Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person that they are and not a stereotype or an image.
Many spaces in the United States continue to operate in a way that thinks of gender and sex as binary, assuming that all humans as either male or female. Science does not support this. (You can read more here.) However, many of our social norms are built on this two-dimensional understanding of humans. Stereotypes around “male” and “female” continue to underlie many of our power dynamics in shared spaces.
As mentioned last week, stereotypes harm our ability to create healthy community. Instead of expanding our knowledge when we meet someone new, we refuse to see the other person as anything but our assumptions. The stereotype wraps around the comfort of the stereotyper, which is not the stereotyped person’s job.
Meet Rana and George
Rana is a 37-year-old first generation, (Southeast Asian) Indian, cisgender female who was raised Hindu. She has been keenly aware of the differences between gender-power dynamics in the US and her family’s culture, because they have always clashed horrifically.
Rana has noticed that her family’s underlying beliefs in gods and goddesses has influenced her assumption that “power” does not belong to any one gender. Those identified as female in her family have always been expected to pull their weight in leadership and in influencing others with their ideas. In school, even in her program at Harvard, and on every job she has ever had, she has been shocked by all of the ways female voices have been subject to male approval or denial. It makes her sick.
George is a 30-year-old cisgender, Caucasian male. He is on a team with Rana at their company and really wishes he wasn’t. He’s not sure why, but he finds her incredibly abrasive and domineering. Why can’t she see him as competent? Afterall, he graduated from Yale. Instead, she takes over in meetings, talks for as much of the time as she possibly can and afterward always wants to go on and on about something he said or didn’t say, and how he said it. He just wants to do his job without all of this drama.
Cleanup in conference room five…
In their most recent client meeting, George found himself totally frustrated with Rana. It seemed like she just would not stop talking. She talked over him at one point and it seemed like she was trying to embarrass him in front of the client. He tried to smooth it over with a joke but she shot daggers out of her eyes at him. She just doesn’t seem to understand what it takes to build rapport with clients and he is tired of fixing her messes.
Rana took George aside after the meeting and told him that she didn’t appreciate the way he belittled her in front of the client. She told him that his incessant habit of trying to box her out of the dialogue was unprofessional and counter-productive.
George seemed taken aback by Rana’s assertions. He shot back, “Hey, I was trying to repair the rapport that you compromised! If you aren’t thick-skinned enough to take a little teasing, that’s your problem.”
This made Rana livid. Her face flushed and her eyes flashed. She wanted very badly to yell back at him, but she knew that reducing herself and acting like George would work against her point. She turned on her heel and left.
“Oh good God, Rana!” George raised his voice even more as she walked out of the door. “That’s right, drop a bomb and walk away. You just have to have all the power in every conversation!”
So first of all, right now as you read this, are you sifting through in your mind to determine who’s right and who’s wrong? As mentioned previously in this space, “The court of human relationships does not pivot on justice; it pivots on connection.” Justice will not make this situation one drop better.
In fact, even if one could determine justice here, its application would work directly against greater understanding and respectful collaboration between these two people. It’s the wrong conversation.
If George and Rana want to be more effective, they need to both hear and be heard by the other person. They need to try to understand what the world looks like through the other person’s eyes. If they both do that, they will both become better, more flexible people, and much more respectful colleagues. At that point their strengths will complement each other’s, multiplying their positive impact.
Ok — your turn! What are the ways you see stereotypes getting in the way of Rana and George’s professional efficacy and job satisfaction? Jot them down quickly and let’s consider together.
Here are some that I see:
- Rana’s experience of Caucasian men leaves her expecting George to disregard her and to assume that leadership just naturally belongs to him. Her anger is multiplied by all of the ways this dynamic has harmed her and created a culture that marginalizes people.
- George has been taught that opportunity in the US is equal for all, and his personal experiences seem to support this. (He doesn’t realize that he is treated differently than others.) He assumes that he and Rana have equal opportunity and that Rana is demanding more “airtime” because she is controlling and pushy.
*** Fun fact! Studies have shown that when male-identified and female-identified people contribute equally in dialogue, female-identified people are perceived to be speaking much more than their male-identified counterparts.) ***
- George assumes that Rana is walking out of the room as a way to assert dominance because that’s what she’s like. In truth, Rana is leaving the room so that she doesn’t lose control and eviscerate George.
- Rana is keenly aware that if she expresses anger at George she will face potential career backlash. She will be evaluated negatively on performance reviews and be told that she is not a “team player.” She also knows that George’s lack of professionalism including his angry, condescending outbursts does not put his professional reputation at any risk at all. In fact, she has noticed that this behavior in cishet men has been attributed as “strong leadership.” As if this wasn’t enough, Rana is also aware that George is completely oblivious to all of these truths that she must navigate around so carefully.
- George is blind to his own cultural values around competition. He has been competing for a place in everything from who was first in the lunch line in elementary to who got the latest promotion at work. Without ever thinking about it consciously, he assumes that Rana sees life the same way.
- In contrast, Rana’s cultural biases are actually collectivist, valuing the “we” as more important than the “I.” (Read more about that here.) Rana assumes that her cultural bias toward the “we” is the “right” one, and that George is narcissistically choosing to violate social norms… that aren’t his social norms.
- Rana also assumes a value on relationship over results. George assumes a value on results over relationship. Both are supremely annoyed that the other is not playing by their rules.
I’d love to hear your observations of the interference of stereotypes in this scenario. Please send them to me here!
So now what??
If I were to tell George and Rana that they would enjoy their jobs more and be more successful if we sat down and talked about these dynamics, George would throw a fit, (all dressed up as the kind of “strong leadership” for which he is often praised.) Rana would likely be very skeptical that I could offer anything more than a band aid that encourages George to hide his true feelings instead of making substantive change.
To even initiate the dialogue, both parties have to see a benefit. Framing the conversation in a way that offers potential relief for the thing that annoys them about the other would be a great place to start.
Stay tuned for future blogs that will map out next steps! And let me know your thoughts as well. Let’s co-create a better, more effective future together!
How have stereotypes affected you? Share your stories here!