Workplace Rules: What to Do When They Only Apply to You

How to handle the unwritten rules marginalized populations face

Posted Jul 13, 2020

I had a risky idea yesterday. Most of my ideas that are still half-formed are fairly precarious so it’s not a surprise that when I came bursting into the kitchen to explain to my partner than we needed to train women about how to better fit into the white patriarchal system, he balked. Appropriately so.

I tried a different approach.

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay
Darth Vadar, Star Wars villain
Source: Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“Okay, think about Star Wars and the plan to destroy the Death Star. The Rebels are desperate and running out of options but Luke Skywalker is able to shoot the proton torpedo into the exhaust pipe triggering the chain reaction to bring down the whole evil system. The only way Luke knows how to do this is because he had the stolen plans – the blueprints to the Death Star. He understood the entire layout and system which allowed him to infiltrate the reactor core!”

My partner’s reaction has moved from shock and horror to twisted confusion.
He’s never seen Star Wars – a tragedy of epic proportions that I make a note to amend as soon as possible.

Undeterred, I grabbed my computer to try to finish baking the idea, which obviously isn’t going to be communicated by alluding to great cinema. In my upcoming book, Instinct, I write about Ernst & Young, one of the largest accounting firms in the world and their 2018 training scandal. The company had offered promising up-and-coming female leaders a training called, “Power-Presence-Purpose.” The training included tips like:
• Clothing must flatter, but short skirts are a no-no.
• Women should look healthy and fit, with a “good haircut” and “manicured nails.”
• Don’t directly confront men in a meeting; it’s perceived as aggressive.
• Don’t talk to a man face-to-face. Cross your legs and sit at an angle to him.

Patronizing? Yup.

Infantilizing? Sure.

Out of touch? Definitely.


Ah, now things start to get interesting. In a system that has been built to reward those that fit into the “norm” of the white patriarchy, is it not exceptionally useful to understand the rules of the “norm?” Think of it as having those secret stolen plans of the Death Star. Let me be very clear about this point: I’m not in any way trying to justify or moralize these rules, but if these are the blueprints that allow women, people of color, and other marginalized groups to access otherwise cordoned off positions of power, let’s know them – in depth.

Canva Studio/Pexel
Who defines the rules where you work? Are you aware of them? Are you playing by them or supporting them?
Source: Canva Studio/Pexel

Most of us already have some sense of what these rules are because we’ve been taught them (if not as explicitly as the Ernst & Young training) from a very young age and had them reinforced at every turn. It occurred to me that while I understand the unwritten rules for white women (since I am one), those rules are likely much different for women of color. For a Black perspective on racial and gender “shape-shifting” or switch-coding I highly recommend reading Kimberly Foster’s article linked here and Maura Cheeks HBR article here. Insomuch as I had to read Maura and Kimberly’s articles to become aware of and better understand how the rules applied differently for Black women, it became unflinchingly clear to me that there was a massive opportunity for another group to be cued into these different rule sets – allies. In particular, white men who have never had “the training” to understand what norms they were unknowingly, passively supporting.

What are the workplace rules? Who writes them and who is expected to play by them? Are you aware of how you might be enforcing them?

As a woman (and a biologist) I’m very aware that being in a position of power in the workplace is extraordinarily threatening to men at the biological level. A challenge to male status is a challenge to their reason for existence. Status is how men demonstrate self-worth, mate-value, and power among peers. When I, as a woman, address a man at work, I have to know the rules. Confronting him in front of his peers, immediately staring him in the eye, sitting openly and directly in front of him are registered by him as deeply engrained biological challenges that will likely elicit an instinctual defensive response preventing him from fully hearing and understanding my position (no matter how good or bad it might be). In this illustration, some of the Ernst & Young training might help me make a better case by adjusting my approach. Immediately I can feel myself (and my readers) bristle at this idea.

Why should I adjust my approach?
Why shouldn’t he recognize and adjust his surging testosterone and control his instincts?

Yes. Of course, he should. But he’s never had the training.

In the same way, I’ve never been trained to better interact and adjust to not be spewing white privilege in my interactions with colleagues who are people of color.

No, of course, it shouldn’t be up to those outside of the power structures to have to train and play by their rules. Ideally, there are enough white allies, and male allies, and heterosexual allies, and Christian allies, and cis allies, that are willing to sit in on these “trainings” by reading books and listening to podcasts and relearning that the world they’ve been living in is not nearly as multidimensional and complex as the experiences of those living outside it. But I don’t want to be dependent on those already in power to wake up. We’ve tried this tactic for too long and we haven’t gotten far enough. Because if you’re a man, you can walk away from the “gender training” at any time and fall back into the norm. If you’re white, you can do the same with “race training.” And so on. It’s too easy for the norm to walk away when things get tough.

Instead, I find myself diving deeper into the psychology of the system. How can I as a woman better shape shift to gain power? What rules can I uncover that will help others infiltrate and be in a better position to change the system? How can I better sit in on the trainings of those outside of my own marginalized group to be the ally they need, to begin changing the system from the inside?

My allies, this Rebel Alliance, may have to fly into the trenches of the Death Star system, but we will find that exhaust pipe. And the more we expose the weaknesses of this superstructure the more we can begin to dismantle it from within.

*(And yes, that too must include exploring and more deeply analyzing my references to the patriarchal, racially insensitive and stereotyped classics like Star Wars – the irony was *almost* lost, but saved thanks to careful editing by a friend. Thanks to everyone for continuously helping me through the training. We are all learning).