The response from women to programs that are designed to create more opportunities for them can range from relief to anger.
Denial that there is a problem, or that they have ever been the target of discriminatory practices or exclusionary behaviour is a frequent and common response – particularly for more junior women, or women who work in very male dominated environments. I speculated on the reasons for this and came up with a few:
• Women have become quite used to their work environment: They recognise and respond to the behaviour and styles of their male colleagues as normal and familiar and do not recognise or accept that they have ever faced discrimination or sexism;
• Women at more junior levels may work in more gender balanced work teams: They have not experienced some of the dynamics and behaviour experienced by more senior women who frequently work with fewer women or in a more competitive and combative work environment;
• Women have a vested interest (and are socialised) to ‘fit in:’ Any program that focuses on women as a group highlights women’s ‘difference’ and may imply to some that they are in need of ‘help’ and ‘assistance’ because they are incapable of getting ahead on their own. This provokes a hostile, defensive and angry response that can potentially lead to resistance and unwillingness to engage.
• Women and men alike are hold unconscious bias and have been socialised and conditioned to think of themselves and other women according to stereotypical norms that are regarded as familiar and normal: When confronted by examples of bias and discrimination, it is literally, a ‘blind spot,’ thing they just cannot see. Hence it has no resonance.
• Young women in particular may be so used to ‘fitting in’ that they have adopted the behaviours, style of men and think of themselves as ‘one of the guys:’ They don’t recognise men do not fail to notice they are a woman. It is only when something happens that makes it very clear that they are different, perhaps the birth of a child, that they begin to differentiate themselves in any way and ‘see’ that they are different.
• It feels like an ‘even playing field’ until it’s not: It is only when women aspire to move into executive positions that they recognise that it is not enough to be good at what you do to succeed and wonder why they haven’t been noticed and rewarded for their efforts. Until then, there is no issue and the women don’t want to create one.
When we can better understand the perspectives of women, and empathise, it is far easier to respond and create programs that engage rather than alienate.