old school vs. new school discrimination

The other day, I was sitting in a small meeting.  In attendance were three male engineers and a male senior director, we’ll call him Bob.  Bob was talking, mostly facing the three engineers, because he was at the whiteboard and it just naturally fell that I was pretty much behind him.  Mid topic he stated, “Pretty much all they do is sit around and jerk each other,” and then immediately spun around to me and said, “Sorry, I don’t mean to be so crude”.

My immediate internal reaction was extreme frustration.  Why single me out?  I mean he clearly was since he had to turn ~160 degrees to face me and was looking directly at me.  I thought maybe it was because I had only limited interaction with him, but there was at least one other engineer in the room who also had very limited interaction with him, so it couldn’t be that.  My only conclusion to draw was that it was because I am female.

My experience is that men sometimes react this way because they are afraid of being reported to HR for being inappropriate.  So my outward reaction was to feign offense to lighten the mood.  “Oh no, I’m so offended.  How can my ears hear such things?”  Then one of the other engineers laughed and said, “Don’t worry, Bob.  She’s one of the guys.”  (This was probably one of the best compliments I could receive, not because I feel I have to be a “guy”, but because I know the other engineers won’t pull their punches with me.  As an engineering manager, I’m only as good as the engineers who question my decisions – see Challenger disaster.)

Bob relaxed and kept on talking.

This interaction got me to thinking.  I was clearly offended.  I hate being singled out for being a woman like this.  But I wasn’t really mad at Bob.  I was more mad at what conditioned him to have that reaction.  I’ve had this type of experience a number of times, usually only with men around 50 or older.  Men I respect and men I like.  I think I wasn’t so mad at Bob because he was doing one of two things: 1) attempting to be a gentleman and recognize there was a “lady” in the room or 2) covering his ass because I might pull the gender card and get him fired, or at least into sensitivity training.  Number 1 is what I call Old School Discrimination.  Number 2 is a result of New School Discrimination.

Notice how I didn’t include “a woman isn’t capable of doing that kind of work,” in Old School Discrimination.  I don’t really think this exists anymore.  Yes there are still curmudgeony old men who think this way, but they are so rare, and I have never ever encountered one in a position of power.  Even if I did find one, they could be taken out so easily given all the HR rules and societal bullying of people who even suggest women are different from men.

A while back, an over 50 male was talking to a large group of people.  He kept having to stop talking and come back to the keyboard to type notes.  I happened to be sitting next to the keyboard, so I said, “Would you like me to type for you?”  His reaction, “Oh, I didn’t want to ask because you are a woman.”

Another result of New School Discrimination.

Old School Discrimination is rooted in the thinking of 1960 and earlier: That a woman should be treated differently than a man (for varying reasons).  It is concrete and opaque.

New School Discrimination is rooted in fear.  Fear caused by affirmative action.  Fear that treating a woman as anything less than superior will land you out of a job yourself.

A good friend of mine said he enjoyed reading my blogs, but that I was merely stating what he already knew.  He wanted me to post advice, so from now on I will.

I’m an engineer.  I want to do things that are logical.  If you think something is crude, consider it might be crude to anyone in the room, whether they are male or female.  Personally, I don’t care.  I’m pretty crude myself, but being polite is a safe way to be around strangers.  If you make a mistake, apologize to all, not just the women.  If you need someone to help type, ask the person nearest to the keyboard.  They have the least distance to move.

And finally, don’t let your behavior be ruled by fear.

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