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Everyday injustices for working women: The slights add up

Commentary: If you want to make a difference in gender equality, consider the subtle and often subconscious ways in which women are overlooked, devalued and underestimated in the business world.

This story is part of Solving for XX, a CNET special report exploring what people and companies are doing to make the tech industry more diverse, more equitable and more welcoming to women.


Mari Benitez/CNET

As an editor, writer and, above all, a human being, I've taken a keen interest in the issue of women in tech.

Earlier this year, I called it the most important issue in the tech world in 2015. It's about more than social and economic injustice. It's about meeting society's needs for advancements in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

I've found plenty of men and women who agree with me, but there's still a question of what we can do to make it better. Right now. Every day.

One of the things we can do is deal with the subtle and unconscious ways people in the industry overlook, devalue and underestimate women -- even in companies that claim to promote equal opportunities.

Over the past several months I've asked female colleagues, friends and family members about the subtle slights and inequalities they experience in business. I've taken that research and turned it into a list so that we can become more conscious of these issues and ultimately eliminate them. Let's lay them out on the table.

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1.Talking in meetings

There can be an insidious double standard when it comes to talking in meetings. Multiple research studies have shown that men who speak up are perceived as being in control, while women who speak up are seen as "pushy."

A related phenomenon is "manterrupting," where men have a bad habit of interrupting women, especially in meetings and presentations. In fact, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt got called out for repeatedly interrupting Megan Smith, the US government's chief technology officer, at a South by Southwest panel in March.

Unfortunately, it's a pretty widespread phenomenon that stops many women from speaking up, even when they have key feedback or important ideas to offer. One solution would be to establish a no-interrupting rule in meetings. (A timer could be used if people abuse the rule and ramble.)

2. Eye contact

One of the more subtle forms of unconscious sexism is eye contact. Because I've worked with lots of female journalists -- my "Follow the Geeks" co-author and business partner, Lyndsey Gilpin, is a woman -- I've seen this in action many times. If both of us are meeting or interviewing someone, that person will make eye contact with me during 80 percent of the conversation. I doubt the person is aware of this.

Nevertheless, it sends a clear signal that the person sees the male (me) as more influential and important than my female colleague.

3. Language style

Women tend to use more inclusive language when talking about their teams, goals and strategies, while men tend to use more competitive and forceful words.

Judith Baxter, a professor of applied linguistics, breaks down these language styles and the archetypes that have spawned them in a book called "The Language of Female Leadership." These differences in language often result in men being viewed as stronger and more effective leaders. But as The New York Times notes, "A comprehensive analysis of 95 studies on gender differences showed that when it comes to leadership skills, although men are more confident, women are more competent."

4. Reporting grievances

When a man brings up problems and conflicts at work, he's often seen as direct and honest -- even courageous. When a woman raises the same grievances, she may be characterized as whiny or overly sensitive. Like other items on this list, this perception is fueled by gender stereotypes.

5. Company culture

The culture of many organizations -- even ones that profess gender equality as a core value -- can perpetuate sexist attitudes. It can be seen in the way some employees decorate their cubicles with items that objectify women. It can be heard in inappropriate jokes in the hallways. It can come through in company policies related to pregnancy and childcare.

This can manifest itself in so many different ways that it's difficult to combat. It certainly can't be solved by just by having employees watch an annual, one-hour training video about inclusiveness. Instead, it's up to a company's executives to set an example on equal opportunities in hiring, promotions and project leadership -- and in building open dialogues among employees.

6. Interacting with colleagues

Let's say there's an important engineering team made up of males. That team interacts regularly with a product development team that happens to have two leads -- a man and a woman -- both with similar jobs. The man regularly jokes with the engineering team and builds rapport. But when the woman does the same thing, she risks being characterized as a flirt. As a result, she spends less time with the engineers and doesn't build the same kind of rapport. Which of the two do you think will be more successful getting their projects prioritized?

7. Ideas from women vs. men

Too often a woman will present an idea in a meeting only to have it dismissed or ignored. But when a male colleague restates essentially the same concept -- possibly with greater confidence -- the team decides it's a magnificent idea. Women find this infuriating, and for good reason. Be wary of this one. Make sure to credit the woman who came up with an idea in the first place.

8. Subtle exclusions

In her sex discrimination trial against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Ellen Pao cited a ski trip for the firm's partners and entrepreneurs that excluded women. The testimony revealed that one of the partners decided not to include women because "the trip involved shared accommodations, [and] women probably wouldn't feel comfortable."

So one of the wealthiest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley couldn't pony up for extra rooms? Really?

That might sound trivial, but the upshot was that Kleiner Perkins' female partners were left out of potentially lucrative deals.

9. The cumulative effect

Together, all these factors are emotionally draining. My female colleagues said it's an uphill battle to be treated fairly and consistently. That's why we all need to become conscious of these subtle roadblocks and work to eliminate them. While the jury dismissed Pao's claims, the trial cast a light on many of these issues and started much-needed conversations.

Now we need to push beyond talk, and into action.

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