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I have a new-ish co-worker. Before I landed in this team we already had some contact, we enjoyed having lunches together and often chatted over a cup of coffee. We seem to be developing a friendship, where we talk about and plan things outside of work as well: things like going shopping or going out for a drink. All in all, she's a great person, but she has one habit that I don't know how to deal with.

She tends to ask me things like 'Us females are doing a great job, aren't we?' or 'Isn't it great to have another female developer to explain stuff to you?'. I've never seen her ask the males on the team for this kind of support/validation, but the guys do compliment either of us on doing our job well if we deserve it.

I first dealt with this as if she were just joking around, but I later found out she's serious when she makes remarks like this. She said she felt I didn't take her seriously. At that point, we had a frank conversation in which I explained to her that to me, the fact that we're female doesn't set us apart from the team and that we shouldn't act as such. There wasn't much reaction to that from her side, besides that she acknowledged being insecure.

She didn't stop making the remarks though, so after that, I switched to remarks that let her know she did well, but there's more than us two females in the team, like 'Yeah, the entire team did a good job this sprint' or 'Yes, you explained this very well, just like our most senior dev would'. This doesn't really help though, she just pushes for the female angle even further with replies like 'Yeah, but what do you think of our contribution/way we handled this?'. I usually shrug those off as 'we all did our share', 'you did a good job doing X' or 'not any different from how the guys did their work', but that doesn't seem to satisfy her or boost her confidence.

Basically, she's really insecure about her femininity and her work, but no amount of support that I gave her so far, that didn't directly acknowledge her being female, helped. I want to support her, for her to gather some self-confidence. But any compliment I give seems to be wasted upon her, if it doesn't acknowledge her being female.

At the same time, I don't want to go against my personal views that being female does not set us apart from the rest of the team in any positive or negative way, and so I am really not willing to give her the 'yeah, you're female and a developer and thus you're great' kind of support.

I also don't want to lose a potential friend and otherwise great person over this, if at all possible.

How can I be supportive when she asks for validation, without going against my own views?

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    How long do you know about the past of your coworker and, more specifically, how much she had to struggle against sexism? – Ælis Apr 15 at 20:38
  • How long have both of you been in that team? To have an idea about the adaptation to the group or the degree of trust among other colleagues. – Santiago Apr 15 at 21:15
  • @Ælis I don't know much about her past, except that as far as I know she's worked for the current team longer than I have, and that we're around the same experience level when it comes to programming. To be honest though, even if she had very bad teams in the past, this one isn't one and shouldn't be treated as such in my opinion, so it still doesn't change the desire to support her but not give up my own views. – Tinkeringbell Apr 16 at 10:32
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    Are you the only other female developer in the team? If yes, has she had female IT colleagues before? – Llewellyn Apr 18 at 17:43
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    @ooOOooK Hey, I just wanted to point out to you that, on IPS, it is customary to consider that OP is right regarding their assessment of the facts (and that they don't have to provide us with proof that they are right) – Ælis May 15 at 8:38
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I read your question, and all I can think about is how much I understand your coworker.

In my last workplace, I was the only female on a team of eleven (white like me) male developers. And during some of the meeting, I couldn't help but think:

Why on earth did I decide to do this job where women are valued so little? (because, in my opinion, if we were valued more, they would be more of us).

I'm under the impression that you think that your coworker wants you to tell her:

Women are better than men.

That might be it. But, given your description and given what I wanted when I acted like your coworker does, what she wants might be more nuanced than just a "woman are better than men".

I can't read your coworker's mind. But, giving my experience with similar situations, I would say that what she wants/needs is the reassurance that women have value and that women aren't inferior to men.


Given that, next time your coworker asks you for validation as a female dev, here is what I would suggest doing:

  • Do not tell her that the rest of the team did well.

    When I'm fishing for compliments and you tell me that "the rest of the team did well", I'm then under the impression that I did not do well, or not as well as the rest of the team. If you really want to say something like that, start by saying:

    Yes, you did. I believe that the whole team did great this time.

    This isn't perfect and I might still be wondering if I did great or not. But it's still better than the alternative where you just don't give her a compliment¨ (based on your question, I believe you are already using option two, but I wanted to make it clear that option one was definitively not a good idea).

  • Do give her compliment.

    You don't want to give her a "us vs. them" compliment, but you can still reassure her of her own value, as a human being. For example, when she says:

    Us females are doing a great job, aren't we?

    You can answer by:

    I don't know about me but I was impressed by how you did X and Y!

    Or

    Yeah, I'm very proud of my way of dealing with X problem. And how you solved Y? That was amazing!

    When I'm talking to my friend how we did great, I usually don't talk about how this other random person did great too (unless the other person did really, really great). So, no gender issue there. It's just two people complimenting each other.

    As a side note, when I'm fishing for compliments and you give one to me and to someone else (who isn't there) too, it somehow diminishes the one you just gave me. So make sure to only address your compliment to the people who are currently present (unless, as I said, someone else really, really, desserve on too).

  • Do reassure her on the fact that women have as much value as men.

    For example, saying something like:

    Yeah, after that, no one can say that women can't code. Or that the only thing we are good for is cooking.

    Or

    Yes, we are doing a great job. Don't let your ghost from the past makes you feel like women are worth less than men.

    Make sure that she struggled with sexism in the past and is struggling less now before using the "ghost from the past" line. Otherwise, she might not be happy with you suggesting her main struggle with sexism was in the past (I know I wouldn't and it would even make me angry to see how blind to my difficulties you are).


Note: All this is based on what, as a woman struggling in an all men environment, I wanted to hear. However, I never was in your shoes where such remarks made me uncomfortable and thus, some of my solutions might still be "us vs. them" for you (if it's the case, I apologize).

  • The first example I also mentioned in my question: like 'Yeah, the entire team did a good job this sprint'. I carefully avoided the impression that the rest of the team did well (exclusive), I already always made it about the entire team (inclusive). Like described, she keeps pushing after and it doesn't work. The next two examples closely match other ones I already gave in my question (can you explain a bit more how they're really different, if they are?), that seem to be always met with further questions or her looking dissatisfied/insecure. – Tinkeringbell Apr 16 at 17:12
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    The last example you give is one of those I do want to avoid, as it does validates the whole 'us vs. them' problem in my opinion, by implicitly portraying the guys in this this team as characters holding these opinions (which they give absolutely no sign of ever doing), and as such is one of those replies I really wanted to avoid. – Tinkeringbell Apr 16 at 17:12
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    @Tinkeringbell I edited the third part to had an example you can hopefully use. For the second part, it could help me if you have an example where you give her a compliment and she keeps pushing. – Ælis Apr 18 at 10:59
2

I really appreciate this forum, first of all. And I relate to this question as in architecture there's a huge gender imbalance. Thus, I can see why the OP would like to keep the friendship -- It's hard to find a woman who you relate to on BOTH a professional and personal level.

All this behind-the-scenes gender banter I think relates to her experience of implicit bias. No there's not the classic Mad-Men dirty paws on rear sexism of our mother's age. All the examples she's giving you relates to implicit bias: "Us females are doing a great job, aren't we?"

In the FORTUNE article, Scholar Joan C. Williams discusses how "As opposed to outright gender discrimination, this kind of subtle gender bias is harder to prove and even harder to ferret out." She has documented the four patterns of gender bias confronting women at work:

  1. The tightrope: the delicate balance between being too feminine (weak) or too masculine (abrasive).

  2. Prove it again: always having to demonstrate our value, while men can coast on their past accomplishments.

  3. Maternal wall: being counted out professionally after having children.

  4. Tug-of-war: being judged more harshly by other women, or seen as competition.

OP -- for example -- your co-worker says "Us females are doing a great job, aren't we?" That's #2 Prove it Again, isn't it?

To give context -- I have experienced implicit bias in architecture and I would have benefited by having another female colleague in the workplace with whom I could discuss my experience with. Back then, only the receptionist was empathetic to my suffering, but she couldn't fully understand as she wasn't doing the same type of work. She would say, "That's haard. I'm sorry." -- which was sympathetic and eased my pain. On the other had, there was one lady architect who I could rely on for professional advice, but not as a friend as she was mid-career. However even she had shared a story about her struggles at work (Looking back I think it was #1 Tightrope and #3 Tug-of-war).

When she arrived at first to the job, it "was hard" since our manager -- let's call her "Sarah" -- would barely help her to learn the ropes. They had co-taught an architecture studio with her at a local college so she had expected some mentoring. Thus, she had to navigate the new job with less training or guidance than normal. She had experienced . While Sarah was "nice" (acting feminine), in action she had stonewalled her by not giving the standard training in order navigate the job. How ineffective is that?!

Seems that she's not asking you to tell her she's amazing, so reassurance won't help here. Instead seems she's wanting you to acknowledge that it's annoying that women often have to demonstrate their value more, while men effortlessly glide on -- telling her about implicit bias framework would not be admitting your personal opinion -- it would be bringing well-researched data to her attention.

In addition, have you heard about Gender Judo? It's a marvelous tactic for countering implicit bias. I first learned about it when she lectured at a business school event during grad school, and it has been a great discovery. The catch? During my first job out of school, I never had a female professional colleague with whom I could discuss this with in private, which was doubly hard and isolating.

In your situation, it's wonderful you both have found a potential friendship developing -- she is speaking with you as she trusts that she can share this with you and you will continue being sweet and sympathetic.

So, if you want to continue cultivating the friendship, then introducing and debating: a/implicit bias and b/gender judo I think would help. Discussing and discovering this framework together would take it out of subjective to objective. You will:

  • Discover a framework together.
  • Discuss to what extent implicit bias exists in your workplace
  • Grow closer, and maybe help her and yourself navigate with greater ease.

With your co-worker, I think it would help her with her insecurity by discussing implicit bias. It would have helped me in my early career to have had someone acknowledge and give shape to my experience. At the same time--you are not misrepresenting your beliefs. Maybe together, you'll come to a place of deeper friendship: after touching upon implicit bias together, you can then get back to the fun stuff-- movies, going shopping --gasp even get gel nails done together (I did this for the first time last week and WWWWWOOOOWWW it feels great, fun and feminine!)

2

Ælis' answer made me realize that there isn't really anything I can do or say to this coworker that will be a satisfying reply to her, that won't result in me playing the us-vs-them game with her.

The answer by EasyDoesIt seems to have much the same message: Play the game with her, give her what she wants. Even if 'what she wants' in that answer isn't described as just direct validation of her remarks, but another way of distancing yourself from the rest of the team based on being female.

So, as much as I would have loved things to be different, it seems there is no way to show her support without setting myself apart from the rest of the team. I realize I can't change her and even if I could, I should not ask that of her. She shouldn't have to pretend not to be insecure, just like I should not have to pretend I think better of us because we're females.

The answers here, combined with some additional developments at work made me realize the best thing I could do was to drop pursuing any friendship and pretence of being supportive and to slowly revert interactions between us back to purely professional, limiting the more personal interactions with her as much as I can, hopefully getting them back to zero someday.

I've kept handling the remarks she's been making the same way as I've described in the question. Now that we're slowly reverting back to a more professional and distant relationship, I've also noticed her remarks aren't as frequent anymore. I've also been given the chance to work less with her, and more closely together with another team member. I have good hopes that once we're back to only working together in a purely professional way each day, I won't have to deal with this kind of remarks anymore.

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