The Old Boys' Club Isn’t That Old

07/26/2017 10:33 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2017

Maybe it’s because I work in public relations (an industry that is strongly represented by women) but thankfully I don’t encounter much sexism in my line of work.

Not to say that it doesn’t exist. The imbalance of how men and women are treated in business hit home with me a few weeks ago when I received an email from a business acquaintance. I won’t share the details of the email exchange, but his response to my request for more information felt dismissive and condescending. I was taken aback and wondered if he would have communicated to me in the same way if I was a man. My instincts told me otherwise.

Maybe it’s because our industries are so different. He works in professional car racing, an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men with a strong male culture. Perhaps he felt his communication style, which seemed abrupt to me, was okay. It got me thinking about how men and women communicate and interact in the workplace.

The old boys’ club. The gender divide. Whatever you want to call it, sexism in the workplace still occurs. While it may not be as overt as depicted in shows like Mad Men, too many women continue to endure sexist jokes, obsession about their appearance or weight, being interrupted or having their ideas or opinions dismissed. In many industries, including car racing, women are often delegated to secondary, ornamental roles as the men take the drivers’ seat.

I was surprised by this when I was first introduced to the Pirelli world Challenge. The ‘Pirelli Girls’ wear Black tight lycra body suits, high heel boots, bare midriffs and walk around mostly mute. They’re meant to be seen, not heard. It’s as if their role is to look good and pose for pictures. This just never sat well with me. Yes, progress takes time. That said, this past weekend I was at yet another car race, this time the Formula E race in Brooklyn and I was pleasantly surprised to see the difference in the way women were portrayed at the races. Women were there as more than just objects, but active participants in the race, well versed in the series, in electric power vehicles and in the future of racing.

Could it be that as industries progress so does the mind set towards women?

“We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

Here’s some ideas on how to stand up, change the narrative and achieve more of a gender balance no matter the industry you work in:

Be aware of your unconscious bias

Whether we admit it or not, we all bring a bias to the workplace. Bias means having an opinion or view of people, based on previous experiences and pre-conceived notions. Bias can be conscious (you’re aware of your prejudices) or unconscious (you’re not aware at all).

When you think about the huge amount of information we have to process every day, bias helps us makes sense of all that information. The problem with bias is that it often dictates the impressions you have of someone and influences how you’ll interact with them. We often categorize people into boxes, rather than embracing them as individuals.

Facebook has shared its training exercise on overcoming bias. Focused on recognizing bias, understanding its impact and taking the action to counteract, it’s a fantastic training exercise that you can do yourself to acknowledge your own bias and find ways to overcome them.

Stop apologizing

More often than men, women apologize at work - for being late, taking too long to answer an email, interrupting a colleague or any number of reasons. PR executive Barri Rafferty relates a typical scenario. A woman enters a meeting late. Her first words: “Sorry.” A man enters a meeting late. His first words: “Can we start now?” Stop apologizing. You’re opening yourself up to unfair criticism. Focus on the task at hand and leave the apology at the door.

“I raise my voice - not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard - we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” Malala Yousafzai, education activist.

Speak up

During the nomination hearings for US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Elizabeth Warren was interrupted by her male colleagues who stonewalled her attempt to read a letter from Corretta King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr. Her response? She read Corretta King’s outside the Senate chambers. And later posted on her Twitter account, loudly proclaiming that she would not be silenced. Her message resonated with her 1.6 million Twitter followers and the resulting publicity of the issue meant that Corretta King’s letter was reprinted in various news outlets. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. If you have to speak a little louder over their interruptions or find another venue, do it. Make your voice heard.

“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.” Oprah Winfrey

Focus on your own success

Change in the workplace doesn’t happen overnight. It has taken decades and a lot of brave work from thousands of women and many supportive men to get us where we are now. Sometimes it’s best to choose your battles carefully and focus your energy on doing your best work possible. Let your brilliance, enthusiasm and hard work speak the loudest and silence your critics.

“Achieving general equality requires the engagement of women and men, girls and boys. It is everyone’s responsibility.” Ban Ki-moon, diplomat.

I’m in awe of the women depicted in the award-winning film Hidden Figures, who faced unbelievable gender bias and racism. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were extraordinary women whose intelligence and skill in mathematics and engineering helped move the US space program forward. Working alongside men (some who were initially supportive and others who slowly came around), they made history for women working in the sciences. Men and women working together, side by side - that’s progress and real change.

Just recently, Canadian Captain Megan Couto became the first female infantry officer to lead the changing of the guard ceremony in England. “I’m just focusing on doing my job as best I can and staying humble.” I love her humility just as she made history!

And finally, the latest superhero film has a female heroine in a starring role. Actress Gal Gadot received just $300,000 for her role in Wonder Woman (a film that has already earned $720 million and counting). Based on her success, something tells me that Gadot will be negotiating a much higher salary for her next role and helping to close the pay gap in Hollywood.

“Women’s liberation is the liberation of the feminine in the man and the masculine in the woman.” Corita Kent, Nun, artist and educator.

Women are different from men. Obviously. Difference doesn’t equate weakness. Let’s celebrate our differences, respect them and learn from them. We all have something to contribute. Let’s work together to create workplaces where men and women’s voices are encouraged to contribute, share their ideas and build success.

Do you experience sexism at your workplace? How do you respond? Tweet me @NatashaNKPR or leave a comment below.

xo Natasha

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