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Calgary writer Ximena González quit her job and changed careers after experiencing ambiguous incidents on the job.Dave Chidley

Fresh off her master’s degree in environmental design from the University of Calgary, Ximena González took a part-time job as a receptionist at a planning firm.

“I’m a migrant from Mexico and I did not have experience in Canada working in an office, so I took this job because it was somewhat related to my field,” she says. She hoped to get a foot in the door and build a career.

While she answered phones and cleaned the kitchen, she observed that another receptionist, an undergraduate student, was helping senior staff with reports – a task that could lead to meaningful experience and a promotion. Ms. González asked about it and was told, “She’s here to learn.”

Ms. González was dumbfounded. Meanwhile, another staff member said to her, inexplicably, “Finally, we have a receptionist without aspirations!”

When she asked her immediate manager (a woman) and then a higher-up male boss about doing similar work, she was turned down. “I started getting angry,” Ms. González recalls. “[I wondered], am I being discriminated against?”

But she couldn’t figure out how bias fit in the situation. After all, the other receptionist was a woman, as were some of the managers at the firm. Yet the top bosses were men. She wondered whether being a woman of colour who speaks with an accent might be a factor. Ms. González remembers thinking, “Maybe this girl is really smart; maybe I’m just dumb.”

She lasted a year at the job and now writes professionally about urban affairs, moving away from her original career path because of her concerns about the male-dominated planning and architecture industry.

To this day, Ms. González is not sure she was a victim of discrimination.

According to a 2023 study published in Sociological Science, co-led by Laura Doering, associate professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, ambiguous incidents at work are very common, more so than overt discriminatory acts.

“There is an uncertainty that a lot of women have to live with, and they have to manage it,” says Dr. Doering of her study titled: “Was It Me or Was It Gender Discrimination? How Women Respond to Ambiguous Incidents at Work.”

The study found that when women aren’t sure whether something happened because of bias, they turn inward and try to change themselves.

“It’s a really heavy burden to carry,” says Dr. Doering.

Stress and exhaustion

When a woman gets skipped over for a promotion or isn’t invited to a key meeting, they may ruminate on it, wondering if the successful candidate was simply more qualified or the meeting just wasn’t in their purview. When someone speaks over a woman in a meeting, they may wonder: Was I too quiet or not articulate enough?

These anxious musings “are another form of cognitive labour that women are performing, silently and unknowingly,” says Dr. Doering.

She conducted the study with Jan Doering, her husband and assistant professor of sociology at U of T, and András Tilcsik, professor of strategic management at Rotman and Canada Research Chair in Strategy, Organizations and Society.

The team interviewed 31 professional women, conducted an online survey of 600 women and did an experiment where researchers asked women how they would respond to certain workplace situations. “Our findings demonstrate that ambiguous incidents are salient, common and consequential for professional women,” the researchers concluded.

The study found that when there is overt discrimination, such as sexist jokes or other forms of sexual harassment, women are more likely to take actions to make others aware of the problem. But when they are not sure whether something is discrimination, they change themselves.

Like Ms. González, women in these situations quit their job or change careers. They get coaches, seek more training or get makeovers. They spend time questioning themselves, and this “turning inward” often leads to stress and exhaustion, Laura Doering says.

“People feel very isolated, dealing with these concerns on their own. When we were interviewing people for this study, they said, ‘Thank God someone is finally asking me about this. I have so much to tell you.’ People were unburdening themselves in ways that I had never experienced before as a researcher.”

A need for ‘low-stakes’ pathways

One big worry among women who have experienced ambiguous incidents is that they’ve become paranoid and now see sexism at every turn.

“If you experience microaggressions on a regular basis, you start to feel primed for it,” says Annika Lofstrand, partner at Vancouver-based human resources consulting firm Leda HR.

Some people can become overly sensitive, notes Ms. Lofstrand, but she says that in her experience, ambiguous incidents usually mask real bias. Leda HR conducts focus groups and audit sessions at organizations to get feedback about companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, and Ms. Lofstrand says that women often reach out to them afterward, saying they didn’t want to share their concerns in front of the group.

“They have had a personal experience that wasn’t clear to them, and they’re wondering if they should attribute it to their gender,” she says.

Dr. Doering’s study found that ambiguous incidents can put women into a difficult position: They may want to discuss it with a manager, but they worry it will feed into stereotypes of women as overly emotional and may damage their career prospects.

To mitigate these fears, Ms. Lofstrand encourages managers to have more conversations about these topics, working through their discomfort and considering things from different perspectives.

Dr. Doering thinks companies need pathways for employees to raise small issues without triggering a big, punitive process.

“There has to be a way for women and others to share concerns in a low-stakes way, so confidentiality on both sides is protected,” she says. “Some of these things may be legitimate misunderstandings.”

There’s a real cost for organizations that let ambiguous moments go unchecked, says Dr. Doering. “When employees are suffering or crying in the bathroom, they aren’t being as productive.” Retaining talented women will be a challenge if they burn out and ponder changing to a less stressful and confusing environment.

It’s never easy to fully understand every situation, she adds, but employees shouldn’t have to wonder alone whether there’s been unfairness on the job.

“There are nuances and ambiguities in experiences,” says Dr. Doering. “We need workplaces that can account for that.”

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