I regularly need to attend business meetings for my job. It usually runs during several days, with 15 or 20 people in the same room. Some of them I know already, some of them it’s the first time I meet with. My company also organizes several times a year a week where every employee can join. It’s a week of meetings and dinners with coworkers. Socializing with new people is an important part of being able to do your job correctly in a geographically distributed company. I’m a white female engineer in a tech company where more than 90% of the engineers – my direct coworkers and people I mostly socialize with – are male and white. And this has simple but painful concrete consequences:
Meeting people for the first time
In these kinds of events, you usually meet a lot of new people you only knew from video conference, or e-mail. In a US culture, interactions are simple: saying hello, nice to meet you, shaking hands. But even this easy and common situation can make you feel less than a person :
- When people say hello to everybody except you.
- When people, being forced to notice you because a coworker introduced you directly to them, shake your hand while turning there head 90° away (and no, these ones are not autistic).
- When my manager makes introductions between me and one of her coworker, and when after saying “hi”, the guy looks down on his phone the whole time she tells him about what I do in the team.
Oddly enough, this happens mostly, almost always, with men.
- Yeay when’re you not the only woman in a technical meeting of +10 people.
- Waouh when you’re in a technical meeting with a woman actually talking during the meeting.
- The only woman in a room full of a dozen of male engineers, I’m also the only one not to talk although I’ve had something to say. If you wish to say something, you can’t wait the time necessary to make sure somebody has finished to talk: you need to start speaking the second after the person speaking finished a sentence or interrupt him, or else somebody will jump instead of you. Nobody cares about reading signs that people have something to say in the room. In case of people occupying a lot of space, even shier, more sensitive men will have difficulties to speak.
To people making eye contact with you when they talk and acknowledge your presence: thank you, because some of you made me feel less shitty on several occasions.
The following happened the same meeting which went on during 4 or 5 hours:
- When I repeat 5 or 6 times at least the same thing but not one cares. When the informal leader of the session actually cares about it, he doesn’t believe you, so he goes ask another person. Unluckily for him, this person doesn’t know. I then have to tell him that I got this information from a guy I actually interviewed for him to believe me.
- When I ask questions nobody cares to answer.
- When I have prepared the meeting by determining goals with the manager, and figured out a framework to help people ask the good questions and get to the goals at the end of the session but the people in my work group repeatedly ignore it, as well as ignoring me when I try to reframe our discussion to match the goals of the session.
- When I ask questions people don’t know the answer to, and somebody call another person in the room to answer it, and the informal leader proceeds with asking him another question instead of mine. At that point, I’m too emotionally tired to repeat something once more with the risk of not being listened, again.
When I make private remarks about this, people will consider I’m stupid and need to explain everything again – even some technical basics – instead of just answering my damn simple and precise questions.
- We’re in a group of 5 and more people. Being the only woman in the group shouldn’t be a problem. Sure it would be nice if the group was more diverse in terms of gender, but we’re here because we share the same interests. However, that’s not what my coworkers think: my presence is a liability to them, and they don’t hesitate to say it to me. You know, because I’m here, they’re not supposed to make misogynist and sexist jokes. “Oh, since you’re here, we’ll have to be careful” meaning “oh, you’re preventing us to have real fun because of your presence”. Fortunetaly for them, they’ll do fine: while they’re doing rape jokes (ah ah ah, a woman being raped at home or on the street, what’s the worst? ah ah ah), and making fun of “silly women’s behavior,” I’ll have to smile and pretend I find these good words funny, so I’m not the one person killing the fun in the group.
People usually say, when I’m tolding them that, “why don’t you react?”. These people forget one thing : this can be exhausting to react every time on your own, with the risk of starting a difficult conversation or a conflict, in a working environment, with more senior people, with managers.
- I’m with a coworker who likes to talk. And I feel a bit guilty about enjoying talking to two other people I know while letting another poor young woman having to listen to him talking and talking and talking… Women become good listeners because that’s all they’re supposed to do for some people. No, in fact I feel something more than guilt: I feel relieved that during 10 minutes, I won’t need to do that job myself.
- Spending an evening having dinner with two close coworkers (one is my manager) from my team. I mean, I’m just listening to their discussion without participating because their questions don’t expect an answer from me, because the few times I said something relevant to the discussion they continued talking as if I had said nothing, because they ostensibly planned in front of me having fun for the rest of the night without even thinking of inviting me. Sure one or two beers doesn’t help people who don’t have it to develop their empathy, but the worst thing in the story is that I’m sure they didn’t realize how they’ve been offensive.
- Hearing colleagues talking about a female coworker repeatedly naming her: “the pregnant woman”. She’s got a name, she’s not just a womb. Oh, but of course that’s « just a joke », sure it is.
- At a booth, I start talking with a guy about a topic in my field of expertise. The moment another guy jumps into the discussion, I don’t longer exist: body position and eye contact indicate I’m not longer part of the conversation.
- I shut up during meetings.
- My work gets less visibility when I’m getting tired of having to fight to make my voice heard. Thus I have less opportunities to make public contributions, and overall they are less valued than my coworkers’.
- I only go to one team dinner if several are planned during the weeks, because
- I need to recover from the day;
- I don’t feel like experiencing the same things during what’s supposed to be “fun” on my free time. Meetings from 8am to 5pm are enough, I don’t need this kind of day to expand until 9pm or more.
- Thus, I build less social relationships with my colleagues.
- I work on my own, even if I know I’m better and happier when I’m working with other people.
I kind of feel exhausting by the repetition of these situations where I’m isolated. I know some collective methods to help during these kind of solutions, but when I’m on my own I haven’t figured out yet a less tiring but still effective way than fighting during each meeting to be listened to until I get fed up, or considering quiting my job to work in a better environment (if it exists).
Patience and repetition somebody with experience told me. And dealing with frustration.