Ask E. Jean - Tormented? Driven Witless? Whipsawed by confusion?

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Did I commit career suicide? My boss's boss, a senior director, invited his directors and some managers, including me to an offsite brainstorming meeting. The event lasted all afternoon. One of the topics was mentorship and at the end of this discussion, the senior director asked a loaded question about women at work. I work for an engineering firm that is heavily operational. While upper management is now embracing diversity, and walking the talk; the CEO hired two impressive women, a CFO and a VP, engineering suffers from a serious disconnect. The senior director's last 3 hires were white men who belong to the boys club, and one of them has obvious biases against women engineers. There were 4 women managers (no women directors) in the room out of 20 people. I answered the question saying that a "pervasive macho culture persists in engineering, that we still favour managers who bang their fists on the table..." and that nothing has been done to change it. And then I went on to say that nothing will change until we address these unconscious biases that we all have.

The room was silent after I finished my little rant, and the conversation went back to mentorship. My boss told me yesterday that he wished I hadn't said that. He said the conversation was positive up until then. He wanted me to say that the culture was getting better, i.e. less of a boy's club. And he said, "it's not professional suicide, but that he wanted to understand my frustration."

I've been at this company 20 years. I love my job, I have a good boss, but I'm partially mortified. While on one hand, I want to kick down some doors, on the other hand, even though I get consistently good results and good ratings and unbelievable loyalty from the people that work for me, I still don't feel like I'm good at my job.

Should I start looking at other companies? Or just shrug this off somehow?

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    You made them feel uncomfortable by bringing up the fact that the boys club is still alive and well at your firm and they've done nothing substantial to change that. They were hoping no one would notice.

    These guys know that if they don't evolve, they will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs. This fact makes them cling to their outmoded culture like a security blanket. Think of them as insecure little boys - because that's what they are.

    So what you did, while uncomfortable for them, was not career suicide. Sure, the conversation was "positive" - these guys were telling each other what they wanted to hear. Your statements cut through their BS.

    They will continue to resist the inevitable, so will continue to make it uncomfortable for those who bring the inevitable to their door, including making you feel that you're not good enough; that's a manipulative tactic, nothing more. My recommendation is to keep kicking in those doors.

    A book I'd recommend in a big way is "Never Split the Difference" by Chris Voss. It's primarily about negotiation, but has a lot of other very valuable information and advice that will help you deal with the issues in your current workplace.

    reply to Jill
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    Thanks Jill. I just watched a TED talk by Chris Voss - very interesting! I will check out the book.

    I related this story to an old university classmate who now works in IT in California and he had a similar reaction to yours. Why is telling the truth wrong? But at the same time, I feel marginalized at work and I wish I could say it's systematic sexism, and not me. So my inner monologue is saying something like "I should have read the situation better, I should have known they only wanted to hear good things, I should not have made myself into some kind of martyr."

    reply to anonymous
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    It was not a case of reading the room wrong. It was a choice of either doing nothing and letting them continue to marginalize women or bringing to light some uncomfortable truths. Naturally, these guys would prefer that you don't shed light on their wrongdoings. It's in their best interests to make you feel bad for bringing this up and bruising their oh-so-fragile egos.

    reply to Jill
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    It's equally possible you made a brilliant career move here.

    Here's an illustrative anecdote about someone who thought she made a terrible mistake....

    Juanita Bartlett was a rookie writer, just starting on "Nichols", an early 70s western starring James Garner (who was also the exec producer of the show). Her job was to be the on-set writer, responsible for making changes on the fly if something unexpected happened -- say, the resaurant location for the big family reunion dinner scene wasn't ready, and the only set available was a barn. The on-set writer would have to rewrite that dinner scene so it now takes place in a barn, and still makes sense and works emotionally. Or maybe the child actor they hired for a scene can't say the letter R pwopewly, so now the kid's dialogue can't have any R's in it. Or it's raining, and the dialogue specifically talks about the lovely sunny weather. Whatever ... the on-set writer is responsible for making the changes, while keeping a tight rein on the story and characterization. (And she will have about 3 minutes to make whatever changes are needed....)

    It's a miserable job, because something's always going slightly wrong, and TV budgets and schedules mean that you have to shoot a certain amount of usable footage every day, no matter what. And some actors are notorious for wanting to change their dialogue on set -- often so they'll get more lines, and more screen time.

    So....

    Garner, on set, is having a little difficulty with a line ... it's just awkward for him to say. So he asks Bartlett if he can change it. Bartlett thinks about it and says "no". Garner is a little peeved, it seems, but he goes on to deliver the line as written.

    Meanwhile, other staffers are *horrified*. After the shot, one of them pulls Bartlett aside, to explain her faux pas. Garner's not just an established star ... his company is producing the show. Bartlett, the rookie writer, just told the STAR AND OWNER OF THE SHOW that a line couldn't be changed. A line that it was her JOB to change! If she ever wanted to work again, she'd better apologize profusely, blame it on her inexperience, and throw herself at Garner's mercy.

    Bartlett, of course, would like to continue working. So later that day, she seeks out Garner, and begins to apologize for telling him no. She's starting to explain that it's just that the line had resonance with something that occurred earlier in the show (and was already filmed), and would later be echoed by someone else in a later portion of the show, and it set up a whole character relationship, and changing it here would mean that the set up was weaker, and...

    Garner looks baffled, and stops her. "It's okay, Juanita" he says. "I figured if you said I couldn't change it, you had a *reason*."

    Bartlett wound up working with Garner for the next quarter century, becoming a senior partner in his production company.


    *****


    I don't know for absolute sure, but I suspect some of the reason behind her success stemmed from that very incident, where Bartlett did the right thing to make the finished product (i.e., the TV show) stronger, rather than make the 'easy' change everyone was expecting. A boss committed to making a good end product will see that as a vaulable trait, and want to keep that sort of person around!

    So...

    The silence you heard after your remarks may have been shock, but it may also have been some people processing the idea "Dammit, she's right." And the reputation you may be building for yourself -- at least in some quarters -- could be one of "if we need and ask for an honest opinion from her, we know we'll get it". That's not a bad quality for an engineer to have!

    And as Jill notes, you did NOT read the room wrong. If it's actually true that upper management is committed to diversity, and that they thought everyone was already on board with this -- well, then they NEEDED to hear what you said, and what's more, they know they needed to hear it.

    Could you have waited until after the meeting, perhaps, to air your concerns? Nah. Because then you'd get tabbed as the one who complains, but doesn't have the guts to do it in front of the board. And your message wouldn't be taken seriously.

    Honestly? You timed it perfectly. You said what needed to be said, and it was so spot-on, no one could argue against it. There was akwardness, sure, because the board and senior management was almost certainly uncomfortable with the fact that a job they thought was 'complete' still has a long way to go. But they know it *now* -- and they know that their actions in the next few months will demonstrate how committed they actually are to their diversity goals.

    As for you, don't give it another thought -- EXCEPT to think about how you might answer a follow-up question from them:

    "What can we do better so we can fix this issue?"

    reply to Kal
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    Anon, you were brilliant! I love your statement and the courage it takes to transmit it! And trust me, any other topic, and this is exactly how a man would respond: straight to the point. As everyone else has pointed, you interrupted their pat on the back "we nailed this engineer gender diversity thing" with a "in your face" fact statement, delivered in the same way a man would, and obviously, their ego was surprised and shocked.

    How dare you state the facts? Not they cannot keep go on ignoring reality because they were faced with it.

    It is most definitely not career suicide and believe me, now these men have noticed you and the power of your words. They cannot walk over you.

    I used to work in male dominated fields, though I am not an engineer, and I love your boldness!

    reply to Gerbera
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