The upside to Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins: It brought workplace sexism out into the open, making it part of the national conversation for several weeks. But even after the court ruled against Pao, women everywhere continued to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sex discrimination that take place in the office. What’s the best way to handle them? Could Pao have stood up for herself more?
“I believe women shouldn’t have to consider whether they confront sexual discrimination; I believe they should only have to figure out the most effective way to do so,” says Norine Yukon, former CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Texas and current board member for the Texas Conference for Women and several health care corporations. And that, of course, depends on the circumstances and your personal style. But generally speaking, here’s what Yukon and Victoria Pynchon, a lawyer and negotiation consultant, would have done in Pao’s shoes.
You are at a meeting and a man asks you—the only woman present—to take notes.
“I’m a lousy note-taker, so I can say in all honesty that I won’t take notes in fairness to the team.”—Yukon
“I have actually had this happen with a judge, and I responded: ‘I’d love to, Judge, but I’ve found that [a man in the room] is a far better note-taker than I am.’ After suggesting someone else, you could add an explanation, ‘Whenever I’m the note-taker I find it limits my ability to fully participate in the discussion.’ The key is to be respectful—and to praise something about the male replacement.”—Pynchon
You come to an important meeting and there is no seat for you at the table, so you’ll have to sit in a back row. Everyone else at your level is at the table.
“Good communication among team members is key, and communications are better when people can see and hear each other. Also, overt physical isolation can be more than symbolic and can impact decision-making. In this case, I would take a moment to scan the room and see who is sitting where, then pull a chair up to where I want to sit, squeezing in by asking folks to kindly make way. People will usuall find a way to make room for one more.”—Yukon
“Don’t let yourself be sidelined. Why? Because it’s difficult to be heard when you are sitting behind everyone else and it’s bad for your optics. Instead, ask the administrative personnel to please bring you a chair—don’t go get it yourself. You are an Alpha Dog, act like one at least until the revolution requires different behavior of the ruling class. But do remember to say please and thank you to the office staff.”—Pynchon
At meetings, you are constantly interrupted by men, or what you say is ignored.
“It is better to speak with the individuals privately first, and then if the behavior continues, call the offender out to his leader and to the group. I have always tried to not fight fire with fire, because that just ends up burning a lot of people. But I have to admit in some cases, the only way I could stop obnoxious male behavior was by sarcastically interrupting the interrupter.”—Yukon
“I’d say, ‘Excuse me, Joe, but I hadn’t finished what I was saying.’ And when they take credit for your idea, say, ‘Great add-on to what I was saying earlier, Joe; thanks for picking up where I left off.’”—Pynchon
You hear that a business dinner with important players is planned, and only men are invited.
“I would first try not to make any assumptions about the reasons I wasn’t invited. Then I’d go to the organizer of the dinner and ask how the invite list was put together. Depending on that response, I might ask to be included, or I might decide not to make an issue of it. You have to pick your battles because you can’t win them all.”—Yukon
“Go to the man you are closest to among invitees and say, ‘Hey Bob, I understand there’s a business dinner tonight with key players. I’ve got a half dozen questions for Harry, who I’ve become pretty tight with during the [case or some project]. It must have been an oversight to leave me off the guest list. Can you adroitly get me on it?’ This lets him and the group save face and consolidates your importance to the effort without having a confrontation about why you weren’t invited.”—Pynchon
On a chartered plane during a business trip, your male colleagues start talking about female porn stars and Victoria’s Secret models.
“I have been in many situations where inappropriate conversations were started. Almost without exception, I have been able to look these guys straight in the eyes and remind them that I am in the room and that the conversation should stop. Try not to be intimidated even if one of the guys is the boss. I also recommend personally following up with individuals who are ‘leading’ the inappropriate conversations.”—Yukon
“I’d say, ‘I’d love to give you a woman’s perspective on sex workers and soft porn but I’m afraid it would make all the guys uncomfortable’—thus making all the men uncomfortable. I guarantee you that they will change the subject and a few of the more conscious players will realize that making people uncomfortable in conversation is a two-way street, not a one way back alley.”—Pynchon
One day, you are informed that you are being moved to an office that is out of the way, toward the back of the building, away from the “power corridor.”
“Unless there is a construction or remodeling project underway that is causing physical disruption, I would take this as a potentially serious sign of a decision already concluded. To me, this is not limited to females, as I have seen it happen to both men and women who are either out of favor or who have been geographically demoted due to a new employee or new corporate structure. In any case, I would have a conversation with my boss to see what I could learn, and then I’d update my resume and start contacting recruiters.”—Yukon
“Never go with any ‘flow’ that marginalizes you. Instead go to a superior who has your back. Explain how the rearrangement hurts your group—so this isn’t about your ego—then say, ‘I’m happy to talk to HR myself but thought you might want to talk to Carol before I did. What do you think?’ In all of these conversations, you speak as a colleague from a position of power, not a position of weakness. You’re saying you can handle this yourself, but that you want to give a superior the opportunity to use her muscle.”—Pynchon
At the end of the day, our experts agree that speaking up for yourself is always better than keeping quiet. “It’s good to make an effort to grease the wheels of courteous social interaction,” Pynchon says, “but when people are being damaged, diminished or dismissed and polite conversation isn’t working, please feel free to make a ruckus.”
Just make sure that in your response, you “stay authentic, stay fair and stay true to your principles,” Yukon adds.