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March 16, 2021

Women at Work—It’s Not Us; It’s the System

by: Renee Bhatti-Klug and Alene Terzian-Zeitounian

Gender inequalities in the workplace continue to disproportionately affect women, causing us to second guess our value and career pathways. For centuries, women have been forced to find ways to advance in systems that oppress us. The problem is so tectonic that we often feel powerless against it. The truth is that by questioning existing structures, women can fill the cracks we find in inequitable systems by asserting our power.

Let’s begin with an example from Jillian, a client whose name we’ve changed to protect the not-so-innocent around her:

At a Fortune 1000 company that has been established for thirty years, Jillian is the first and only female executive among eight members. At the first weekly C-suite meeting a year ago when she stepped into this role, the CEO asked her to take notes. She did so reluctantly, figuring she would do her part as a “team player.” She has been taking notes ever since. During several meetings, when other executive members saw her drinking coffee, they asked if she could get them a cup
as well.

Jillian has wondered if she could delegate both responsibilities to an administrative assistant but is unsure if it would compromise her standing with the men, who have otherwise been mostly collegial and responsive, even if their mention of her being the only woman among them begins to feel abrasive. They’ve also mentioned how valuable her notes are, as this is the first time they’ve consistently documented meeting discussions. Nevertheless, every time she prepares for an executive meeting, Jillian is overcome by feelings of dread and anger. She wonders if she is only as good as the tasks assigned to her, while also recognizing the significant initiatives she has spearheaded during the last year.

Traditionally, scholars and psychologists would ascribe Jillian’s discomfort to her experiencing “Imposter Syndrome,” the phenomena attributed to women in the workplace who experience chronic self-doubt, a sense of intellectual fraudulence, or the inability to internalize accomplishments (Clance & Imes).

Few theorists have assigned a clinical term, however, to what Jillian is experiencing when she feels dread and anger after recognizing that she has been tasked with responsibilities that are not in her job description. Furthermore, the chores to which she has been assigned likely emerged from her male colleagues’ implicit biases. Whether or not they realized it, these men automatically categorized the duties of note taking and coffee-fetching as those of a woman. Since her notes added value to the meetings, the men did not consider that the role may have been a burden, even one that was disrespectful, to Jillian. Also, why hadn’t anyone mentioned
the previous incompetence of men who had not thought—or been able—to take notes? The message Jillian tells herself, and perhaps would receive from anyone with whom she might share her concerns, is that her discomfort—and not the inappropriate assignment—is the problem.

In their similar critique on the misdiagnosis of women with “Imposter Syndrome,” authors Tulshyan and Burey assert that “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

If this is the case, whose responsibility is it to fix broken and unfair systems, and why should it be Jillian’s? But if Jillian doesn’t speak up, who else will?

What would happen if, at the next meeting, one of the men offered to take notes? What would happen if, during that first exchange about coffee, another colleague had pointed out that men can serve themselves their own drinks?

Regardless of how entrenched people may be in a system, it is never too late to recognize that the places we work, rather than the women who work there, are flawed. Thus, it is incumbent upon those with power—men, in this and most cases—to redesign it.

Until then, here are a few practical ways for women like Jillian to improve our working environments by asserting our power within their organizations:

  1. Admit to the Feeling: documenting and reflecting on specific instances of feeling
    inadequate or unappreciated in the workplace is a good way to begin understanding our own reactions to situations. Cognitive restructuring can turn negative thoughts into positive affirmations when we remind ourselves of why we are qualified for the jobs we are doing.
  2. Blame the System, Not Women: Imposter Syndrome is a way of blame-shifting
    systemic issues on women instead of restructuring the system. Numerous studies—such as this one from Catalyst.org—demonstrate that increased diversity in the workplace yields to not just more profitable, but holistically better, outcomes for most organizations.
  3. Become More Boundaried: If we aren’t someone’s assistant, let’s not get in the habit of acting like one. If male executives aren’t expected to fetch coffee or pick up lunch, then we shouldn’t be either. Also, we should not be afraid to say “no” if we are stretched too thin or are at the end of our bandwidth. Brené Brown says that the most compassionate people are the most boundaried people. Be self-compassionate.
  4. Ask for Promotions and Recognition: we are our best advocates. Let’s not be afraid to demand what we are worth, even if it means putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Let’s stand up for ourselves without allowing others to disrespect, minimize, or ignore us. If management doesn’t promote or recognize us, we ought to consider other options. Related, Tulshyan and Burey note that women who feel dismissed or biased against at work are more likely to move into entrepreneurial pursuits.
  5. Ask Management to Invest in Training and Mentoring Programs: asking for
    educational programs to train employees is a good way to begin the process of toppling oppressive systems. The more informed managers are, the more likely they will be to practice gender parity.
  6. Be a Change Agent: let’s not be afraid to rock the boat; just because a practice has been around for decades does’t mean it’s the best or most equitable approach. For women to feel empowered, it is important for us to regularly review standard practices and to encourage conversations about making the workplace more inclusive.

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Culturally Intelligent

Cultural Intelligence Specialist

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