Ask the grumpies: My boss is kind of implicitly sexist (or maybe credentialist)– what do I do?

Telecommuting Guy asks:

I work (telecommute long-distance) for a small company as a developer.  The organizational structure is very flat– there’s the owner/boss, then as a developer I have a boss for programming but not for other aspects of the job.  Essentially I have one guy as my boss for programming but in all other aspects, the owner/boss is my direct boss.  Unfortunately the boss/owner is kind of a jerk.  Fortunately I only really have to deal with him when we’re working on grants and a few other things.  Recently we were working on a grant, and, as is the case for many companies in my field, the only woman employed at the company and the only person without a PhD (other than the clerical work that our company out-sources) is the grant-writer.  During our conference calls on this project, it was obvious that the boss was extra jerky when talking with her. (Not explicitly sexist, but frequently short and condescending in a way that was noticeable, especially compared to how he treated everyone else.)  I don’t like this, but I’ve only been employed at this company for a little over 6 months.  I don’t feel like I can address it to the boss directly.  The chain of command isn’t really through my programming boss– he only gets final say on code, not anything else.  I want to be a good guy because I care about making tech more equitable, but when push comes to shove, I find I’m too worried about my own employment stability to make any waves.

I enjoy this job, for the most part, and it would be difficult to find another one that fits my skills and allows me to telecommute (which I need to do because my wife is a tenured [humanities] professor in a small town –we don’t want to go back to living apart).  Is there anything I can do that would help but won’t get me fired?  Also, the grant writer does great work and the company has been very successful with grants.

Oh gee, that’s a tough one.  Probably Wandering Scientist is a better person to ask.

In an ideal world, you’d be able to just go up to your boss (or, better, your manager, and then your manager talks to the boss) and address this issue straight-on, discussing implicit bias, and how important it is that such a great employee as your grant-writer is valued and feels valued.  (Using your Crucial Conversations skills.)  You would help make sure there were systems in place that would encourage a great work environment for everyone.

This is not an ideal world.  You haven’t been with the company long.  Your boss is kind of a jerk and you don’t know how he’ll react if you bring anything like this up.  And, on top of that, you’re telecommuting.

You probably don’t want to bring it up directly with the grant-writer either.  It might make her feel worse (though it might also make her feel less gas-lighted), or encourage her to find new employment, which might be better for her, but maybe not so good for the long-term viability of the company at which you work.  Also, gossip also has a way of getting around and it sounds like you can’t afford it to.

We will say that there are things that you can do to help your colleague feel more valued.  When she says things that are ignored and then repeated by someone else, say, “Yes, that’s just what [grant-writer] was saying,” or “[Grant-writer] made that point too.”  When she does great work, thank her.  Say good things about her work to other colleagues.  After each grant has been sent off, send her a thank-you email detailing what great work she did and cc the boss in.

Other than that, we don’t know what to suggest.  Perhaps as you gain seniority it will become easier to speak up.  Or maybe someone else will speak up and you can back them up.  We wish we had better advice for you.  #2 thinks you should submit to Ask A Manager, and pronto.

Grumpy Nation, what would you do in this situation?  What would you suggest Telecommuting Guy do?

3 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: My boss is kind of implicitly sexist (or maybe credentialist)– what do I do?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I would make the female grant writer feel valued in a way she deserves. I had a jerky vp. He wasn’t sexist jerky, but jerky nonetheless. The way I got over it is the comradere and value I felt from my peers. People are often what makes or breaks a work experience. Be one of the ones that props people up. I don’t think you’ll be seen as confrontational by acknowledging good work once you feel comfortable to do so.

    There are about a million reasons he my be acting the way he is…not just sexism.(although it’s probably at least some of it). My husband works at a small company and everyone is related in some way. There are a lot of family dynamics that play into how people interact with each other and understanding that part might be important too in order to know what’s behind some of the unprofessionalism.

    I am not saying that condoning the behavior is right, but it doesn’t sound like you have all the facts yet and also you probably haven’t been around long enough to be heard. You yourself must establish your worth and value there before you can really be heard. I’ve been a my place of employment for almost 20 years, so when I say stuff, it is listened to more often than a new hire’s voice. I think a little time is needed before you can rock the boat if that’s what you want to do and you should know the people well enough to be able to better predict the consequences of saying something. Get to know your team better. That’s sometimes hard to do remotely but it’s good advice for any job. It can only help you navigate your environment better. If you can get some face to face time with your team do it. Go out to dinner with people, etc. I am a remote employee and getting face time is a good thing.

    In the mean time, you have control of the way you treat people and you can do that now.

  2. Cloud Says:

    Hi- I’m the Wandering Scientist the Grumpies reference in their post. I think they think I’d be a good one to ask because I’ve spent a lot of time working with implicitly sexist people in tech and I’ve been a manager. I’m not sure I have much more wisdom than the Grumpies. I can say that as a woman on the receiving end of this nonsense, I really appreciate it when one of the men in the room clearly notices the nonsense, too. It is hard to convey that over the phone, though. The Grumpies’ idea of sending a thank you email and cc’ing her boss is a really, really good one. I still have printed copies of some of those I’ve received over the years- I keep them in a folder to review when I’m feeling particularly down at work.

    So, really, I think the action ideas the Grumpies present are the same I’d have, too. If there is an HR person at the company, you could try discussing this with him or her- but it sounds like there isn’t. Even if there is, I’d recommend waiting until you’ve been there long enough to have a feeling for whether or not the HR person is useful or just likely to undermine you with the boss. Some HR people can help the boss see their weaknesses and work on them. Others just kiss up. You’d want to know which sort you have before speaking up.

    I was going through my posts for my year in review post, and came across a post I wrote about a friend who was in a similar situation as the grant writer. Here it is, but it has no advice:

    I honestly have never seen this situation turned around. Sorry. When powerful men are jerks, the only things I’ve found that works is to get the hell out or decide to suck it up and ignore it.

  3. Rented life Says:

    I’m a telecommuter. Is they woman working at the main office or telecommuting as well? I’ve noticed phone meetings are extra rough on telecommuters and it’s easier to be jerky towards people in those situations. And if she is in the same room but you are not, you’re going to be treated pretty poorly for outright speaking up to the boss/owner. You aren’t there so you can’t “know.” I like the grumpies suggestions a lot. Know her team mates appreciate her work can go a long way.

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