My Lesson on Workplace Discrimination

Last week, a user complained when I illustrated a workplace gossip story with the image of a woman posing like a cat. (You can see the post here.)

I think the fact that this story associates “office gossip” with an image of a woman — especially in an industry where both men and male gossips outnumber women — is sexist…. This is the kind of image that tells us — wrongly — that the difference is the gender of the speaker.

Well, she’s right. What makes it worse is the fact that the stereotype of “women as gossips” never even occurred to me.

I’m a fairly progressive guy, if I may say so, without much in the way of prejudice. There are other stereotypes — about African-Americans, Hispanics or Asians, for example — that offend me and will never see the light of day on this blog. I’ve certainly been around long enough to have seen the extra mud women have to wade through in the course of their careers. So what happened?

Though we usually think of discrimination as something that’s either overt — public rallies by hate groups — or camouflaged in the name of “tradition” — barring women from, I don’t know, a golf club — our prejudices can be subtle. That our words might offend one group or another is something we rarely consider. But we’d never say those same words if we thought they’d offend a colleague.

Had I considered how the women I work with might have reacted to that image, I wouldn’t have used it. A lot of women work at Dice, many are close colleagues, and several of them I consider mentors. Yet, again, the idea of that image being inappropriate didn’t occur to me.

My point in all this — and the lesson I’ve learned — is that workplace discrimination can be a lot more insidious than we think. If only by making people more aware, things like good diversity training help. Ultimately, though, all the training in the world isn’t going to mean much unless we pay more attention, not just during those sessions, but in our day to day routines.

12 Responses to “My Lesson on Workplace Discrimination”

  1. RJ Simmons

    Mark, I believe that the woman who complained simply needs to get over herself. In our, oh-so PC modern world, no matter what gender or race you would have chosen, someone would have been offended. Regardless of any stereotype, you chose a photo that evoked a certain mental image. That is what I believe you were going for, not to single out 50% of the population.

  2. Jason Head

    I don’t know that basically making a list of all the stereotypes that exist, and then checking images/content against them is such a good idea.

    For something to be considered a real problem ideally it should be intrinsically offensive with a direct connections, and not just a meaning someone ascribes to it.

    With enough imagination almost anything can be spun in an offensive way; that sort of thing is a standard practice of some politicians, and some in the general media are guilty of the same.

    While we should be conscious of not doing obviously rude, insensitive, or offensive things, perpetuating a culture of splitting hairs. By walking on eggshells we can be helping perpetuate and create atmospheres that can turn toxic, and be as offensive or even more so than the things we were trying to avoid.

    • Jason Head

      Edit update: While we should be conscious of not doing obviously rude, insensitive, or offensive things; perpetuating a culture of splitting hairs and walking on eggshells is unproductive in it’s own way.

  3. J Snapp

    When most people say that they aren’t prejudiced, they mean that they don’t want to be, or don’t want to seen as prejudiced. I was delighted to read your post–Good for you for recognizing the unconscious stereotype of woman-as-gossip, and addressing it. Most of our prejudices are unconscious and if we’re lucky, we notice them before we say, or write, things we wish we hadn’t. Your examination of this issue is so much more helpful to the cause of eliminating prejudice than suggesting that “others” are overly sensitive, and need to keep quiet when they feel slighted.

  4. Rusty Alderson

    Yes, “gossip” and “women” have been associated together for a long time. The stereotype was born from an era when, rightly or wrongly, men worked and women stayed at home. Stay-at-home women had much more opportunity to gossip “across the backyard fence” than men who worked in the fields and factories of a bygone era. If the roles had been reversed, men would probably developed as gossips, and a different stereotype would have been born. Gossiping is not a priori a male thing or a female thing. It is a human thing.

    Today, we should reevaluate all of our stereotypes in light of the present reality, and perhaps we might find, as your reader opined, men gossip more than women. However, unless your reader can provide evidence, her comment is arguably only an opinion. I don’t doubt its truth, but I can’t rely on its truth as it is unsubstantiated.

    Mark, your faux pas was to depict a common stereotype which degrades a group of which you are not a member. Such stereotypes are usually overlooked when they are self-deprecating, and not self-aggrandizing.

  5. I commend your ability to see the other side of this. Many times, people play the victim card and say “well I wasn’t trying to offend anyone,” (exhibit A – RJ Simmons). That’s okay too. It’s just about how you open your mind to see what it is that has been construed as offensive. Sure, there are measures you can take and sometimes no matter what you do, someone might still be offended. It’s the awareness that is the point here. And I think that was your lesson learned.

  6. Why do you always have to throw in the black, Asian, or Hispanic card when someone complains about something? Suffice to say this is about ‘gossip’…not color…..whites are sterotyped, too…alot…so give it a rest. Back to the gossip: I see nothing wrong with the picture of a woman portraying a cat. Sorry, but, woman can be (and are) very petty and gossip when there is no gossip, they are in everybody’s business but their own. Men gossip, too. The best thing for everyone to do (including, moi) is to Mind Your Own Business.

  7. PC mania strikes again. What is with people these days? This seems to be the era of coddling every sensitive individual on the planet. If you let something this petty bother you then I feel sorry for you. I’m sorry if this offends anyone but people like this are mentally or emotionally weak! This reminds me of a simple saying ” you can please some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time but you CAN’T please all the people all the time”. In short, suck it up and grow a thicker skin, save your complaints for REAL issues.

  8. It is very good of you to own up to your own *slight* faults – I’m a woman and I know I make slips like this! Thank you also for writing about it. Spreading awareness is how this will issue will be solved!