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Corporate Communication

April 27, 2007

Oxymoron. I’m just saying… Being a female in the male-dominated, corporate world of IT is an interesting thing. When I say interesting, I mean it in the same way that stabbing yourself in the eye with the pointy end of a sharp pencil might be interesting. More accurately, it’s frustrating. Even more to the point, it makes me crazy.

Let me mention a couple of things up front here. One, I am not a feminist. By that I don’t mean that I subscribe to some theory that my brain is somehow less functional than any man’s brain. In fact, I’d venture that my brain would outperform a lot of my colleagues, particularly at my current engagement. However, I do understand that men and women are different and, most of the time, I celebrate those differences. Two, I am not male bashing. I like most males, my husband and my two sons, in particular. It just so happens that it is the men in my little corporate IT world who are behaving poorly.

We had a meeting yesterday. I was the only female in a room of ten people. We were discussing a database copy solution that might work for our backups. It’s a simple concept really. This package allows us to make a copy of the whole database, using pointers and deltas only, so we take up a lot less space than the actual database and we can use different resources to perform the backups. It’s a good strategy. When we move a database around, though, we have to change the instance name, and that touches every single record.

I asked a question, to our Subject Matter Expert on the phone, regarding the space usage for deltas created by this instance name change. I got seventeen different answers from the folks in the room, not a single one of which actually answered my question. They ran over each other trying to explain to me why the database wouldn’t be unavailable for any length of time, why the deltas would be stored on our production instance, and other such nonsense. I tried, on at least five separate occasions, to clarify my question (which I asked quite succinctly in the first place) but they were all so busy answering what they thought I had asked that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

After about five painful minutes of this, one of them spoke up and said, “The space used to store deltas for the SID change might be significant… to answer your question.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “I thought perhaps I was speaking Greek.”

Confused stares all around. Eye roll from my camp.

For the rest of the meeting, no one observed anything close to Robert’s Rules of Order. People spoke out of turn, interrupted with great frequency, and I found myself not even wanting to jump in the fray. The couple of times I tried I was rewarded with someone interrupting loudly, and just increasing the decibel level if I tried to continue with my question or comment. It’s true, they interrupted each other, too. They talked over each other, too. But the tone is distinctly different. I don’t think it’s malicious. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t even think it’s conscious. It’s pretty subtle. But if you’re a woman in corporate life right now, I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Sociologists have been researching male/female communication for a long time and the evidence simply shows that men interrupt women, a lot. See the following from this Psychology Today article:

In fact, men often interrupt outright, and they do this far more frequently than women do, several studies have shown. Candace West and Don Zimmerman, sociologists at the University of California, recorded a number of two-party conversations. When men spoke with men or women with women, there were relatively few interruptions, and those that did occur were balanced between the two speakers. When men conversed with women, however, not only did more interruptions occur, but 96 percent of them involved men interrupting women.

I have found that when men interrupt other men, it’s usually in agreement. “Yep, know exactly what you mean.” “Right on, that’s the spirit.” “Yes, I had that same situation occur.” If you watch for a long period of time, it’s pretty rare that they interrupt each other to disagree with a point someone is making. They tend to wait until someone gives up the floor. In my situation, though, the interruption is almost always in disagreement, and it’s usually before I have even finished my thought or point in its entirety. While I don’t think it’s intentional, I do think it’s rude. For as far as we have come, corporate etiquette still needs a makeover.

I used to sit back and steam over the fact that I could never finish a sentence. I don’t do that anymore. I say something like, “I’m sorry, I’d like to finish that thought.” or “Hold on just a minute, you didn’t let me finish.” I’ve even gone so far as to say, on one occasion, “Have you not learned Robert’s Rules of Order?” The unfortunate thing about this communication issue is that the differences are still fairly glaring. If a man says, “Hold on just a minute, you didn’t let me finish,” he’s assertive, aggressive, a good candidate for a go-get-’em position in the company. If a woman does it, well… you know what they call us. From the same article in Psychology Today:

That women express their thoughts more tentatively and work harder to get someone’s attention probably says something about their conversational experience with men–experience along the lines of what Derber, Fishman, West and Zimmerman have documented. Moreover, women may have internalized men’s assumptions that what they have to say isn’t very interesting or intellectually rigorous. This hesitancy then becomes the norm for “proper” feminine speech. Lakoff deplores this situation, noting that “a woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.” She is “ostracized as unfeminine by both men and women” if she speaks directly and assertively but dismissed “as someone not to be taken seriously, of dim intelligence, frivolous” if she adopts the traditional style and role.

Listen up, ladies — if you want respect in the workplace, speak your mind. They’ll deal with thinking you’re abrasive better than they will deal with thinking you’re weak. And men? Stop interrupting! Give the women at your workplace the same courtesy you give men. I get that it’s not conscious. Start making a conscious effort to NOT do it. Because you’re losing a tremendous amount of talent and so many great ideas in the cacophony of your own voices.

That’s just one of the reasons women are leaving Corporate America in droves.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda permalink
    April 27, 2007 11:17 am

    I love this! Intelligent and well written and right on the mark! I see this happen not only at work, but in many other areas of my life as well. My problem is that I tend to always back down rather than speak up. So, I guess if I keep doing what I’ve always done then I should expect to keep getting what I’ve always gotten.

  2. April 27, 2007 1:17 pm

    Oil and Gas industry….I will choose at this moment to not let my blood boil due to the molecules in my body creating friction from their enthusiastic agreement.

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