Coping with a Hostile, Male-Dominated Work Environment
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
I’m the only woman on my team. The culture on my team is extremely “bro-y” and it’s a high-pressure, high-expectations environment. Recently, I spoke out in a work setting where I felt my colleagues were being inappropriate and disrespectful, and I was treated hostilely and verbally harassed by the group for speaking up. Even my “friends” on the team allowed it to happen by not supporting me publicly -- though many of them did so afterwards, in private. The overtly offensive behavior largely stopped, and the offender has started ignoring me instead. I’m disappointed by my “friends” on the team and frustrated and angry at everyone else, including the team leader. Should I just get a new job? What can I do?
I’m sorry that you’re in this position. Of course taking another job is an option, but I’d like to address other steps you might be able to take at your current position, in case your current job situation can be improved enough to make remaining a viable option. Context and level of trust are important in helping you decide which of the following suggestions make sense for your particular situation. Note that suggestion (b) depends heavily on the history of your relationships and level of trust in the past.
a. Talk to your “friends” individually. Ask them why they didn’t support you in the meeting, so you can better understand their perspective. (Don’t “argue” with them about their perspective, just listen to understand.) Then let them know you were disappointed and why, and tell them how they can support you in the future, and ask them if they will be able to provide that support. If they say yes, you can even give them a hypothetical (“So when John says ______ to me, you’ll say ______, right?”). If they say they can’t support you publicly, that seems to be a flag about the power and prevalence of a culture of disrespect (not just of you as a woman, since your friends are men, and they feel unsafe supporting you, which means that they’re worried the bully will turn on them). It’s important for you to know how powerfully they feel that pressure.
b. Talk individually to the people who were disrespectful. Explain to them your perspective on the situation, and ask each of them about their perspective. Ask what their goals were in taking the actions they took? (Don’t “argue” with them, but be “curious”). See how they respond to hearing your perspective, and let them know what you expect of them in the future. You can add that you’d rather this be worked out among you, but that if necessary, you’ll go to the boss.
c. Talk to your boss or the team leader. Let that person know how the situation unfolded for you, what the consequences have been for you, and the ways it impacts your and the team’s performance: you’re more likely to think twice before contributing, and those witnessing what has happened to you are also less likely to speak up. When people are “silenced” the team loses, and often this leads to a loss of productivity and to attrition. If your “friends” have said they don’t feel able to support you publicly, let the team leader/boss know (without naming names if that’s possible), because it points to the pervasiveness of a bullying culture in the team. Ultimately, it’s the boss’s responsibility to intervene. If your boss won’t accept that responsibility and intervene to the change the team culture, that in and of itself a problem.
Here are two articles that may helpful for you to read and pass on to your boss:
It sounds as if your team might benefit from some skill-building for respectful engagement. Please keep us posted on what happens and what you decide. Good luck.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.
If you have a specific type of situation you’d want us to publish, send in your questions to DearRobin@LiveInTheirWorld.com. Your submission may be published in an upcoming column, but rest assured, we will not publish your name, location, employer or any other personally identifiable information.