Pushing Back: How Women Can Influence Change in a Male-Dominated Workplace

October 31, 2016

Women often find themselves in a workplace culture dominated by traditionally male values, approaches to work, and ways of measuring success. To be included, accepted and advanced, women in a wide variety of professions, including finance, technology, medicine, and the law, must walk a fine line between seeking acceptance and ensuring equal treatment.

Too often, women face both overt and subtle barriers in their day-to-day working lives, such as:

  • Marginalization, including exclusion from social and networking activities
  • Sexist and harassing behavior
  • Implicit and unconscious bias
  • Pay inequity
  • Title inequity
  • Difficulties with, and retaliation for, taking family and pregnancy leave
  • Sexual harassment
  • Hostile work environment

In many male-influenced workplaces, putting one’s head down and doing great substantive work may not be enough: women must break through numerous obstacles placed in their path if they want hard work to lead to success. It can seem like both a Herculean and Sisyphean task, and pushing back can feel like an impossibility.

Knowledge Is Power When Defeating Barriers

The key to effective (and career preserving) push-back is knowledge regarding how best to apply pressure, where to focus efforts, and the protections afforded under the law to women who confront barriers head on. Consider, for example:

  • Retaliation is illegal: Many women may justifiably hesitate before pushing back for fear of retaliation, which can range from outright termination to marginalization or stalled advancement. The law is clear on this however: An employer cannot retaliate against an employee for raising matters related to discrimination or harassment.
  • State and federal laws protect women in the workplace: A myriad of laws protect women in the workplace. They include federal regulations such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, Equal Pay Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. States have passed their own laws, such as California’s Family Rights Act and Paid Family Leave Act, and New York’s Human Rights Law. And localities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles sometimes have even more protective ordinances. Many of the barriers that women confront in the workplace are illegal under these laws.
  • Find a mentor: Having a trusted mentor – either a woman or a man – within the organization can be a tremendous asset. He or she can be a sounding board and guide to addressing issues in the workplace. But “trusted” means trusted and one must think carefully about how much information to convey to a colleague since situations often change over time. Mentors outside the workplace offer an alternative solution. Look to your alumni association, women support groups, and industry groups for potential mentoring relationships.
  • Strength in numbers: Women often feel they must go it alone in confronting barriers in the workplace. This far from the case. There is strength in numbers, particularly when pushing back and seeking change. Many companies and organizations are creating internal coaching and discussion groups for protected classes of employees, including women.
  • Know whom to approach: It might seem that the HR department would be the best place to go when raising issues regarding discrimination, harassment, or other barriers in the workplace. This might not always be the case. Human resources employees often see their role as protecting the company, rather than employees. Where to go with your issues depends critically on the particular circumstances. Try to get trusted advice (ideally legal advice) on this important strategic decision.

Seek Legal Counsel, Even Just to Talk It Through

Before taking any action, consider seeking legal counsel. Our attorneys are happy to thoroughly discuss a client’s situation and offer advice on best strategic steps. We can provide perspective on how to push back and protect yourself in light of concerns about your career, possible reputational damage, and other professional concerns. Often just an hour or so talking things through reveals a path forward – one that is grounded in solid legal advice. If the matter is one that will require litigation to effect change, we can then serve as trusted allies.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)