In last week’s post, I described the “leaky” pipeline of women with STEM careers. One very alarming statistic came out that I want to explore this week, Namely that 50% of STEM women will leave mid-career due to a hostile work environment.
Hostile is such a harsh word! Can THAT many women be experiencing a work environment so bad that it is labelled hostile?
I had to dig in.
Hostile: Is it overt sexual harassment?
One of the first things that the study says is that it is NOT overt sexual harassment. I totally believe that.
I believe that women who make it through a four-year college to earn a STEM degree are so used to being the minority, that they know how to shut down unwanted advances in a heartbeat.
For a project at work, I interviewed 30 women in supervisory positions and asked specifically about overt sexual harassment. Most said they had never experienced any. The ones who had, myself included, said they took care of it themselves.
The methods varied from avoiding that person like the plague to throwing a shoe at the offender, but the result was the same; the person did not continue the behavior.
Hostile: Undercurrent of Condescension
Most of the women in the Harvard study said they left due to an undercurrent of condescension that was prevalent in the workplace.
This undercurrent is not blatant behavior, it is consistent, undermining things that add up and it has three components:
- Office Housekeeping – It’s the unspoken assumption that a woman will buy the admin a Secretary’s Day gift, take notes at the meetings, muck out the fridge every few weeks, erase the white boards, etc. It doesn’t sound like much, but women are feeling taken advantage of because this work is never acknowledged as important but it’s assumed a woman will take care of it.
- Social Strain
- Due to Men Women are uncomfortable breaking into male cliques like the Monday-morning quarterbacking clutch or the Friday after work bar gang. They are uncomfortable even if they enjoy the sport or activity happening. And because they’re on the outside of the group, they will never be as close as members within the group, which can feel ostracizing.
- Due to Women This social strain is because all women feel judged by other women. Somewhere along the line, women forget how to be nice to each other. We get very judge-y about our female coworkers. Admit it! We don’t look at an exhausted man and think “Gee, he’d look a lot better with a little under eye concealer!”
- Overlooked Contributions – Women feel their contributions are overlooked and, in my mind, this is very corrosive
Hostile: Overlooked Contributions
Overlooked contributions look like the following:
- Sally brings up an idea in a meeting and it’s glossed over. Ten minutes later John brings up the same point and it’s gold.
- Sally and John team up to create something, say a plan. It becomes known as John’s plan.
- Sally and John give a joint presentation. The audience directs all the questions to John.
- Sally is talking in a meeting and John interrupts. Numerous studies find that men interrupt twice as often as women do and are nearly three times as likely to interrupt a woman as they are a man.
- Sally feels that her point has to be bullet-proof before she brings it up because John will shoot holes at it incessantly. She stays quiet a lot.
My interviews with other STEM women showed me just how pervasive this is. One woman keeps a folder of all the “crap” she puts up with. It’s her way to vent off steam. Another woman cited an incident that had occurred just that morning in a meeting. One woman, who works with three male peers (X, Y & Z) said that X always points out how he’s working closely with Y & Z and not her.
Hostile Work Environment: My Take
I had to think about this one. Then, I realized that all these things happen to me all the time, but my personality (extroverted) and the way I handle conflict (accommodating) play an important part. I really don’t feel as if I’m working in a hostile environment.
But then, again, I’m also not in tech leadership anymore.
I AM one of the 50% who left her tech career after 24 years. I’m in organization development now, where the atmosphere is supportive and collaborative.
Did the environment I was experiencing when I made the switch effect my decision?
Was it hostile?
I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but looking at the list above, I can say that I definitely experienced those things.
So next week, I’m going to dive into the next piece of the puzzle and talk about societal norms and how they are playing out with STEM women. Because that definitely effected my decision to switch career paths!
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: For women in engineering, the odds are good. However, the goods are sure odd…