This was a question posed to me recently by a woman at a workshop. Whilst this question is about prejudice towards women (sex and gender bias) it could just as easily have been about age or culture or disability or sexual orientation or any other difference. I am sure you will have views on what to do about the situation – especially if you are in a HR role. I put together some thoughts to guide the person in the short term and thought I’d invite other people’s view – please let me know. What do you do when a male colleague doesn’t like women? (gender bias).
Check your perception
My first reaction is to reality check your perception that the man doesn’t like women. It may not be a general dislike of all women, it may be about a specific woman. Or to do with women in particular roles or functions.
How did you form this perception? Did you observe a series of behaviours that support the hypothesis or did you see just one behaviour (perhaps relating to a specific situation of stress or a specific woman)? Have you inferred the man’s internal attitude from one or two external behaviours?
Discrimination is a serious issue – you need to be sure that you have identified it correctly. What specific examples do you have of this man treating you or other women differently?
Another possibility is that you might sensitively ask other women whether they also experience or perceive the same challenge as you. But be careful not to allow this conversation to descend into unproductive gossip or even slander/libel.
Consider the possible reasons for bias and discrimination
In Western society, we fought against discrimination and for equality some time ago. It is now accepted – and enshrined in law – that there must be equal treatment for men and women. Check out the advice here Discrimination: your rights: Types of discrimination (‘protected characteristics’) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Despite this, Misogyny – Wikipedia remains an issue. There is evidence that sex discrimination takes places and is harmful to people’s confidence (see, for example, this American article from March 2022 Workplace Discrimination Erodes Confidence in Women’s Abilities (shrm.org).
But sometimes there isn’t evidence of direct or indirect discrimination. And compliant behaviour may mask underlying beliefs and attitudes that subtly impact day-to-day communications and alter the ability for you to do your job.
Consider unconscious gender bias which is unintentional and automatic associations based on gender stemming from upbringing, traditions, values or culture. We absorb our beliefs, values and rules for conduct as children – from our caregivers, our families, our schools and these in turn are shaped by the dominant culture. If you grew up in an environment where women are seen as inferior to men – or restricted to particular roles or behaviour – you may not be aware or conscious that you are behaving in a way that is at odds with the different and dominant culture around you.
There are various tools to help you understand different cultural attitudes. I particularly like Hofstede – which has a helpful tool to help you compare the similarities and differences across different cultures: National Culture – Hofstede Insights (hofstede-insights.com). Country Comparison – Hofstede Insights (hofstede-insights.com) provides a tool to compare one or more different national cultures.
It could be a familiarity challenge. If you have always been surrounded by men it may be intimidating or scary to interact with women – you might feel ill-equipped to do so. And fear is often masked with anger. Sometimes people may be threatened by people who are different to them – and again you may see that fear masked by indifference, distaste or anger.
Psychologists (those from a Transactional Analysis standpoint) might argue that an individual is replaying scripts from their earlier lives (or those of their caregivers). Other psychologists (e.g. from the psychodynamic tradition) may consider that an individual is projecting relationships and feelings from significant people in their past onto individuals in the present who remind them (subconsciously) – and trigger automatic feelings and behaviours.
Similarly, the individual may have suffered some trauma with or from a female or be harbouring concerns about their own gender identity.
Theories of in group and out group (see In-group favoritism – Wikipedia) may also explain the behaviour. We know that people like those who are similar to them. Furthermore, their weak sense of their own identify may need to be shored up by identifying closely with those in their in group (i.e. other men) in order for them to function.
What action to take? What do you do when a male colleague doesn’t like women? (gender bias)
An obvious approach is to alert someone more senior (e.g. your line manager) or the Human Resources (HR) team to address the behaviour. Then they can take responsibility for assessing the situation and taking any action. And that would be an appropriate response if the person exhibiting the behaviour is more senior than you and therefore abusing their power.
If there is need to raise a formal grievance your line manager should ensure you avoid contact with the employee while the investigation takes place. There are various outcomes to a formal grievance – it may result in both parties agreeing to take part in mediation. If there is evidence of misconduct the business will need ensure the employee does not behave in a negative way again towards you or it may result in gross misconduct and the employee is dismissed.
You must also protect yourself. Being treated unfairly may seep into your psyche and affect your confidence, self-esteem and even your performance. This must not be allowed to happen. Remember that their flawed experience, feelings and thoughts reflect on them and not on you.
When faced with discrimination it can prompt strong emotions. Feelings of unfairness and things being unjust. This may make us angry. With strong powerful emotions dominating our behaviour it can make us lash out and act in a less than rational and measured way. Which may exasperate things. So be self-compassionate. Take some time out. Reflect on what you are feeling and why. Try using the STOP model (see this video on resilience where STOP is explained Building Resilience – Regulation, Reframing, Relationships and Reflection (kimtasso.com). There is further information on emotional regulation here: Emotional Regulation – A key element of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) (kimtasso.com)
Often, you can chip away at prejudice against stereotypes by building a relationship so that either a) you are seen specifically rather than as the stereotype (e.g. there was a common view once that everyone disliked estate agents – or lawyers – but that their estate agent or lawyer was good!) or b) altering that person’ beliefs and attitudes by experience.
You may be able to find some way to minimise the difference. For example, by aligning you both in the same group (see in group and out group above) – perhaps by referencing yourselves as being in the same firm or the same team or aiming for the same things. This is called “chunking up” and is used in negotiation to find areas where your similarities are stronger than your differences.
Another approach is to identify who the person sees as their role model – who does HE look up to. And forge a relationship with that person. If the person involved sees someone they admire or aspire to having a different attitude to women – or to you – it may shift something within them.
Yet another approach is to try to continue to work with that person – or someone close to them – to prove that you are capable and adding value. They won’t be able to sustain their beliefs and behaviour in such a state of cognitive dissonance Cognitive Dissonance: What It Is & Why It Matters (psycom.net). This was certainly a strategy when, decades ago, I started working in professional services marketing and found some people reluctant to engage my services or seek my advice. I de-personalised the attitudes (“It’s not about me”). I focused on understanding them, delivering what they requested, working in a professional and consistent way and thus building trust. As their attitude towards me slowly changed, so I adapted my approach to be more assertive and challenging – to the point where we had mutual respect and could work together collaboratively.
This article was published at the start of February which offers some actions that your employer can take if the discrimination is more widespread than one individual 10 ways to eliminate gender bias in the workplace – Sage Advice United Kingdom
So. Some thoughts from me. But how you would respond to this situation? What would your advice be to the woman who raised the issue? What are your experiences of dealing with discrimination?
(Thanks to the HR professional who kindly reviewed this article for me).