So, a few days ago, I posted this very relatable picture on my Facebook page because I thought it was poignant and funny:
Most of my friends share my sense of humor and irony, so several hit the Laugh or Love reaction while a few posted comments indicating a strong desire to watch the scenario play out in real life. But then a friend of mine, who is the general manager of a building materials supplier, posted this:
" I love this. It's so common, too.
Just yesterday, a customer called in upset about a product not performing the way he thought it would. One of my associates, a young woman who knows that product inside and out, explained to him that it was doing exactly what it was designed to do (because it was) and he got pissed, dismissed her and even yelled at her a bit. I got him on the phone, told him exactly the same thing she did, and he accepted what I told him without questioning.
I guess it just sounded better coming from a man. I found it disappointing. I'd actually concede that my associate knows more about that specific product than I do, but apparently even given that, my word counted for more, because man.”
Obviously, if I hadn't experienced similar incidents in my life, I wouldn't have posted the image. But since I have, his comment prompted me to write this and see if we couldn't take a funny picture and turn it into a legitimate teaching moment for others. So my friend agreed to let me share his comment.
Now, once upon a time, I invented a concrete mix design and product that was fast-curing, low-carbon, and contained recycled ingredients. I did this through research, experimentation, and application. Oh, and my engineering degree helped too. I started a manufacturing business and ran it for seven years, selling products around the country and employing at its peak about twenty people.
Several years ago, I had a chance to work with a man who started a large concrete products company here in Washington state that he eventually sold for around $80 million dollars. He told me, "I've been doing this for thirty years, but you clearly know more about concrete than I do." Even though I had earned a well-deserved reputation in the field, that comment from that gentleman was particularly validating.
However, I also had to regularly deal with men whose concrete experience was limited to busting open bags of pre-mix from the hardware store and adding water to it in a 5 cubic foot drum mixer. And my favorite was listening to them tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
So, yeah, I get a high degree of personal satisfaction out of watching gender-role busting women dunk and flex on sexist men with their knowledge. That’s always going to make me smile.
But I am also equally satisfied when I can see men and women working together to dispel these biases about what “real men” and “real women” should look and act like. Because these biases hurt all of us. So, I want to use my friend’s situation as a learning scenario to help us all do that.
What women learn, as my friend’s female employee has, is that sometimes you can’t win over the other person. In fact, as I have spoken about before in my conversation with Dr. Carol Tavris, the co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by ME), sometimes the harder we push against another person’s bias, the more committed they become to holding their ground. And what that means is that we women have learned that when the guy on the other line is just not having it, it’s best to hand the phone over to another man and let them deal with it.
But there are several downsides that employers don’t realize when they overlook the impact of gender stereotypes and seemingly small incidents like this one that I've learned as a woman and leader in male-dominated industries. So, let’s look at this inspired-by-true-events scenario from a few perspectives to understand them.
The Male Customer
First, let’s assume good intent, meaning let’s not assume our male customer is a raging misogynist who hates all women. Instead, let’s consider the context from a trauma-informed leadership perspective: he’s in pain. Based on his understanding, he has a product that’s not working correctly. He’s paid money but his expectations are not met so he’s irritated and upset.
He calls up the store to get his problem solved. Stacy (not her real name), the expert on his problem, takes the call and is ready to help. She hears his problem and then assures him that the product is working correctly. She explains to him what is happening, to educate him and ease his concerns.
But our customer is not soothed. He is hearing that he’s wrong. And if he has a prejudiced script about men and women looping in his head, then instead of feeling relief, he’s likely feeling shame and embarrassment. The gender stereotype script of what a “real man” should know is being challenged by this woman who clearly knows more than him. He’s not grateful for her help. He’s triggered by it, adding to the frustration he had that prompted him to call.
In the end, it’s not that he thinks she’s incompetent. He’s upset because he thinks he is. And so, he projects this onto her through his defensiveness towards her.
The Female Associate
Stacy is doing her job. She is the resident expert on this product and is ready to help anyone who needs a hand. But now she has a customer who’s questioning her knowledge and becoming even a bit abusive. It’s easy to be in her shoes and wants to start to become equally defensive and argue back but Stacy is in the control seat. If she can keep herself regulated and not allow the customer’s pain to overwhelm her, she can continue to remain out of the emotional hurricane and guide the conversation. In this case, she felt her best course of action was to disengage, put the customer on hold, and grab her boss.
This is typically where the story ends for women who deal with gender-based harassment in the workplace: just deal with it. The “fragile male egos” demand us to be “nice” and to take it. However, without interventions, this interaction could be reinforcing another gender stereotype in her own mind that men can’t handle smart women, which is as equally corrosive as the male customer’s prejudice against her.
If she believes this, it can color her experiences and interactions with any men who begin to get critical of her. When we, as women, carry this belief, it can lower our chances for good outcomes when we find ourselves in difficult conversations.
Worst case, we are defensive and argumentative because we want to prove ourselves even if we are receiving appropriate criticisms. This leaves us potentially un-coachable and at risk of being labeled as difficult and "aggressive." Another worst case is we can develop feelings that we’ll never get ahead or be accepted unless we tone it down.
Another part of Stacy’s perspective for employers to understand is she will get tired of having to deal with these kinds of interactions if she hasn’t already. They are stressful and they become a part of a work environment for her that is socially and emotionally unhealthy. Even though she’s wearing the same smock and working in the same building as everyone else, as a woman, she experiences a work culture very different from her male co-workers especially in a male-dominated industry and that needs to be recognized.
Loyalty in employees comes from having a sense of trust and belonging with their company. If Stacy’s gendered work experience goes un-acknowledged, it creates feelings of isolation that can grow over time and make her become disengaged.
She doesn’t want to be in a culture where her emotional needs, which include the need to NOT be discounted or dismissed, are constantly parked so that she can keep everyone else happy. She may tolerate it for a while, but if she’s willing to challenge gender stereotypes already, she’ll figure out that there is probably a better place for her to do what she loves somewhere else. As her boss, that should concern you.
The Male Boss
As leaders in our organization, we have the unenviable task of finding ways to make our employees and our customers happy, which at times like this scenario, can appear to be at odds with one another. Therefore, someone at some point decided to create a shortcut for leaders to use in lieu of flipping a coin: The customer is always right.
But in this case, the customer is not right. Stacy is right. However, to placate the customer’s concerns, you end up taking the call, apologizing for not helping them earlier, and let them know you’re here to save the day. The customer is soothed by the obvious maleness of your voice and reassurances. He feels safe now again. So safe, that you can repeat back to him word-for-word what Stacy just explained, and he’s not threatened any longer and can accept the truth.
So, is this over and done with? No. Because if you don’t acknowledge how this experience impacts Stacy’s personal work culture and also set an example for how you want your customers to behave and treat your employees, this problem will keep repeating itself.
That means you have to use the privilege of your maleness here to set an example for your organization.
First, challenge your customer’s bias against Stacy but do it in a way that doesn’t create further shame and embarrassment for the customer (we already saw how well that works.) Why do you need to do this?
You are asserting an appropriate boundary with your customer on how to ask for help from your company while validating their basic need: they want to be serviced by the best people in your organization.
You are setting an example for other employees on how to handle similar conflicts. This keeps you from having to take every difficult customer call, but it also helps your team grows their skills.
You are demonstrating, as the leader, that your company is not gender-biased. You are walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
In this scenario, the conversation could have ended on a positive tone when the customer was back on solid ground emotionally, like this:
"I understand your frustrations, so I really hope we've been able to help you today. I have to say, however, if you keep having problems, Stacy here is our expert and if you want to get this figured out, she's definitely the one to help you. She knows this product even better than I do and I want to make sure you’re getting the best service we have to give."
Sometimes men need to hear from other men their endorsement of a woman and her skills. Is it cool that's the case? No. But for now, it's the world we have. If you vouch for her, it may give the customer enough trust to give her a chance.
In this way, you set a tone with your customers, without shaming them for their biases. Instead, your statement is an inconspicuous invitation for them to think about what happened, in the safety and privacy of their own world. And you’re letting them know ahead of time that the next time they call, to be ready to let Stacy help them. Finally, this statement also reinforces to your company and Stacy that gender biases are not given free passes to continue, even if it seems easier and safer to let them slide.
Speaking of Stacy, if this experience begins to impact her and demotivates her to show up every day as the product expert she is, your business suffers. You lose expertise available to you and your organization because one of your top performers is too afraid or worn from dealing with the backlash. And if this happens frequently enough, as I mentioned earlier, she’ll leave. Another reason why setting boundaries with customers is important.
In this situation, we usually know right away what we need to do which is to let Stacy know you have her back. She may not show it, but if she takes pride in her job and in helping people, it’s disappointing when we are unable to fulfill that purpose. So, it’s important for leaders to validate women when they are dismissed like Stacy was through encouragement and consolations like,
“I’m sorry that happened today. It must be frustrating when someone is unwilling to respect what you have to say. But I’m proud of how you handled yourself with that difficult situation.”
Remember, we don't want the young Stacys of the world to develop their own self-defeating gender stereotypes that men's egos can't tolerate a woman's intelligence. And one way to do that is to be an example of a person who respects and values her as she is who happens to also be a man.
Now, What You Don’t Want to Do
For one, you don’t want to further reinforce the presence of the stereotype through a well-meaning but misguided comment to Stacy like, “You’re smarter than most men I know.” Or telling everyone you’re not ashamed (as a man) to admit that Stacy is an expert.
I know why you want to say it. You’re a good guy and you want to help Stacy feel included. But in a subtle way, you are implying that Stacy is some sort of unicorn amongst women and reinforcing that there are gender differences in intelligence. You also can be signaling that masculinity, which is a set of attributes built from socially constructed gender roles and stereotypes, can be preserved even if other “real men” accept Stacy as an equal.
Instead, just compliment and encourage Stacy on the merits of her personal achievements. Spare her the comparisons with other women or men. The point is that gender-based stereotypes end when we all stop playing into them.
Finally, you might want to shield her from the stress of dealing with crappy customers, but don’t bench Stacy every time a difficult and sexist customer calls up. Biases of many forms exist for many reasons and it’s unlikely that in our lifetimes, we’ll ever stop experiencing them.
Instead, encounters like this are a great opportunity for Stacy to build her social intelligence skills. That is, each difficulty she encounters gives her information about herself and other people. She then can use these insights to hone her own leadership and influence talents tremendously. But she won’t get those chances if you yank her off the mound each time she walks a batter. Leave her out there to fight her way through the inning.
Obviously, you get to earn your salary at this point because it’s up to you to use your judgment as a leader and mentor to let her work through it and support her efforts as she does it. But if you resist the urge to take the call for her, even if she asks, you are giving her the space to grow confidence, even in the face of disappointments and challenges. Coach her if necessary, encourage her, and let her handle it. And be willing to let a customer not be right, especially if they aren’t.
We develop resilience through a combination of experiencing defeats while having a supportive network that encourages us to keep going. And as I mentioned at the top of the article, we don’t always get what we want out of encounters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always learn from them. If you do this with Stacy, you will gain a loyal employee with the mental toughness and leadership skills of a ninja.
It’s disappointing when we encounter situations like the one my friend did. Good humans want to create good places for others to thrive in and so seeing how his female associate was treated is understandably frustrating as a leader.
But learning how to take advantage of situations like this and turning them into teaching moments for your employees and your customers, helps define a culture for your organization based on a growth-mindset mentality. And if your core values are to have an environment with parity for everyone, that means you hold your customers to that standard as well.
When you demonstrate your understanding of the customers' core concerns (feeling frustrated and embarrassed) as well as Stacy’s (feeling dismissed and disrespected) you can guide your organization towards inclusivity and compassion.
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