Is Your Work Environment Limiting High-Potential Women?

While overt harassment of women in the workplace may have declined, too many work environments remain rife with what are commonly called “microaggressions.”

womenYou may think you’re doing everything right to ensure an equal playing field for men and women in your organization. Unfortunately, it’s possible that you’re missing subtle behaviors that are disproportionately, and negatively, impacting your women employees and are not actively creating a work environment that is conducive to everyone’s success.

While instances of overt discrimination or harassment of women may have declined, too many work environments remain rife with what are commonly called “microaggressions.”  These are intentional or unintentional verbal or nonverbal behaviors that occur in everyday interactions, and casually degrade, demean, or put someone down.

My new book, “WE:  Men, Women, and the Decisive Formula for Winning At Work” (Wiley), is aimed at equipping people – men, in particular – with the skills they need to improve their results through the way they work with women.  Below are five common microaggressions toward women.  When you recognize these behaviors, you can work to end them:

  • Describing women’s actions in ways that would not be used to describe men who did the same things. For example: labeling a woman as too nice to be able to do a job, bossy, a drama queen, too aggressive, needy, high-strung, and so on. Observations of venture capitalists in the longitudinal study, Gender Stereotypes and Venture Support Decisions: How Governmental Venture Capitalists Socially Construct Entrepreneurs, show just how differently men and women are sometimes viewed. Male entrepreneurs were described as “young and promising” whereas women were thought of as “young and inexperienced”; men were described as “experienced and knowledgeable,” but women as “experienced but worried”; men were described as “cautious, sensible, and level-headed,” while women were “too cautious and unsure.”
  • Believing and acting as if women are weak and need the protection of men. One example of this is thinking or saying that a woman would not want the same type of stress, workload, or challenging assignment as a man. Recently, during a speaking engagement, a male leader asked me what I thought of him telling one of his female employees, who frequently works long hours and who is a new mom, that she should go home. I could clearly see that he was well meaning and genuinely concerned, but I asked him if he gives new dad’s the same advice. Psychologists Peter Glick, PhD, and Susan Fiske, PhD, call this benevolent sexism. Their research indicates that men who exhibit this type of microaggression are less likely to give women candid feedback and challenging assignments, two management actions that are critical to women’s advancement.
  • Characterizing a woman as too emotional or unstable, especially if you are being challenged or questioned by her. For example, telling a woman to calm down, or saying things like: “I don’t know why you are so upset.”
  • Calling women by seemingly endearing names that are not appreciated and which some women even find offensive. For example, dear or sweetheart.
  • Touching women without their consent. You would think that this could go without saying, but it still happens. Unless it’s completely acceptable in your culture or you have a long standing, trusting professional relationship with someone and are used to, for example hugging when you meet, you should not touch the people you work with. Even though your intentions may be completely harmless and even supportive, physical contact, like putting you hand on a woman’s shoulder, should be avoided.

Some of these subtle and not-so-subtle actions may not seem like a big deal and one incident in isolation may not be. But these types of behaviors create environments in which women don’t feel comfortable working and ultimately undercut your organization’s performance.

Eliminating microaggressions is imperative but insufficient to creating a work environment where women can thrive. To create that type of work environment, you’ll need to intentionally seek out ways to interact with, make more visible, mentor and sponsor women so they can contribute their full potential and achieve the results you are looking for.

RelatedHow Gender Bias Holds Women Back in Leadership Roles: Prove Yourself Again


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events