Q: My company works with external clients that are mostly men later in their careers. Several women have reported that these clients comment inappropriately on their appearance or don’t take them seriously. I’m a man on this team, and more junior to my female colleagues. Clients often ask me for information when the project lead is actually one of the women in the room. This isn’t a good place for me to be. What can I do to support my colleagues?
A: Unfortunately, these situations are not uncommon, and kudos to you for being aware and wanting to rectify the sexist and unprofessional behavior—even from a customer. Companies can’t influence external clients’ behavior as easily as they can internal employees via training, coaching, or other performance management techniques. There’s also a concern for preserving the business relationship while supporting employees and creating a comfortable work environment. People like you—and your whole team—can make a huge difference in how customers perceive team members by having clear responses to this kind of behavior.
Reinforce the expertise, level, and contributions of the women on your team. If someone addresses you as the project lead, a great response would be, “I’ll tell you who can give you the best answer—Katrina. As the project lead with 15 years’ experience, she has faced challenges exactly like this.” This way, you’re reinforcing your colleague’s role, title, and experience and redirecting the conversation without explicitly confronting the client on his potentially sexist assumptions. You aren’t fighting her battles, just redirecting in a non-confrontational way and demonstrating supportive behavior. If the client has—intentionally or otherwise—mistaken you for the more senior person, do not play into it. Your colleague can answer the question and then ask you for additional insight: “Manny, is there anything else you’d like to add?” This creates a very partnership-oriented presentation, while still establishing the hierarchy of roles on the team.
When beginning meetings, reinforce who’s who at the start. Often, the more junior person arranges things on email and communicates with the client, resulting in confusion about who’s who, so opening with role reminders is helpful. Physical positioning can also be a visually impactful reminder of each person’s role; perhaps the project lead sits at the head of the table, while her second in command sits to her right. The roles individuals play within the meeting itself can influence how they’re perceived. Who brings in the water? Who distributes the agenda? Who takes notes? Who redirects the topic? Obvious hierarchy can be a great influencer of behavior.
If a male client comments on a woman’s appearance, ignoring them can be a good strategy. By not engaging with or acknowledging that kind of commentary, you reduce the likelihood of it continuing. If someone says, “Isn’t Katrina hot?”, ignore the appearance-based comment and say, “She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with.” Ignore and redirect to another quality. Your goal is to create a norm that subtly—or not so subtly—everyone comes to understand and abide by. It may not happen instantaneously, but as the practice becomes the norm, there will be less incentive for this behavior or language to continue. If it doesn’t change, have a conversation with management. Your team can decide who will take the exhibitor of bad behavior aside and say, “We don’t comment on people’s appearance or say anything so clearly sexist.”
Retaining business is important but not to the point of condoning, reinforcing, or rewarding sexist behavior. Companies do encounter clients who only want to work with a specific kind of person, whether it’s a golfer working with another golfer or a university alum working with a fellow graduate of their alma mater. If it’s a potentially sexist situation, senior leadership will have determine what needs to be done to retain the business and support the individual. Companies will continue to encounter customers who only want to work with who they perceive to be “most important” person on the team, and not all organizations can fire customers like this. The team will need to assess the chance of success and determine how the organization can support a woman who needs to work with this kind of client. You can’t force everyone to do the right thing, but hopefully you and your company will take on that battle.
Addressing these kinds of issues as soon as possible is crucial, as there’s a very real impact on internal culture. No, you can’t control external clients, but if internal employees see this behavior being tolerated, it sends a message about priorities in senior leadership. Reinforcing your colleague’s expertise and reshaping cultural norms by not engaging with sexist commentary is a great place for someone in your position to start supporting women in the workplace.