When Women Feel Disrespected at Work

New research captures the experiences of women in male-dominated workplaces.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Free-Photos Pixabay/No Attribution Listed on Pixabay
Source: Free-Photos Pixabay/No Attribution Listed on Pixabay

Women who work in male-dominated workplaces (offices and organizations with majority male staff) face unique challenges. As part of an automatic “out-group” due to their gender, they often have to compensate for their status as minority members. Women may put in more hours or work harder or feel the need to prove themselves more than the men around them. New research reveals six ways women are disrespected and thereby marginalized at work. 

How people view themselves as fitting in or standing out at work is shaped by many factors. This socialization process starts when women are young. Dr. Patricia Gettings, a professor at University at Albany SUNY explains, “We learn about the world of work starting at a very early age. For example, we hear our parents talk about whether they like their jobs at the dinner table. We watch TV shows that offer portrayals of specific jobs and so on. These socializing influences shape our own ideas about work and careers. For many of us, what we learn about work intersects with gender in terms of being asked to do “appropriate” chores, being exposed to stereotypes of what kinds of work are more masculine/feminine, or what kinds of jobs are “best” for accomplishing life goals (e.g., “having a family”). We often carry these gendered career beliefs with us as through school and into our own work-lives."

Dr. Gettings and I recently published a study that explored the various ways women are marginalized (or pushed to the margins/edges of their workplaces) when working in male-dominated organizations or offices. Many of the women we spoke to were one of the only, or one of a handful of, women at their workplace. Others had grown so frustrated with working in male-dominated spaces that they left well-earned jobs for alternative opportunities that offered more support and less marginalization.

Over the course of 41 interviews with women who were within the first five years of a traditionally male job, women described many times they felt disrespected at work. Dr. Gettings and I grouped these experiences into six different types of workplace marginalization. You can read about our method for doing so here. Each type of marginalization contained instances of microaggressions, or subtle messages that are not obviously malicious (Ortiz and Jani, 2010), and macroaggressions, or blatant and explicitly malicious messages or behaviors (Onsanloo et al., 2016), from co-workers and supervisors.

Types of Marginalizing Workplace Communication

1. Isolating Communication

First, women described feeling separated or being singled out from others at work based on their gender. Separation can be physical (working in one place as opposed to another) or informational (lack of sharing information). One woman described an unspoken norm in her office where women all sat on one side of the open-format office and men sat on the other, without having any assigned work areas. Several women described men whispering in their presence or walking into a room full of male colleagues that quickly quieted. These women suspected the topic was sexist, inappropriate, or something the men did not want women in the office to know about. Women in our study found this treatment incredibly frustrating.

2. Being Silenced

When women felt they were being silenced at work they described times they were "shushed," their ideas were rejected or discarded, or they were viewed as incompetent despite sometimes having multiple degrees and years of experience. Verbal and nonverbal responses (like eye-rolls or dismissing reactions) to new ideas weighed heavily on women and strongly communicated disrespect. One woman had been shut down so many times by a male supervisor that she decided the only way to deal with him: “Whatever he asks you to do, just say yes.” She did this even if there was a better way to do something in the face of safety concerns.

3. Facing Consequences for Breaking Gender Norms

When women did things that were seen as outside of their traditional gender roles such as taking initiative, seeking promotions, or acting assertively, they faced backlash and discouragement in more and less explicit ways. For example, one woman was told by her boss that women who work their way up the career ladder are never happy and could never balance a family, indicating she should just stay put and be happy where she is.

4. Markers of Disrespect

Specific markers of disrespect women encountered included having their credibility questioned,  being called sexual or demeaning nicknames, or simply being made to feel uncomfortable at work. One woman attributed this bad behavior to the men around her not liking having a woman in their environment.

5. Violence and/or Sexual Harassment

Women in our study were physically threatened at work, stalked, and hit on by co-workers. There were fewer examples of this category in our sample, but one woman spoke about being followed by a co-worker who had to be asked to stop by a supervisor, and another described being physically threatened with being hit with materials at the workplace. The woman who was physically threatened left the job shortly thereafter. 

6. Lack of Tolerance for Physical Needs/Bodies

Women described times they needed different accommodations than men due to biological differences such as needing a place in the office to pump breast milk. Requests like these were honored unilaterally by some organizations and were more difficult in others. Often in manual labor jobs, women were assumed to have less physical ability than men and were thereby assigned different work tasks, not given interviews for demanding positions, or passed over for promotions. Finally, women described being treated differently due to their appearance and clothes. One woman was told by a client that she should be doing a different job because she was too attractive to waste her time in her current position.

How Women Respond to Marginalization at Work

Women in this study responded to being disrespected and/or marginalized at work in different ways. First, women occasionally reported disrespectful behavior to their supervisors. This was not a common response, in part because women may fear retaliation from the organization, supervisor, or co-workers. 

A "lower risk" option might be to tell a co-worker, ideally one who is an ally or mentor, who can help assess the situation and offer guidance on the next steps. A co-worker who has been at the organization longer may know of similar situations happening in the past or how a supervisor is likely to handle the disclosure. 

Women may reach out to friends and family for support and advice. One woman described posting about her workplace discrimination experiences on Facebook, after which many of her friends urged her to quit her job and find a better situation for herself. Women often described a lack of support from their family members who did not understand their situation, often because they themselves were not women working in traditionally male workplaces. Friends in similar jobs at other companies can make excellent allies and sounding boards for discussing how to respond to discrimination.

Many women in our study chose a fourth option: To take no action. Sometimes they did nothing because they chalked the disrespectful behavior up to “boys will be boys” or “that’s just the way it is.” Other times, they knew that reporting the event to a supervisor would do no good and instead may cause harm to their own careers. Taking no action was by far the most common response of women in our study. Their reasons for “doing nothing” were far from simple. Some had financial or family commitments that required them to do everything they could to keep their jobs. Others were determined to stay and fight for their place in their male-dominated work-world.  

The study does not advise one "best" way to respond to discrimination at work but describes the options women might weigh. Change in policy and organizational culture is needed and the weight of this work cannot rest solely on women who are marginalized at work. Some women in our study spoke of men who were allies at work and at home that helped them persist in their work and thrive in their careers. 

What types of marginalizing communication have you experienced at work? How did you respond? What was the ultimate outcome? Did your organization or co-worker change?

LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Dorrance Hall, E., Gettings, P. (online first). “Who is this little girl they hired to work here?”: Women’s experiences of marginalizing communication in male-dominated workplaces. Communication Monographs. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2020.1758736

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46(2), 175–193. https://doi.org/10.5175/JSWE.2010.200900070

Osanloo, A. F., Boske, C., & Newcomb, W. S. (2016). Deconstructing macroaggressions, microaggressions, and structural racism in education: Developing a conceptual model for the intersection of social justice practice and intercultural education. International Journal of Organizational Theory and Development, 4(1), 1–18.