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"We Would Never Penalize a Woman Like That"

"We Would Never Penalize a Woman Like That"

I have had several conversations recently with male leaders that have been a bit maddening. Maddening because they get right to core of how hard it is to shift the gender equity paradigm in the workplace.

I’ll share three with you here.

Conversation #1.

In the first, I was describing to a male leader a work environment that held high-achieving women back from promotion if they took maternity leave, because they needed to see a consistent track record of performance without interruption - and maternity leave was considered interruption.

As a result, these women were held back by as long as two years - more if they had another child before promotion. The man replied immediately by saying his company would never penalize a woman like that. And yet, his company offers no paid maternity leave to its employees, and anyone who works less than full time has no path to promotion.

[Related: Why Diversity Should Matter to Investors]

Conversation #2.

Another leader, who is an active, public supporter of advancing women, told me he believes women make the choice to end their careers when they choose to have a baby. Never mind that men cannot make the choice to give birth instead of women. Or that same-sex couples have babies, and some people choose to adopt or use a surrogate. It was a black-and-white issue to him.

[Related: High-Performing Professional Women Want More Paid Leave and Greater Flexibility]

Conversation #3.

And finally, I had a senior man insist that he and his firm tried hard to recruit women, but no good candidates were interested. His firm is all-male. When I asked how he and his colleagues recruit, he said they reach out to their network of friends through their business network and their country club. No active effort to reach past the familiar.

Of course, hearing comments like these this can make you want to yell, get in people’s faces, or tell them to just get out of the way. But it is totally counterproductive to do so. And if you are a woman, you can end up feeding into the fear that any woman doing gender parity work is a man-hater deep down.

These are examples of classic unconscious bias in action. All of these men were active in meetings and events to advance women. They said they want to do right by women, and I believe they really meant that. They truly do not recognize that their assumptions are part of the problem. So this is an opportunity for education, in a way that helps them see on their own how they need to change.

When you are faced with this kind of pushback, step closer. Ask questions. Listen. Brainstorm with that person how to make things better. It is an opportunity to start a spark that can begin authentic change.

[Related: CEOs and the Importance of Talking About Gender Equity]

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Throughout her twenty-five-year career, Michelle Bogan has mentored colleagues and clients, founded and led women's groups, and helped promote many women and men to leadership positions. In 2018, she founded Equity for Women to advance the mission of empowering women at work.


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