September 23rd, 2010 | 12:00 pm

Gender Discrimination: We’re Having the Wrong Conversations

filed under Office Politics

tannerkelly_6291_5x75-200x300By Kelly Tanner (New York City)

When it comes to gender discrimination in the workplace, we’re having the wrong conversations.

Three former employees of Goldman Sachs have filed individual and joint lawsuits alleging systemic gender discrimination and sexual harassment that resulted in a loss of pay and promotion opportunities, as well as humiliation and inappropriate behavior from fellow employees. In coverage of the case, which prosecutors are attempting to convert to a class action suit, the “salacious” nature of the unwelcome sexual advances detailed in the claim make for good entertainment, and allow bloggers and commenters alike to play the home-game version of judge and jury.

“Wow, 1997 — that’s a long time ago”, says David Lat, implying that the claim is irrelevant years later, and setting up his commenters nicely to write off the former Goldman’s employees as “whiny bitches.” These articles nearly all list the full names and former titles of the accusers and no identifying information regarding the discriminatory managers and harassers who created a hostile work environment in the first place. While they serve for great water-cooler gossip fodder in the current climate of news-as-entertainment, the coverage does little to address the question of why companies such as Goldman Sachs, that have invested time, money, and energy in diversity initiatives and recruitment and retention plans for women professionals, are still seen as environments women describe as “untenable,” as stated in the most recent suit.

Given the backlash, career-ending repudiation, and heckling media circus that results in such high profile cases such as these, should women even pursue sexual discrimination complaints in the first place? I suspect we may get closer to the answers by shifting the focus.

Critical People are Flawed

Goldman Sachs has responded publicly, stating the suit is without merit. Spokesman Lucas van Praag said, “People are critical to our business, and we make extraordinary efforts to recruit, develop and retain outstanding women professionals.” This is all undoubtedly true. People are generally crucial to any business, and Goldman’s diversity programs and initiatives are nearing 20 years of effort.

Unfortunately, critical people are also flawed, and some are arguably more highly evolved than others. We still live in a society in which women are perceived to be subjects to be looked at, evaluated, and judged, while men are perceived to be the one who do the looking and the judging. Many write this off as an inevitability and fall back on a dated “boys will be boys” mentality, and the vast majority of suggested solutions to the issue surround the various ways women can adapt their behavior to better accommodate men’s inability to adapt theirs. Countless articles on ways women can dress more conservatively at work, but not too conservative, but still use their physical femininity as a tool, but not overtly, and develop their own style, but make sure it conforms to all established male standards, dominate.

When a suit is filed, all eyes turn to the injured parties, to discuss – are they justified in feeling harassed? Did they invite attention? Do they have a history, inside or outside work, of trying to use their looks for their benefit? Why were they there, at the time they say this happened? Should they have handled it differently? Sooner? More directly? More formally? Should they just suck it up as part of doing business alongside men? Was it all, really, in “good fun”?

Most sexual harassment training consists of two hours of information every two or more years. In a world in which the lines between “being at work” and “not at work” are increasingly blurred, these two hours do little to effect actual change in a corporate culture. Training is to be endured, completed out of necessity, and then laughed about later.

But what if, instead of trying to fix the problem of women in the workplace, we tried to fix an environment so divided that one employee can describe it as untenable while another finds it harmonious? What if instead of a band-aid gesture of harassment training, schools, corporations, and media discussed openly the privilege of perception that comes from being of a certain gender, race, or class?

The Difference Between Numbers and Actions

Men who do not engage in open harassment of women in the workplace, and would not think of doing so, frequently are unaware that it happens at all, let alone regularly and habitually, because it happens out of their sight and is not reported. Detailed in the discrimination suit is an incident surrounding an unnamed male Goldman Sachs employee, who allegedly groped his coworker after a corporate celebration at a topless bar. Why would employees find it appropriate to plan, attend, or finance a celebration in an environment in which the primary function serves to place men in a position of privilege over women?

Likely because it never occurred to them to think of it that way, or to consider why such a gathering might be appropriate among friends but cast in a totally different light among people with a business relationship. When we consider our coworkers our friends, we may forget that our privilege and position give us advantages that do not allow those of the opposite gender to conveniently place such matters aside in the name of a “fun time,” especially when those privileges eventually result in better pay and promotions.

Despite diversity initiatives, many managers still instinctively feel that the best person for a job or promotion will be the person most like themselves, and they will surround themselves with acolytes of the same gender, class, and race, overlooking the worker who may, due to differences of experience, background and style, be more complementary and therefore better for the team’s performance. This begins to explain why in the Goldman’s suit, one claimant decries the “unchecked discretion to assign responsibilities, accounts and projects to their subordinates… The end result is that managers, whether based on conscious or unexamined bias, most often assign the most lucrative and promising opportunities, and ‘seats’, to men.”

It is no longer excusable for such biases to be unexamined, and everyone in a position to draw attention to discrimination should do so, publicly, openly, and in the moment it happens. Those uninterested in evolving and developing an understanding of privilege should be made to feel embarrassed and told to “man up” and realize it’s part of the job, just are women are told now when they are on the receiving end of bias.

Companies should take another look at their managers and employees and assess whether unchecked gender bias is weakening their organizations. Money and time invested in recruiting and onboarding top female talent is wasted if they ultimately leave the industry due to a hostile and unrewarding work environment. Because the risk of reporting harassment is so high and can end a career, we need a way of protecting those brave enough to come forward, and to reward those who do even when they are not the primary party involved.

20 years is a generation, and I will bet that Goldman Sachs, whose partners are reportedly now 14% women, looks a lot different and views itself differently than it did 20 years ago when its diversity programs began. Discrimination is less overt, yet privileged people are no more inclined to examine their biases because there is no immediate need, in their mind, to do so. Let’s put our focus where it belongs.

1 comment

  1. Kim

    I’m looking for a way to assess if a claim of individual bias against a person of the opposite sex in the workplace is evidenced. Situation is a woman complained anonymously that a male leader of the group is not treating her fairly. The claim is that she is being discounted because she is a woman when it actually may be that it is her lack of abilities that lead to ideas and comments being discounted. Are you aware of a methodology I can use withe the team to assess the dynamics and understand what is going on?