Q: I’m a college-educated, 30-year-old manager running the most profitable department of our company, always professionally dressed and well-mannered, but I can’t seem to avoid being called “girl” at work. If I work off-site, the team there will ask if I’m “the new girl.” It’s not uncommon for the male owner to say, “Girls, have a good sales day” or for the female HR director to ask, “You girls have a nice weekend?”

If I try to play it off with good-natured humor (“I’m a grown-up now, but yes, I’m excited to be here!”) or more direct responses (saying “I’m not a ‘girl’ ” while making direct eye contact, then resuming normal conversation), I get cold-shouldered or worse. How do I drag my company into 2019 without compromising my job?

A: Whether it’s referring to adult female colleagues as “girls,” addressing an adult black male colleague as “boy,” or asking a female law partner to serve cake to junior male colleagues, microaggressions are hard to call out for several reasons: They’re less overt than slurs or groping, they’re often unconscious, and people may question whether any harm was actually done. If you speak up, you’re accused of overreacting and policing language. But over time, those tiny cuts accumulate and drain away your dignity and confidence — so ignoring them isn’t a viable option, either.

So how do you safely “drag [your] company into 2019?” You can’t. There’s no magical incantation to update flawed mindsets without blowback.

Once you’ve freed yourself of that expectation, what you can do is make your boundaries clear until you decide it’s time to move on to a workplace that respects you as a professional.

In interpersonal encounters, there’s always the tit-for-tat swipe: “Yes, can one of you boys show me around?” But that assumes you’re dealing with people who have the self-awareness to laugh and learn. If you’re not confident in that assumption, try instead answering rude questions as though they were framed correctly: “I’m [name], I’m the new [title],” with a firm, friendly handshake. (Subtext: I’m not a “girl.” I’m a department head. With a name.)

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Whether your HR director has succumbed to the prevailing mind-set or is just awkwardly trying to be sisterly, she’s reinforcing a gender hierarchy that undermines the policies she’s supposed to endorse — and she’s fooling herself if she thinks her position makes her an exception to that hierarchy. Try enlisting her aid: “When [CEO] and off-site managers refer to us as ‘girls,’ it implies they don’t see us as professionals. I’d like to avoid using that term, even just among ourselves.”

If you have enough of a connection with the CEO to broach these concerns, emphasize the impact on the bottom line; share studies and data on how work environment affects productivity, and how even unintentional microaggressions damage morale and performance.

When it’s time to move on, use the opportunity to make a difference to those who come after you, says Annie Liao Jones, founder and CEO of Austin advertising agency Rock Candy Media. When Jones left her first job, she politely but frankly informed the CEO of her concerns about a manager who kept nudging Jones, a top seller, into behind-the-scenes “nurturing” roles: “When I left I said, ‘You’re never going to succeed with a sales manager that treats women that way. … It’s not good for your bottom line.’ “

Two years later, the CEO let her know he’d taken her words to heart, hiring an HR consultant and replacing the former manager. So even if you’re not going to be around to reap the benefits, says Jones, “you never know when you can change someone’s mind just by planting the seed.”

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace.
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace.