Karla L. Miller offers weekly advice on workplace dramas and traumas for The Washington Post.
Reader: My granddaughter is graduating from college this spring and will be starting her first professional job in a male-dominated field. I am hoping you can recommend a book or website to help her navigate any sexism she might encounter in the workplace. She’s a Jersey girl and tends to be outspoken, but not necessarily in a tactful way. I am concerned she may make her situation worse if she responds in an aggressive manner. Any advice you can offer would be helpful.
Karla: News flash: If your granddaughter is breaking into a traditionally male field of study, I’m betting college has already introduced her to Microaggressions 101, Comparative Double Standards, Applied Principles of Lewd Conduct, and a colloquium or two on You’re Only Here Because Quotas. She may be more prepared than you realize.
Will her lack of tact backfire when she encounters postgraduate gender conflicts? Maybe. But while diplomacy is a valuable skill, I don’t want to promote the notion that it’s possible for her to say Just the Right Thing in Just the Right Tone to enlighten people who have no intention of improving themselves. Depending on the work environment, a dose of Jersey girl may be just what’s called for. So trust her to find her way in her own style.
Encourage her to make connections at work with trusted senior colleagues who can help her get the lay of the land and act as sounding boards when she’s unsure how to respond to a situation. Having female mentors at work can give her someone to emulate, but she needn’t rule out men for support and coaching. And odds are, her industry has a national or local networking group for women.
And believe it or not, Grandmama, you’re a valuable resource all on your own. Ask her about her work; share links to Web articles relevant to her struggles. Encourage her and cheer her on to keep her uplifted, and share your history to keep her grounded. Stories of how my grandmother had to keep her marriage secret to protect her job and how a landlord refused to rent an apartment to my breadwinner mother will forever remind me how much of the life I take for granted is the result of hard-fought protests and legal battles.
“Lean In”: Sheryl Sandberg’s book and its catchphrase have been criticized for (1) being relevant primarily to privileged white women in white-collar jobs and (2) placing the onus on individuals to overcome systemic obstacles — but the book and the advocacy group it inspired (leanin.org) are still informative and supportive resources.
Linguist Deborah Tannen’s “Talking From 9 to 5” deftly analyzes how people are conditioned to communicate — and receive communications — according to gender.
In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College, offers tips on how women in majority-male fields can combat self-doubt.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website (EEOC.gov) clarifies what qualifies as illegal discrimination and harassment.
The advocacy group AAUW.org seeks to break through economic and educational barriers for women, notably through its Start Smart and Work Smart salary negotiation workshops.
Sarah Cooper’s “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings” is a sharp palate-cleansing tonic.