Communicative Responses: Life as a Token Woman
I began working in the manufacturing industry right out of my undergraduate college career. As a student, I was confident in my education, competence, and the value I could bring to an organization, yet there was something about the corporate world that I could not have learned in college. Transitioning from an undergraduate college campus of 60% women, where I blend in fairly easily, to a manufacturing company of more than 80% men, where it’s almost impossible to go unnoticed, was a challenge I was not prepared for.
Since those early post-college days in a male-dominated organization, I’ve learned how Western society reinforces the gender binary in all arenas. Institutions are “masculinized,” in that male occupations possess more social value. Organizational structures serve men, while disadvantaging women. “Masculine values” such as competition, independence, and problem-solving are rewarded, while “feminine values” such as collaboration and interdependence are undervalued, which continues to gender organizations as masculine.
The reason masculine values are preferred is because, historically, men controlled the public sphere, while women maintained the home/family sphere. However, in the past four decades, the sexes have infiltrated the “opposite” spheres. Today, women are prevalent in the public sphere, and men frequently maintain the private sphere. However, organizations continue to encompass masculine values and favor men. Organizations were made for men, by men. But it is time to accept that and make our institutions (and society) more inclusive for all.
[Related: A Letter to the Men in Our Lives]
While many organizations tend to be gendered masculine, the disproportional gender ratio is especially severe in industries that are dominated by men, such as manufacturing. While women make up about 48% percent of the United States’s labor force, they occupy only 29% of manufacturing jobs. The small ratio of women to men causes women to be victims of “tokenism.”
In organizations, tokens are simultaneously visible and invisible. When women are visible in organizations, they are often sexualized, objectified, or seen as motherly, rather than being recognized for their contributions and hard work. They often go unnoticed or are ignored, left out through language and excluded from conversation. Other times, they are noticed, but for their roles as part of families, rather than as dedicated employees. When women are invisible, they are subjects of jokes and excluded from conversations and extracurricular activities, which further perpetuates their exclusion and perceived differences. Frequently, women stand out and are noticed because of their gender, either for being "womanly" or talking and acting like men in order to be accepted.
Women’s sense of self is affected by the masculinity of the organizations in which they work. As part of my graduate studies, I conducted research seeking to understand the ways in which women are tokens, the responses women use in reaction, and how tokenism contributes to women’s sense of self.
Communication contributes to tokenism.
Through interviews with women employed in the field of manufacturing, I found that communication is the leading way in which women are tokenized, and it happens in two ways.
- Language and conversation: It doesn't take years of experience in an organization to recognize that women are “other.” Men engage in conversation differently with women than they do with other men. The typical conversations in which men on the shop floor engage are usually not held when a woman is present. Women feel the need to be accepted and fit in with their male colleagues. The language used and topics discussed serve to marginalize women and preserve men’s power. While conversations on sports and politics are not necessarily offensive, topics of men’s conversations can be exclusive and even uncomfortable for women to be a part of or overhear.
- Communication on appearance: In addition to being excluded by the language used in conversation, all interview participants described numerous times women’s appearances are discussed. These conversations revolve around women’s physical appearance, not their contributions to the organization.
Women’s responses to tokenism.
How do women respond when one of the instances described above takes place? Without exception, all interview participants described times they’ve felt uncomfortable at work because of comments made about themselves or other women. There were four overarching patterns for how women respond to men’s comments.
- Humoring: Humor is typically women’s first response to diffuse an uncomfortable situation. Although joking is not effective in stopping the inappropriate behavior, many women find it to be the easiest and most harmless response. Humor is women’s way to excuse the situation and maintain the working relationship with the person.
- Ignoring: Many times, women consider comments from men to be “inappropriate,” but chose to ignore them. This is often women’s second response if men’s comments continue or escalate. This is a woman’s way to passively disapprove of the comment, but also preserve the relationship with their colleague.
- Questioning: A common reaction to uncomfortable situations is for women to question their feelings and reaction to the interaction. When comments make women truly feel uncomfortable, laughing them off or ignoring them isn’t easy. While women typically recognize that they feel uneasy, they often question themselves. A woman may be surprised or offended by a comment, but question themselves and think, “He probably didn’t mean it that way.” Many times, women feel uncomfortable after an interaction, but make excuses by questioning themselves and chalking it up to a “misunderstanding.”
- Addressing: While used least often, women will use direct communication if the situation escalates. Typically, women try the other three responses several times before finally addressing the situation directly. Addressing the situation directly is the most productive response to these uncomfortable interactions. However, it can be difficult to do, and is usually only used as a last resort when other methods are ineffective.
[Related: He Harassed. Later, I Responded.]
A workplace where objectifying communication and sexual harassment are not tolerated will be possible when organizations and individuals stop trivializing harassment and women stop questioning themselves, their feelings. and their reactions to these instances of discomfort. Understanding that everyone deserves to feel comfortable, safe, and productive at work - with clear expectations for appropriate workplace behavior - is important to changing the organizational culture.
By providing training for employees and through micro-practices, the culture of male-dominated workplaces can change. It is possible to end tokenism and de-masculinize organizations. The first step is awareness, and this research is the start to the conversations.
Carleen Ryan serves as the Chair of the Women's Initiative Network at Solar Turbines, and is a member of San Diego's Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and leveraging Employee Resource Groups to improve employee engagement and morale.
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Solar Turbines Incorporated
I am passionate about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and leveraging Employee Resource Groups to improve employee engagement and morale. I am currently serving as the Chair of the Women's Initiative Network at Solar Turbines and am a member of San Diego's Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council. I hold a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and Business Administration from the University of San Diego and a Master's degree in Communication from San Diego... Continue Reading
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