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Ten Tips for How YOU Can Make Your Workplace Friendlier for Women

annajmcdougall profile image Anna J McDougall Originally published at blog.annamcdougall.com ใƒป7 min read

Friends, let's talk.

It has been a hard year for everyone, and something that happens in hard years is that we have less patience for little annoyances because all our energy is spent keeping... /gestures at everything/ at bay.

So I've been seeing more and more women in tech, who normally put up with all kinds of little pieces of everyday sexism, start to crack. They're starting to wonder if tech is right for them, if everything companies say are just designed to keep them quiet, and to question how they can "be the change" while still keeping themselves sane in environments where they feel unwelcome and sometimes under active attack.

This piece is not aimed at those women. They've had enough of people telling them how they can adjust their attitudes, or (almost worse) pointless platitudes of how they've "got this". None of that solves the problem.

This piece is also not aimed at any men looking for some feminist boogeyman to rail against. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm just trying to make everyone nicer to each other.

This piece is for the male colleagues and managers out there who want to help but don't know what they can do to make the workplace more friendly for women. Let me help you help this industry to become better.

Ten Tips for Making Your Workplace Friendlier to Women

(P.S. Yes I will turn this into a talk for your next conference, just ask.)

  1. Don't interrupt: So you think you don't interrupt women? OK, the next time you talk to a woman, especially in the workplace, try to be really conscious of it and see if you catch yourself about to do it. If you don't: great! Congratulations! Now, listen to others and if you notice a colleague doing the interrupting, maybe drop a "Hey I don't think Sarah was done just yet... sorry Sarah what were you saying?".
  2. Lift up women's voices and take an active interest in them: Along similar lines, try to notice when women's opinions are being dismissed too soon or not considered in a way which would happen for a male counterpart. In some really bad workplace cultures, you might notice women not speaking up much at all: most likely, they have learned it is pointless. Make an effort to talk to them after the meeting and pick their brains: Do they agree with the conclusion which was reached? Do they think there was anything missed? Sometimes a 1-on-1 chat with a friendly colleague is less intimidating than a room full of people who don't look like you and treat you as either a token or an annoyance (...or both). Doing this in a meeting could seem confrontational rather than friendly and interested, so these conversations are best had individually.
  3. Understand that you don't understand: If are not a woman, then you don't understand what it's like to be a woman in the workplace. For one thing, most of us have developed an instinct for when someone is just a generally condescending person vs when they are being condescending because of our gender. It is hard to understand, especially if you're not a minority of any kind, because you haven't felt it. That's OK: you might not 'get it' and it might sound weird/paranoid to you, but that's because you haven't lived it. There is no shame in not understanding, but don't let that lack of understanding lead to a lack of believing. I don't know what it's like to be a man aiming your pee at a stain on the urinal, and it sounds ridiculous to me, but I believe y'all when you tell me it happens.
  4. Don't constantly bring up gender: Did you know that reminding someone of negative stereotypes against them worsens their performance? It's a known phenomenon called stereotype threat. I know how it seems to you: "I'm lifting her up! Pointing out that she's got it, despite being the only woman on our team!". It is not lifting her up, it is reminding her that she is alone and that there is an implicit expectation that she will do poorly. Calling her a pioneer or a trailblazer is probably historically inaccurate, slightly patronising (she's just doing her job, after all...), and also puts a lot of pressure on her. Ever read this xkcd comic? You're doing the same thing in reverse. The woman you work with is not responsible for representing all women everywhere, and putting that on her makes her less likely to be ready to admit mistakes, learn, and grow. At the same time, she's more likely to make those mistakes because she wants to be perfect so she can "prove" that women aren't shit at tech.
  5. Actively compliment women's skills: Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I'm a big fan of giving genuine compliments to everyone, but it is especially important for women to know that they are being recognised for their skills, results, and technical knowledge, and not just for how they look.
  6. Call out sexism when you see or hear it: It is hard to be the party pooper, to be the awkward one to ruin the mood. Sorry, but you have to call out sexist talk when you hear it. It sucks. It's hard. It feels super awkward. But it is worth doing because it stamps out a culture that can fester into something truly putrid for your women colleagues. There are also many, many cases of women being pushed out of jobs for "lack of culture fit" when they speak up about these issues: so take the task off their hands. If you're not sure how, try: "Come on, you know better than that" or "Don't be that guy". If neither of these gets the point across, then try "How do you think that kind of talk makes our women colleagues feel?".
  7. Talk openly about your salary: So you're confident everyone in your workplace is being paid appropriately based on their experience? Great! Then there should be no problem talking openly about salaries. Honestly, this is a good thing for all workers regardless of gender, but if you keep this habit as you move up through the ranks you might be surprised at how different those numbers can be. Even if you believe that these differences come down to salary negotiation skills, you being open about your income could give a female colleague the push she needs to ask for what she's worth.
  8. Give credit where credit is due, even if it hurts you: I really, really hope this situation never happens to you, but if you are about to get praise for an idea that sprung from the mind of a female colleague, please do the honourable thing and say that to your manager, director, colleague, whoever is paying you the compliment. Too often, women's ideas are coopted by others and she doesn't receive the credit she's due. If somehow you end up being the benefactor, then you can be a good ally by owning up to it: even if that means your wallet might take a hit. Sure, it's not your fault someone got it wrong: but it is your fault if you don't set it right.
  9. Watch out for jokes that sting: You know the kind of jokes I mean, and you can probably see the women around you tighten their lips, fidget awkwardly, or suddenly be distracted by their phones or something outside the window. Plenty of women won't say anything: that doesn't mean they're comfortable. You need to shut these jokes down. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it takes the pressure off the women in your workplace, because most likely they feel awkward about saying anything for fear of being branded a "bitch", a "nag", or "difficult". If you accidentally said a sexist joke or overstepped the lines of professionalism yourself, then the best thing you can do is to openly apologise (not just to the women, but to anyone present) and commit yourself to not doing the same again.
  10. When you do these things, don't put it back on the women around you: Listening to women's voices and opinions is not the same as forcing them to speak to others about issues of equality. Just because Miriam told you over coffee that she's sick of Jeff's jokes, that doesn't mean calling out Jeff's jokes and ending on "Right Miriam? I know you're sick of them!". Do your best not to put women into awkward positions professionally or socially. Your heart might be in the right place, but remember this is about making women feel more comfortable in the workplace.
  11. Bonus tip: Follow women in tech on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, etc.: This is an easy one to do and let's face facts: you're doing it right now! Amazing! Go out of your way to find women to follow, ensure you're hearing their voices, try reading books about these issues, and how tech is not an objective industry run by objective people working with objective data.

Not sure where to find women in tech to follow on Twitter? Try starting with some of the women in this thread:

Some parting words... You have power.

If you are a man or a person of any gender in a position of power at a workplace, then your voice is going to be heard in a way that is different to a woman who is a junior developer, for example. You might say the exact same things, but where she's seen as a PITA, you're seen as 'woke' or a 'bleeding heart' or 'defending your colleagues' or similar, depending on who you ask.

Please use this power for good. Back up your women colleagues, listen to them, ensure they are heard and valued for the right reasons. Don't put pressure on them to represent women everywhere. In the end, most women just want to do the work, have a good time with their colleagues, and not have to be bothered by reminders that they are still, in 2020, often stereotyped as less capable.

The time has come for all of us, and particularly men, to stop saying it's all fair, and start making sure it's all fair.

Discussion (35)

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matthijsewoud profile image
โšก๏ธ

This is a really good piece that I think hits all the nails on all of the heads.

I'd like to add a small something that really irks me that many folks do in documentation: referring to programmers as male per default.
It's better to use he/her, but I think the easiest thing is to not use gender at all and use they/them. Just saying "A developer can do an API request by doing X, then they can do Y" is a good thing; it's readable, inclusive and makes more sense than using 'he (or she)'.

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

Really good point! I know in German, for example, it's usual to use male pronouns for anything 'impersonal' because no equivalent of 'they' really exists for the third person like in English. I'd love to see a move to 'they/them' for impersonal documentation.

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pjotre86 profile image
pjotre86

I'm German and you confused me now ๐Ÿ˜‚

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

Wenn man irgendwas auf Deutsch schreibt, es steht immer "Er muss das Ding so-und-so machen". Man wรผrde niemals "Sie mรผssen das Ding so-und-so machen" schreiben, sonst klingt es ob als es mehr als eine Person da gibt. Auf Englisch kann man "they" nutzen, ohne zu meinen, dass es mehrere Personen gibt.

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pjotre86 profile image
pjotre86

Now I got it, thanks!

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moopet profile image
Ben Sinclair

A lot of free software uses "she" and "her" in its examples.

I have to say it's weird that it still jumps off the page to me when I read it because it's so uncommon in other documentation. We want to reach the point where people don't notice it one way or the other, of course.

I notice that the use of male pronouns is almost universal in people for whom English is a second language, and I don't pretend to know whether that's from a cultural standpoint or because "he" is still taught as being the literary equivalent of a unisex t-shirt.

Personally I don't understand why gender is part of language in the first place, I mean we don't have different words to refer to people who are different heights or who were born on even-numbered days. They/them/their is the only option that makes sense.

The one convention I can think of that does use "she" is communications and cryptography - which traditionally use "Alice" and "Bob" as the two ends of a channel.

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csharp4evermore profile image
csharpforevermore

Totally agree. In fact, we were taught that gender specific pronouns were grammatically erroneous. I find it very strange when reading non-prose, such as technical documentation, and it presumes that a theoretical protagonist has a specific gender. It's just ignorant to some extent.
However, I think that if you must use genders, then prioritise female genders since they are under represented. Thank you for making me mindful of such practices. I am a staunch feminist - by which I intend to be the good sort who merely advocate equality of genders rather than the superiority of females (no matter how clear it is that women really do better than men in many things! (-: )

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castroalves profile image
Cadu de Castro Alves

I think "we" or "you" would solve that easily.

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syntaxseed profile image
SyntaxSeed (Sherri W)

Bonus tip:
Don't roll your eyes or crack jokes if a female colleague has to arrive late or leave early to drop off or pickup kids at school "Leaving early Judy? Must be nice! Har har!". No.

She has no choice because she's usually the primary parent.

Double Bonus: If you're a dad, you be the one to leave early & get the kids. Are you a manager - let your dad employees know that they CAN have flex time for parenting responsibilities.

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

Great point, especially since so many junior colleagues are likely to be in their early 20s and not have kids, so they don't get it. Picking up kids is not a luxury, it's part of being a responsible adult.

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0ctavia profile image
Octa

I'd rather be treated as just another colleague than try to enforce a list of special treatments. I want a compliment because my code is good, not because I'm a woman.

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

I'm not sure how treating people with respect and listening to them is "special treatments", and my point about not bringing up gender and complimenting based on technical abilities would agree with your point. I think we have more in common than you might first believe!

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ericjbible profile image
Eric Bible ๐Ÿ™‹๐Ÿปโ€โ™‚๏ธ

I love this article! Great work!

Iโ€™m trying to break into tech but my background has been business management for the better part of the last decade and Iโ€™ve always tried to use my influence for good, so to speak.

That said, your very first point really resonates with me because I often catch myself interrupting anyone in group conversations. It stems from an introverted confidence issue about not being heard/valued but I hate when I catch myself doing it. Anyhow, Iโ€™ll stay diligent!

Thanks for taking the time on this!

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

No worries Eric! I used to interrupt people a lot as well. For me, it came from an excitement of wanting to interact with what they were saying, but it dawned on me (probably a bit too late, really!) that it came across as the opposite: shutting down what they say before they're finished. It took a lot of time to work on it, and I still sometimes catch myself. I find a simple "Wait, sorry I don't think you were done yet." or "I interrupted right now, I'm sorry... What were you going to say next?" is perfectly acceptable to most people.

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aleaallee profile image
Alejandro esquivel

Is "interrupting women" actually a thing? I have never interrupted a woman because she was a woman.

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

Yes, it is definitely a thing. There are also plenty of stats about how everyone (yes, including women) overestimate how much a woman has spoken in a meeting or presentation. In other words, even when women don't speak as much as men, people believe they have spoken more. A lot of these things we do subconsciously, not out of malice. That's part of why I say that if you already don't do it, then that's GREAT, but then start to pay attention to whether your colleagues do.

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endorama profile image
Edoardo Tenani

Once I started paying attention to it I was amazed by how frequently I was doing this or it was happening๐Ÿ˜Ÿ more frequently than I wanted.

The thing I was really impressed the most has been how men and woman reacted differently to it.
Given a positive environment (where no one was sexist) in my experience being interrupted seems widely accepted by men, while it shuts down most talk and discussion with women. Especially in a work environment.

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annajmcdougall profile image
Anna J McDougall Author

Yeah, unfortunately I think that's a case of your workplace suffering from the errors of others. A lot of women have learned not to bother trying if they're getting interrupted a lot, or they feel like they're being "a pain" if they keep talking after that point. It's part of why being conscious of giving them space to finish their thoughts, and showing that you're actively interested in them, is even more important than it is for male colleagues. The respect is the same, but because of bad experiences we all have to be conscious to show that the respect is there a bit more than we would otherwise.

To my mind, it's worth the effort because it means we as a company/workplace don't miss out on ideas or opinions which could make our product better.

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endorama profile image
Edoardo Tenani

100% agreed!

I also really dislike thinking I'm shutting someone down "by accident", or without even noticing.
Creating and reiterating a culture of listening is a key aspect of this in my opinion.

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endorama profile image
Edoardo Tenani

Thank you for this post! Really spot on! Will definitely be added to reference list.

Something I found of profound effect has been training on "unconscious biases". There are videos available online and really showcase how we are culturally wired to behave in a certain way, indipendently from gender. It was a eye opening moment for me and I started being more conscious about when some of those mechanism kick in. Still is very difficult and something we should talk about more.

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Anna J McDougall Author

Absolutely! My background is in classical music where, for orchestras at least, "blind" auditions are the norm. In other words, the musician plays behind a screen. At first there was a lot of outrage because naturally, the artists/musicians watching auditions didn't believe they held any biases. It's great that they felt that way, but regardless, the number of women and minorities on orchestras shot through the roof once blind auditions were introduced. A lot of the time, these things are happening subconsciously. That makes sense, because they are pervasive parts of our culture: there's no shame in admitting that we have ingrained biases, but it's on us to work to try to overcome them as best we can. As with any problematic personality trait, we have to work to become better. E.g. In my early 20s I would interrupt people a lot in conversation: not knowingly, I was just excited to contribute, but in the process I would talk over people. I never intended to make others feel unheard, but that's what it did. I had to work at holding back a bit more, letting people finish, not pre-empting them, etc. There are plenty of similar traits we all have to work on, and ingrained bias is one of them!

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Sarayu Gautam

Wow โค๏ธ. Thank you for your amazing post.

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Francesco Ciulla

This is super important. Thank you Anna!

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Michael Tharrington (he/him)

Seriously awesome post! This is such great advice. Bookmarking this one! ๐Ÿ˜€

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Anna J McDougall Author

Thanks Michael! Glad you found it useful!

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Great post

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Margo McCabe

This is really great, a good reminder that everyone should read!

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Anna J McDougall Author

Thanks Margo! If it makes even one woman's workplace better then I'll be pumped โ˜บ๏ธ

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Anna J McDougall Author

Thanks Jason! It's been really great seeing how many men are liking, commenting, and sharing this post. If we can improve the life of even one woman in a tech company, then I'll consider this a massive success.

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Saswata Mukherjee

This is an amazing post! Really highlights a ton of action items one can take to make tech friendlier to women!

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Anna J McDougall Author

Thank you! Yes I'm all about keeping things as practical as possible. It's how I work and I know I'm not the only one.

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lauris652 profile image
Info Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community. View code of conduct
lauris652

What the actual fuck