I keep saying how important it is to apply the zero tolerance rule.
But why zero tolerance? Why not accept small deviations that don’t hurt anyone?
The great advantage of zero tolerance is that it removes any room for doubt, it eliminates any grey area. Let’s take the example of alcohol consumption. At parties, we regularly ask ourselves: “I had 3 drinks in 5 hours, I am 60 kilos, am I within the limit? (You have 1 hour.)” Whereas if you take the option of not drinking at all, you don’t even have to ask yourself those questions, and you can enjoy the evening without taking any risks (and at this point, I’ve lost half of the readers.)
For sexism, the principle is the same.
We tend to judge the relevance of a comment (gossipy or “borderline”) by our own experience, except that it’s really important to understand that the level of acceptance will depend very strongly on the person we’re talking to, their past and their potential previous traumas. A person who has been harassed will certainly be much more sensitive to biased remarks.
In the same way, one should not assume that just because a slightly biased joke seems to be well taken, that it doesn’t cover a deeper problem.
It is very difficult to differentiate between a person who appreciates a joke because he or she went to engineering school (for example) and is accustomed to this humor, and one who will keep quiet to fit in with the group, but feels strongly attacked. So, you might ask, how do you do it? Well, simply by refraining from making potentially sexist jokes. Try using the famous “would I say that in front of my sister/mother/wife?” trick.
The accumulation of these jokes not only puts the majority of women in an uncomfortable position, it sustains a culture where women are only welcome if they adapt to the group.
Indeed, if the only way to be accepted by a group is to abide by the prevailing sexist humor, you run the risk of not having the true diversity of thought that is so important to the team and for which women were recruited.
And I’m going to pause for a few seconds to give you time to hit me with the killer argument, “We can’t say anything anymore! “
You might think, and rightly so, that it brings good spirit to make jokes in a team, and I’m the first to do so, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of one category of people, especially if that category is underrepresented in a group. So I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop using humor in the office, but that we avoid topics that may offend others.
It is the role of each and every one of us to stop these practices.
Managers have a crucial role to play. The minimum, of course, is to set an example, but in addition to that, we have to make sure that everyone is aligned with the Zero Tolerance principle.
About 15 years ago, I was the Angola director of my company. Very quickly, I had been very clear on the fact that I wanted to be informed immediately of any incident that had to do with ethics, no matter how minor and regardless of the person’s position.
I was told one day that one of the young female engineers had literally broken down on the oil rig where she was assigned. She was regularly the victim of jokes, like the one time she found her safety boots painted in pink… Being a woman on a drilling platform requires a lot of strength of character, and I could totally understand that falling apart must’ve startled her, and made her feel like she wasn’t good enough. Each joke taken individually can potentially be accepted, but the accumulation, on top of the particular circumstance of being the only woman in the middle of the sea, in the middle of 80 good men, makes it much more complicated.
When she came to my office, not only did I believe her, reassuring her that her reaction was completely legitimate, but above all I acted. I called the director of the drilling company, who immediately decided to act on his end.
In another similar case, not knowing how to contact the manager of the company involved in the complaint, I simply went to his office, unannounced, to tell him about the incident. Once the initial surprise passed, he also took action.
These incidents sent a very strong message to the teams that not only these behaviors were unacceptable in our company, but also that victims would be listened to if they encountered a problem.
I realize that these are pretty extreme cases and I imagine that the majority of readers have never been on a rig or are not in a similar managerial position, but the principle remains the same, regardless of the work environment. Any incident should be treated with the appropriate level of severity, no matter how minor it may seem, and at the right level of the hierarchy.
So I suggest that you take a moment to observe what is going on in your department, keeping an eye out for non-inclusive behaviors, to not only correct your own behavior but also to explain to your colleagues how theirs may be offensive. The general atmosphere of the team will be much better.