Speaking up can be scary, especially if you’re the only woman in the room, but it’s important to call attention to problematic behavior in the workplace.
I recently observed credit union CEO introduce a new, young, female staff member to a predominantly male board of directors. The male board members lined up to welcome her—a new staff member they hardly knew—with a hug. In my follow-up conversation with the board chair and CEO, I was amazed to find that the male board members, as well as those in leadership, didn’t seem to realize there was anything wrong with this interaction and how they were collectively objectifying the new staff member.
Though we have undoubtedly made significant improvements in moving towards gender equity, power differentials between men and women—particularly in governance and leadership spaces—are still painfully real.
I see this regularly in my interactions with credit union boards and leadership. This spring, I facilitated a session with another board where there was only one female director. This female board member, who also served as the chair of the governance committee, absorbed all the tasks being delegated to her by her fellow board members, all of whom were men. No one else was taking ownership of any of the to-dos coming out of our working session. Again, I talked with the board chair and CEO about my concerns in a follow-up session.
These two situations are teaching moments for women in traditionally male-dominated spaces. While the credit union sector has taken steps to diversify its leadership, most board members in our field are still white men. Many of them are older as well and unaccustomed to reflecting on how their actions and habits resonate in spaces with women in leadership roles.
Gender bias, or gender-informed behavior, can happen under even the most kind, thoughtful, open, progressive leadership. It can happen with male and female leaders. It can happen even if you have eliminated traditional, gendered power dynamics in your personal relationships.
I’ve also worked with male leaders who are willing to reflect on how women are—or are not—set up for success as directors on their board or as members of their staff. In meetings, they’ve reflected on their role as leaders and how they could do better to eliminate power differentials in these spaces. Unfortunately, these conversations often stay just that: conversations.
When we face these types of scenarios, it can be difficult to speak up. Sometimes the best way to address the problem is with a follow-up conversation. It’s wonderful when we can speak up in the moment, but we women often lose our voices even when we know something isn’t right and when we know we should say something. We’re afraid of being seen unfavorably by male- dominated leadership, of being passed up for opportunities, of being considered “difficult.”
I know these challenges very well, and such fears are not unfounded. As Francesca Gino writes in Harvard Business Review,
“Speaking up can also result in negative performance evaluation, undesirable job assignments, or even termination. Most people are aware of these potential costs; as a result, most stay quiet about bias, injustice, and mistreatment.”
However, psychologist Catherine Sanderson, writing for Greater Good Magazine, deftly explains why inaction is both contagious and dangerous. She says:
“When facing an ambiguous situation, our natural tendency is to look to others to figure out what’s going on. But here’s the problem: If each person is looking to the people around them to act, and no one wants to risk feeling foolish and embarrassed, the problematic comment or behavior may be left unchallenged.”
While I know it can be challenging to make your voice heard in these situations, take a moment to find your power. This power can be in yourself—in speaking up—or even in just interrupting the moment by saying “Hmmm,” while you consider what to say next. It can be in allies you have in the room, who can help you hold others accountable.
That power can manifest in so many different ways. You can gracefully redirect tasks that are being piled on a female colleague to others in the room who can take them on. You can stand by a junior colleague who has become the target for inappropriate behavior to serve as a buffer and demonstrate solidarity. You can gracefully share that specific behaviors are inappropriate. And, as was mentioned earlier, if action isn’t possible in the moment, small gestures—even after the fact—can go a long way.
Changing workplace culture is hard work. But you can be the change you want to see. Find your voice and speak up!
Jennie Boden is the CEO of Quantum Governance L3C. She has more than 30 years of experience in the credit union and nonprofit sectors and served as the chief staff officer for two nonprofits before coming to Quantum Governance.
Quantum Governance provides credit unions, corporations, nonprofits, associations and governmental entities with strategic, cost-effective governance, ethics and management consulting, facilitation and evaluation. With more than 60% of Quantum Governance’s clients representing credit unions, the organization fields more engagements in the credit union community than in any other. Quantum Governance is home to more strategic governance experience than any other practice in the country. The firm is a unique L3C organization that integrates the best elements of both the for- and non-profit communities into one practice. It is a low-profit, limited-liability service organization dedicated to the public good and one of the very first such legal hybrid organizations in the United States.