The following is a guest post from a friend (we’ll call him M) who contacted me the other day and asked whether I’d like to publish an anonymous rant about sexism in the workplace. I expected something of a slightly grayer shade (as my experiences have nearly always been), but this story strikes me as a straightforward illustration of the damaging attitudes some professional men maintain toward their female counterparts in 21st-century America (and the very reassuring fact that men like M exist as well and are fighting these battles alongside women).
Let me open by saying that I am a guy. I have been married for 11 years. I work in an industry (marketing) where males have traditionally dominated, but despite what you might see on Mad Men it has become one of the more egalitarian industries over the last couple of decades. Of my last five managers, three have been women. Even in my ten years in this industry, I’ve watched as women have taken c-level roles not just in consumer practices, but in technology and digital practice as well–traditionally the most male of the male camps in marketing and PR.
So it was quite a surprise when, after I asked a female client to please change how she communicates to myself and our team so that we can remain constructive (that’s a nice way of saying I asked her to stop being mean in her emails–what agencies call “pushing back on the client”), I received a frantic message from an executive VP in our agency who happened to be CC’d on the email. I prepared for the hand-slap that mid-senior-level agency people get when we do something that might potentially anger the client deities. What I got was far, far worse.
Anonymous, this guy told me, “You have to understand that this is how women communicate.”
In the words of my other anonymous pals from the internet: Lolwut?
It stunned me because statements like this are almost unheard-of in my industry, which has kept me insulated from the fact that this is still a very real phenomenon in the larger working world.
“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” is a bullshit book, and the belief that genders communicate in different ways is ultimately harmful to workplace equality (and relationship equality, and gender equality, and so on). Statements like the above seem born from that early-1990s crucible of pseudo-equality, but only serve to reinforce stereotypes–and ultimately provide excuses to reinforce gender inequality in the workplace.
To be clear, neither men nor women should give up their senses of identity, whether gender-based or otherwise, in the office. But equality in pay, treatment, and company roles and titles can never be achieved if we cannot move beyond statements like the above. It is limiting and degrading to the women, but it also illustrates the short-sightedness of the men: if this person believes women cannot communicate without being mean when under pressure, then there is a fundamental and underlying inequality in that person’s perception of the other gender.
I would say the same thing about any other sweeping generalization about human behavior: “that’s just how he communicates, he’s black.” “She’s just like that. She’s a Virgo.” “Yeah, that’s just how he talks to others, he’s a Mormon.” None of these are acceptable statements to make in the workplace (or frankly anywhere), and remove responsibility for socially unacceptable behavior as well as defining an atmosphere of underlying prejudice.
If we ever want to remove that glass ceiling once and for all, we (guys and gals alike) will need to excise statements like this from our consciousness. Men aren’t from Mars, we don’t go caving, women aren’t from Venus. These are excuses, not definitions. We’re people, plain and simple. Let’s treat each other as such.