10

Background

I'm a woman of small build (1,60m) and have a rather high pitched voice. If asked to estimate my age, people guess me at least 5 years, usually 10 years younger. I am 31, so people guess me at about 20 - 25 years old, which would be the very beginning of a professional carrer. I work as a software developer as the only woman among men.

The Problem (Capital P)

People, especially in work and business situations, tend to treat me like an inferior until I can prove my worth (by sharing my knowledge and experiences) or stand my ground in some ridiculous verbal riling.

During that initial time, and sometimes long after, people display what I personally call "parental superior behavior". The symptoms include:

  • Not asking for my opinion on work-related matters, ignoring my advice
  • Interrupting me when I'm speaking
  • Generally speaking in a way a parent would speak with their child
  • Taking objects out of my hands without asking if I need or even want help carrying them
  • Forwarding tasks that are unpleasant or "below them" to me (like paperwork)
  • Ignoring tasks I forwarded to them

This "parental superior behavior" has haunted me for all my work life and regularly causes unpleasant situations for me.

I'm absolutely convinced that this is not a conscious discrimination, but I certainly feel discriminated. When I address the behavior directly, people tend to laugh embarrassed, but seldom apologise or change their behavior.

What I tried so far

  • I try to pitch my voice lower, but it puts a strain on my voice and I cannot keep it up for long.
  • I maintain an upright posture to make the most of my small height.
  • I avoid "girly" behavior and act professional in work-related situations.
  • I once tried to discuss the issue directly with my team member, but he did not understand my problem and thought I was being difficult or attention seeking. Our professional relationship has suffered so greatly that it was one of several reasons to change my workplace.

The Question

In two weeks I start at a new job. How can I act or speak to prevent this "parental superior behavior" from the very beginning?

For clarification: I do not want to be treated specially or differently from others. I just want to be treated with the same amount of respect as everyone else.


Edit

Thank you everyone for your help, especially Daniel, who opend my eyes with his comment

In my experience you tend to see those behaviors in places where roles are not quite clear (modern "flat" hierarchy) and where the is a lot of competition. It´s a matter of establishing dominance.

Every time I experienced this kind of behavior, I felt belittled and treated like a child, but I guess that was just the easiest way for someone to establish some kind of dominance over me. I think we all remember some bullies from our school days. There never was, is, or will be a person so perfect that someone who wants to bully you won't find a reason to bully you.

I will take your many advices to heart and be more confident in my interactions with new collegues. And I think I will not take it quite so personally anymore if someone tries to belittle me again.

  • This question is different in that the asker there actually is younger, but it may offer some insights into addressing the whole "age equals experience" misnomer: How do I effectively get people to look past my age when considering my abilities, if they know how old I am? – Lord Farquaad May 15 '18 at 18:05
  • 4
    To a degree, I have and still am seeing instances of that what you call parental superior behavior - And I am male 1,93 m, graying hair etc. so look quite senior. In my experience you tend to see those behaviors in places where roles are not quite clear (modern "flat" hierarchy) and where the is a lot of competition. It´s a matter of establishing dominance. Not saying this is ok, but Answers would be different if it is about dominating workplace behavior. Are you sure this one is all about your perceived youth? – user6109 May 16 '18 at 9:59
4

I think Clay07g's answer has some good career advice in it, particularly about the tasking issues, so I'll try not to rehash that.

I am also a woman software programmer and got mistaken for a high schooler the week I graduated with my master's degree... now I've been in the workforce for a few years and do feel like I get a decent amount of respect at my job. So some things that have helped:

Make friends and allies. Having people to vouch for you is an immense help. My team lead often introduces me as "the [project] expert" or "This is Em, she's our Java guru". Of course, it helped to establish this impression by being very diligent on my first task!

I also had a peer-level friend on another team, so when I later worked with other people on his team they naturally emulated the way he interacted with me. We had become friends at a previous job and I think a strong factor in his opinion of me being "smart" (even though I didn't feel confident at that job at all!) was that we chatted casually about work-related topics - so even before we worked together directly, he knew I knew what I was talking about.

So, try to build a professional rapport with your new colleagues. You might ask them what they think about the latest version of API that you use, or did they see the tech company conference news, things like that. This is basically the software developer version of virtue signalling, but it's worked well for me, as long as I stick to things I'm genuinely interested in and know I can handle an in-depth conversation on.

Dress for success. Make sure you are presenting yourself as a mature adult. Without getting too far into fashion advice, stick to more conservative and mature silhouettes and styles. This doesn't mean you can't have a fun, feminine, personal style, just err towards "classy and sophisticated" versions of it - stay clear of the junior's section. This post on The Workplace has some more advice from a variety of perspectives. (My experience has been in a relatively conservative sector where "nice" jeans are ok but casual tshirts are for Fridays.) I usually wear the type of clothes I would interview in the first few days and gradually ease up once I get a feel for the company culture (and have been introduced to everyone important!).

Speak up in meetings. This one I personally struggle with a lot because I'm naturally quiet, but it's critical. Your opinion and input is important: make sure it gets heard. If you get interrupted, interrupt them right back: "Excuse me, I wasn't done yet." Be assertive, and don't undermine yourself with qualifiers like "I'm not really sure but..." when you are. It's okay to be a little (professionally) aggressive in pushing your ideas when you know they're worthwhile.

Take credit for your ideas. Several times I've been in meetings that went like:

Me: Hey, what if we tried X?
A: Hm...
B: Anyways, here's what I think about Y...
(five minutes later)
C: I have an idea, what about X?
A, B: Great idea, we should definitely look into that!

From what I hear this is a fairly common experience for women. It's easy to feel defeated and stew about it, but again, you need to get your voice out there. Jump right back in the conversation: "Right on, so I suggested this earlier because of reasons 1, 2, 3". Or if you want to be more polite, "Thanks for bringing that up again, C, ..." - don't be grumpy, but do be assertive. (This is another area where allies can help, by doing the pointing out for you.)

Believe in yourself, and fake it 'til you make it. Yes, clichés, but common advice for a reason. You want to be seen as a senior? Act like one: the senior employees I know are confident about what they do and don't hesitate to voice their concerns or opinions, because they know their input and time is valuable. They don't ask for respect, they already know they deserve it. Observe how the people you want to be like at your workplace act, and work to integrate that into your own speech and mannerisms.

8

I have a similar situation as you. I graduated college a year earlier than most people my age. Also, I look a couple years younger than I am.

Those factors and the fact that I got a non-entry level position at a large company at 21 put me in a similar situation in which my coworkers were all much older than me (I was mistaken for an intern... for months).

However, women don't quite have it as easy as men, especially in the engineering world, so you have multiple obstacles.

The objective is the same:

You need to change their perception of you, early.

Work Speaks for Itself

Take on difficult projects. Solve problems that are troubling people. During one of my software design meetings for a project, the older engineers basically talked to each other for ideas, opinions, validation.

You have to double-prove yourself, probably more than what is considered fair.

When giving your opinion, advice, expertise, be assertive. Don't tell them what you think. Tell them what you know, based on your skill and experience.

You can use assertive tone and structure:

This approach isn't bad, but I've seen how it can cause problems later down the road. I have an idea that would solve that issue and only cost us an insignificant amount of planning from the beginning.

If you have some education to provide, act like it. You're educating them. That breaks up the implicit parent-child subconscious situation they have made.

Then when you're actually doing your work. Do it well. Be a good developer. In the software engineering world, a good developer makes the lives of everyone else a better place.

If you make other peoples' lives easier, they will respect you more. Do good work.

Addressing Task Forwards

Any reasonable manager is not going to approve of you being tossed work you shouldn't be doing. Use it to your advantage.

Say you're too busy. You're working on something much more important. Be careful, though, sometimes your team really needs help.

If you must do this work, flaunt it. Coworker doesn't feel like code documentation? Easy, do it for him and make sure say this during your next performance review:

I've taken a primary role in ensuring that the software implementation details remain well documented. This ensures that new members are on-boarded much more quickly, saving weeks of work and countless dollars.

Your coworkers might ask for some of that work back next time.

Addressing Tasks Not Being Done

This one is simple, and requires no interpersonal techniques. If you forward someone a task, put it in your team/project planning tool or board under their name.

This is standard practice and your company should be doing it anyway.

When you forward a task, you need to make it clear it's not your task anymore. If it doesn't get done, the person it was forwarded to needs to be held accountable.

Handling Interruptions

This one is general advice. If you're interrupted, you politely wait until they are done and say:

May I finish what I was saying?

Say it sternly, with a stern expression.

Handling Unwanted "Help"

As a woman, you may find that this is just subconscious man-behavior. I wouldn't take this too personally, as it often comes from a nice place.

Just do the standard politeness-dance:

You: Oh, you don't have to help with that.

Them: It's okay

You: No really, I got it.

Them: I insist!

You: Well, thank you.

If you're lucky, maybe they'll get tired of going through that conversation every time they attempt it.

If not, you just have to accept it. There's no way to stop someone from helping you without looking bad.

2

Clay07g's answer already addresses many things you can do once you have the job, under the assumption that you can eventually convince your colleagues to reduce their sexist bias by working twice as hard.

Note that this assumption doesn't always hold, and also that working twice as hard is exhausting. So another strategy is to pick a place to work that doesn't have as many sexist idiots*). Sorry if that isn't easy - I just thought it should be mentioned because it saves you a lot of trouble later on...

During the application process, take a good look at the work environment:

  • Try to gauge the male:female ratio. You can also ask for the ratio during your interview.
  • Take note in what jobs the women work (only HR and reception?), and how their colleagues treat them.
  • Watch out how often your future colleagues interrupt you during the interview.
  • Ask about how the work is organised - if work is assigned and managed transparently (e.g. in an issue tracker, as assignments written down on a whiteboard, etc.), it's much easier to collect statistics and then point out to your (future) boss how frequently you get the menial tasks.
  • The more chaotic and ad-hoc the workflow is, the more likely it is for colleagues to fall back on their unconscious biases and discriminate against you. If people are stressed out and busy, they get less considerate.

Use the application process to select yourself out of sexist environments...

After you've got the job, another strategy is to dress (somewhat) like the men - to align yourself with what the stereotypical software dev looks like. See also: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/30533/is-there-a-dress-code-for-women-in-software-industry/30557#30557

*) I'm saying sexist idiots because the behaviour you describe is way beyond unintentional carelessness. That's no way to treat a colleague even if she is a 15-year-old intern with no clue about whatever she's supposed to do.

  • OP specifically stated that the problem is her perceived age, not sexism. – FiatLux May 16 '18 at 12:03
  • I don't think Clay07g's answer is saying to work twice as hard, I think it's saying 'be mindful about how you communicate and make sure you're pulling your weight'. I think you should remove the first two paragraphs from your answer, the rest of your answer seems mostly able to stand on its own and these paragraphs detract from them. – Cronax May 16 '18 at 15:00
  • @Cronax Clay07g says OP will probably have to double-prove herself - but doesn't claim that that's fair. And I agree. I just think there's another approach to overcoming the hurdles her colleagues put up for her - by choosing colleagues who don't put up as many hurdles. It isn't a given that everything will turn out alright in the end if she only proves herself hard enough - some people just don't change. – AllTheKingsHorses May 17 '18 at 10:24
  • @Cronax Note that she's also the ONLY female in a group full of men. There IS some sexism there and not only the perceived age. In my job, I am in a managerial position in a factory and the current board is about 40-60 female-male ratio and I'm the youngest one by FAR within my grade and I'm treated with a lot of respect between my peers. You know where I see this attitude? At one of the factory floors that I work on - 95% males, average age of 50. I'm higher ranking than their department manager, I have more expertise, and we look about the same age range. The difference? He's a man. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Jul 12 at 17:46
2

The question is asking how to avoid this behavior in a new environment, so I'm going to give some suggestions about how to get off on the right foot. Many of the other answers give good advice on how to establish respect over time/letting your work speak for itself, etc.

(Honestly some of the behaviors you mentioned seem toxic and really out of place for software engineering companies I've experienced. It may stem from being a culture of only men before you joined, but I really hope that this isn't the norm of tech companies in your area. At my company there are quite a few smaller women but as far as I can tell they are not treated this way.)

I'm going to address the problems you mentioned from easiest to hardest

Not letting you carry items

I have a hard time imagining what objects these would be in a software engineering office, as I work in one and most objects are smaller than a laptop and I can't believe anyone would insist on carrying such things for you. But I'd recommend not bringing in any heavy items to work the first few days (e.g. a large bag) that would give the appearance of struggling under the weight. Even though you probably have no problem managing it, if it's something a strong person can lift like a feather the urge to help would be hard to suppress.

For something that typically happens at the beginning of a job, e.g. setting up your workstation, at my company it's typical to have 1 or 2 people help to speed the process along. So you could say something like "Oh, I don't need help but if you want to you're welcome to", and take advantage of the opportunity to get to know that coworker a bit better. If a lot of people try to jump in to help, you can jokingly brush them off.

Generally speaking in a condescending way

The first few times this happens you can respond in a confused manner, to indicate to them that this behavior isn't normal. Example: Male coworker: "Do you understand [basic concept]?" You: *confused look as to why they would even ask* "Yeah?" If this continues to occur you can reject the gratuitous advice more directly, but with a bit of humor to not make it seem like you're mad at them: "C'mon [male name], I've been a C++ programmer for 10 years, do you really think I don't know how to use templates?"

Interrupting you when speaking

It's hard to handle someone who has already interrupted you without coming across as stuffy/easily offended, so it would be best to avoid this altogether. Make extra effort to speak loudly and assertively. If you often find yourself pausing in your speech to formulate your thoughts, work on having a better idea of what to say beforehand to avoid this. Interrupting someone who is continuously speaking at a strong volume is rude and awkward, hopefully they have the good sense not to do this.

Forwarding you boring tasks/ignoring tasks you forward

Hopefully there's some kind of team queue you can push these tasks to, like @Clay07g mentioned. However if you don't have such a formal system, and especially if it's not something the manager can see (like sending you a direct email about the task), you can just reject the task - "[male name], you should really be doing your own paperwork!" Hopefully they have the good sense to not try to forward you the same task twice, in my experience when a task is bounced back that person will try to do it on their own.

Other

It would also be beneficial to spend some time with your coworkers outside of work, like a weekly happy hour or organized outing between a few coworkers on the weekend. If people ask you what you like to do outside of work, try to focus on activities that you're more likely to have in common. (That doesn't mean you have to pick stereotypically "male" activities like watching football, it could be something widely appealing like video games or going to concerts). As they get to know you better personally, that should naturally lead to treating you as an equal instead of an inferior.

Finally, try not to think too much about how your coworkers are disrespecting you, and try to go in every day with as clean of a slate as possible. I know that personally I am very conscious of how my voice (even though it isn't particularly high pitched) sounds compared to men when asking questions, and I often feel like I sound less intelligent for asking the same question. No one has ever reacted in a way to indicate my suspicions are true, so I just don't think about it. It also helps establish your behavior like that of a senior, respected employee. Like @Em C already said, fake it till you make it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.