happens, I will leave, as many women do, too. Women in technology cut their careers short more often than in any other field, which is not surprising, considering all the burden women face at work. We think we look at skills, but from my experience, the culture is often what is most difficult to bear.
In any conversation, the odds are way higher that a man is going to interrupt a woman than vice versa. Men ask for pay raises more often, while women wait to deserve them, to be recognized, and rarely ask for raises themselves. Men will make sure they have a seat at the table and women wait to be invited. By seeing this, I can understand why I behave the way I do. Still, even though I can, I do not want to constantly fight for speaking without being interrupted and to fight for what I deserve.
Moreover, I do not want to struggle with myself every time, nor with the constant feeling of being undervalued at work and having to question my whole existence to see if I truly deserve to be valued. I get that bosses are used to male employees, but I resist changing my behavior to fit the male-driven standards, in order to feel valued at work. Therefore, I will break the silence, point out the grievances, and communicate clearly how I want to be treated at work.
We have come a long way from the middle ages, but still, there is a lot more to be done. It is easy to grasp the inequality between men and women in the work setting, but if we speak up, we will change it. That is the only thing that ever remotely worked for me, but also in general, because without action nothing will change. I accepted that being a woman today implies that you have to speak up and stand up for your rights. We have to make a stand for ourselves and not let people interrupt us. Furthermore, we have to challenge these outdated sexist structures in their core in order to achieve gender equality and shape a future in which we will not have to constantly fight for our rights.
By mostly highlighting my negative experiences with the other sex at work, it seems like there is no light in the dark. However, I have had many great experiences with even greater people of both sexes along the way. Still, it was all on an interpersonal level, never on the corporate one. I was never supported by a company to help me combat the struggles I am facing. But there were people around me who supported me and continue to help me, who refuse to be ignorant.
A lack of awareness can excuse sexist behaviors to some degree, but avoiding this topic cannot be tolerated. With this and other articles, people become aware of the day-to-day sexism which makes continuing such behaviors inexcusable - because then you choose to ignore half of the world’s population and choose to remain ignorant.
I understand this article is mostly about my experiences working in the IT environment so far. It would be presumptuous to assume that my path reflects every woman’s narrative. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, even though the experiences of women may differ, the underlying issues are usually the same.
There is a lot to be done on all sides, but for companies creating an environment of mutual respect, a good and productive workflow should be the top priority. All the different problems described arising at the workplace are not just a women’s issue but a people issue. Somewhere along the way, the IT industry has forgotten some of the rules of social behavior, and we should strive to learn them again - and start by listening and understanding different perspectives and needs.
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