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Maia Grecco

You’re sitting in the lunchroom after a few men in your office have just conducted an interview for a new employee. They comment on her appearance, snickering that the office could use “another good-looking girl.”

You cringe on the inside, but how do react outwardly? Do you laugh along, because it’s the path of least resistance? Would your workplace take these issues seriously if you were to speak up?

It’s a choice that many employees, especially women, have to grapple with far too often.

How did we get here?

“The reality is men lead about 95 per cent of the most powerful companies in Canada. And they continue to have power over women’s careers, as well as their physical and psychological safety in the workplace,” says Vandana Juneja, executive director at Catalyst, the Canadian branch of a global non-profit helping women progress in the workplace.

Because historically men were the ones out working, they were the ones who first created workplace culture and practices. Bro culture – a young, mostly-white, party-after-work culture often involving sexist wisecracks – can have negative impacts on women throughout their careers, from alienation to harassment.

Alison Gordon, co-founder of boutique sales agency Other People’s Pot and former CEO of cannabis company 48North, says she has seen the systemic effect of bro culture in her past as a female CEO.

When she had to tour around for investor meetings, many of them would happen in emptied-out hotel rooms, with nothing but a headboard, chairs and a table.

“I would sit by myself at a table that they put in there, and then men would just come in for 20 minutes,” Ms. Gordon says. “I would do my spiel, and it was always very weird to me to be in this room with the door shut.”

Why did it go down like that? Because it had always been done that way. And while Ms. Gordon notes this practice was likely not malevolent in nature, at the end of the day it wasn’t comfortable for her as a woman.

Why are we still here?

With so much focus on healthier workplace cultures in the wake of COVID-19, and new diversity and mental health initiatives from employers, it can be puzzling to see how bro culture continues to persist in a variety of industries.

“It’s worth noting a lot of men, especially younger men, don’t subscribe to these values and behaviours and they may also feel demotivated [and] marginalized in these environments,” says Wendy Cukier, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Ryerson University and founder and director of the school’s Diversity Institute.

“So, it’s certainly not just women who suffer. I think, arguably, it’s everybody.”

According to recent research from Catalyst, 94 per cent of men surveyed experience masculine anxiety – the distress men feel when they do not think they are living up to society’s rigid standards of masculinity – at work. And, 28 per cent said they would be likely to do nothing if their colleague makes a sexist comment.

What can be done?

When it comes to the question of whether women should try and take on bro culture in the office, Ms. Juneja says, “the solutions can’t just be on women.”

“It’s not about fixing the women, it’s about fixing the workplace,” she says.

This means looking at creating gender partnerships where everyone works toward solutions together. That can mean connecting through employee resource groups or mentorship programs, for example.

Organizations and employees also need to nurture workplace cultures of inclusion where diversity is valued. Ms. Cukier says it has to be more than the typical unconscious bias training.

“It’s something that has to be reinforced virtually every day in how leaders lead, how people treat each other, what gets rewarded and what gets prioritized,” she says.

Lastly, Ms. Juneja says it’s important to engage senior leaders – who are often men – in education and allyship.

“If you’re trying to create a change in the culture, why wouldn’t you go to the very top of the house where people have influence?”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: My team leader interrupts and talks over me during meetings. It is reducing my ability to be heard and affecting my mood at work, and I’m not sure if they are even aware they are doing it. I really like my job – how should I handle this?

We asked Fotini Iconomopoulos, negotiation advisor and author, Say Less Get More, to answer this one:

This is such a common issue and can be immensely frustrating which can also affect your credibility. There are a few approaches that can help – especially with someone who doesn’t realize they’re doing it.

The easiest way to manage this issue is to prevent it. When you’re going into a situation where they’ll be tempted to jump in, get ahead of it by saying “I know you’ve got loads to add. In order to help me establish some presence with the group, I would appreciate if you’d let me express my entire idea first.” If it happens anyway, you can speak up for yourself in the moment with, “Thanks for your interest, I’m keen to hear your thoughts right after this next part.” It’s easier to have an ally in the room to prepared in advance to jump in and say, “I’d love to hear more about what Fotini started sharing.”

If they’re still unaware, then have a private conversation but keep it objective, no finger pointing: “When this happened, this is what resulted,” making that result something of interest to them. “We didn’t look like a united front,” or, “When that happens with a client, they may start going over my head, flooding your inbox instead of coming to me.” Asking for their help will also boost their ego and motivate them to fix the problem: “I could really use your help making sure they respect me.” Turn it into a problem-solving opportunity instead of blaming or getting defensive.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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