FEMALE FOUNDERS

Hey, Boss: Avoid a 'Binders of Women' Moment

Sure, there are generational differences in the workplace. But no manager wants to stick his foot in his mouth with a gender gaffe like Mitt Romney. Here's how to avoid inadvertently acting like a sexist jerk.
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Mitt Romney has gifted the English language with a new collective noun. We have gaggles of geese. Schools of fish. And now: binders of women.

For the critical-minded, this phrase is easy pickings--dismissive, reductive, dehumanizing, a weird conflation of the struggle for human dignity with office supplies. It was also, undoubtedly, inadvertent. Romney would never purposely alienate such a critical constituency. To win in November, he needs whole file cabinets' worth of women to mark the box next to his name.

But Romney is a man, and men, as women know, have a tendency to blurt. Despite substantial gains made by women, the artifacts and attitudes of patriarchy linger. This year Wall Street rumbled over how Marissa Mayer's pregnancy would affect Yahoo's performance, and Starbucks found it necessary to accompany the release of its Blonde Roast coffee with an admonition to employees not to tell dumb-blonde jokes. A recent Harvard study found men with stay-at-home wives are more likely to be sexist in the workplace. 

Most men want to avoid doing and saying things that set women's eyes rolling. To help them, we asked some female entrepreneurs and executives, as well as women on our own staff here at Inc., to tell us about cringe-inducing behaviors they've observed. The following advice is based on their feedback.

Curtail compliments: "You did a bang-up job on the Oliphant account" is dandy. "I like that dress," is not. "I like you in that dress" is not and then some.

Yes, people like to know they look good, and such remarks are generally well-intended. But they reinforce the notion that it is appropriate to evaluate women on their appearance or that women want to be judged that way. And, as many people pointed out, such remarks can be creepy. "You know they can't help noticing you as a physical person. But I'd rather not be reminded of it," one woman said.

Avoid apologies: Don't do or say anything crass (belch, swear, spit into your trash can). But if you do belch, swear, or spit into your trash can, don't apologize exclusively to the women present.

"I was at a meeting and they were all throwing around the F-word and one guy stopped to make sure I wasn't offended," one woman said. "I personally wouldn't talk like that in a business setting. But he should hear me when I'm home."

Skip the spouse: Never start a sentence with "How does your husband feel…" or "What does your husband think…." The question is either belittling or predatory, depending on the context.  One CEO reports encountering various versions of "Does your husband know where you are?" "How does he feel about you having dinner with a man?" and "How does your husband feel about your having male clients?"

"I thought I was conducting business," said the CEO. "I'm not on a date."

Omit the offspring: Asking after someone's children is fine--considerate even. But don't express admiration for a woman's ability to succeed both at work and as a mother (what one executive called the "bring-home-the-bacon-fry-it-up-in-the-pan thing"). That suggests women's work-life balancing acts are more amazing--because less "natural"--than men's.

Similarly, never address a woman simply as a mother. Remember that she is a parent who, in many or most cases, shares responsibility equally with another parent.

"It makes me nuts when I need to travel and people are shocked and ask, 'Who's going to take care of the kids?'" said one woman. "I want to say, 'Oh, they'll be playing in the street with knives!' Those kids have a father!" 

Mind the metaphors: Several women complained about the overuse of sports or military metaphors in business settings. Others were comfortable with such language, but resented having it explained to them. ("I know what you mean when you ask me to be 'pinch hit,' groaned one.)

Given the disagreement here, we'd urge you to ditch the sports references not because they're sexist but because they're stale and clichéd. Experiment with a fresher, unisex source of metaphor, such as politics or TV. ("Do we want to Don Draper these guys with a charm offensive? Or should we just say screw it and Break Bad?")

Standardize sweeteners: There's something to be said for customized rewards if you know individual employees well enough. But gender-targeted incentives invariably run afoul of stereotypes. We heard stories about a manager who thanked his staff for a job well done by paying for admission to a cigar bar for the men and a month's worth of hair blowouts for the women. Another leader celebrated the successful completion of a project by leaving flowers on the desks of the women on his team. The men got bupkis.

"At first I thought it was nice," said one posy recipient. "But the more I thought about it, it made me feel less professional than they were."

How about cash? Cash is good.

Turn down tokenism: Don't ask a woman for a woman's opinion. That is insulting both to the individual ("Ann, you're more or less interchangeable with any of the other 3 billion out there, right?") and to the gender ("whatever Ann can tell us about the female perspective is as much as we need to know").

"This goes doubly for women of color," one woman pointed out.

Jettison jokes: How difficult can it be not to make ham-handed sexist jokes that haven't been funny since Archie Bunker grunted them? There's no excuse for this bad behavior, and fortunately it appears to be aging out of the population, like technophobia and reliance on broadcast news. A CEO supplied the most egregious example, which happened not at her company, but in her church. She said a new pastor was talking about Adam and Eve, "and he cracked a joke and said, 'You know, man needed a companion to remind him to put the toilet seat down.'"

How much damage can one cloddish joke do?

"I'm talking with my money and looking for a better cultural fit for my spiritual growth," the CEO said.

 

Last updated: Oct 19, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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