One day years ago I was co-facilitating a gender differences workshop at a large consulting company. While my partner was asking questions I walked over to the flip chart to jot down the answers that were coming in. As I grabbed the marker and stood next to the easel a few men from the crowd bellowed and giggled, “Hey Barbie!”
So, what is wrong with that? It was just a joke right? I am blonde and so it makes sense: Every blonde could be the butt of a joke about Barbie. Here’s what’s wrong with it: I felt humiliated. Instead of being a person like everyone else in the room, I was an object. It was stereotyping at its highest level. The unconscious bias held by those in the room allowed them to justify it to themselves that, “it’s a joke”. The circumstances were made even more complex by a common subtext in the office which would have come out if I had objected. That subtext is, “you take things too personally, you are too uptight”.
Looking back, I don’t believe any of this was intentionally hurtful or discriminatory. At the time, it was meant to be light and funny. With that said, what’s operating behind the veneer of humor in the workplace is “unconscious bias”. In one sense, unconscious bias, which is the same as stereotyping, is the lens through which we see the world and others. With that said, unconscious bias is far more subtle, and insidious. This is because it’s unconscious. We don’t even know that are we are doing it. We don’t’ realize that we are putting people into the boxes we are.
In that room years ago, the audience made up of both men and women automatically put me into the box of the attractive blonde who by virtue of how she looks must not have too much going on upstairs. Women who appear attractive in business are almost universally labeled as stupid and for that reason aren’t taken seriously in the business world. We’re all just Barbies.
But far worse than the stereotyping and unconscious bias was how I felt about it. I felt what they said in my heart. And in a small way, I put myself in that same stereotypical box which hindered my career and my confidence. Then to compensate, I joined in. I made fun of myself and joked about being Barbie to numb myself from my own feelings. But inside, I was dying. With every joke I heard or participated in, I chipped a tiny piece of myself off and buried it away. This story may strike some of you as unique. It’s not. In fact, it’s pretty common and it has been going on for as long as any woman can recall in the business world.
Which I find ironic, in light of what happened back in the 1940’s when women pulled our countries through the war while the men went off to fight. Because when the men returned, women were again put in boxes, sent home and expected to have babies or be in other supportive roles at work like working as secretaries or in customer service. So what is the “male paradigm”? I’ll describe it more in detail in part 2 of this series, Barbie Does Diversity.
1. Why The Paradigm Shift In Management Is So Difficult by Steve Denning
2. from Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, by Joel Arthur Barker, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.
3. Gallup Poll, Women lead men on key workplace engagement measures)
4. (Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies)