How Women Deal With Potentially Discriminatory Behavior at Work When They Are Not Sure

A new study led by Laura Doering, an associate professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto, finds that women often feel emotional distress when they experience a potentially discriminatory incident at work but cannot classify it conclusively.

More than 2,000 women working in professional roles participated in the research through personal interviews, a survey, and a study where respondents were asked what they would do when faced with scenarios involving different levels of certainty.

Prof. Doering and two co-researchers found that women were more likely to speak up when they experienced what felt like overt discrimination, such as a supervisor assigning male workers a more challenging project while giving their female peer a less valued administrative task. But when women weren’t so sure — for example, when a supervisor might have overlooked a woman’s contribution because a phone rang while she spoke and he couldn’t hear her idea — the researchers found that they “turned inward,” doubling down on their own work habits and keeping the incident to themselves.

Researchers’ interviews show that women struggle with how to interpret and respond to ambiguous incidents. Survey data show that women experience ambiguous incidents more often than incidents they believe were obviously discriminatory. The research indicates that women anticipate responding differently to the same incident depending on its level of ambiguity. Following incidents that are obviously discriminatory, women anticipate taking actions that make others aware of the problem; following ambiguous incidents, women anticipate changing their own work habits and self-presentation.

“Not every ambiguous incident is discriminatory — some are simply misunderstandings,” said Dr. Doering “In order to adjudicate between discrimination and misunderstandings, we suggest that organizations look for patterns. Are people repeatedly sharing concerns about the same person or situation? If so, it’s worth investigating as possible cases of discrimination.”

Dr. Doering is a graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she majored in psychological and brain sciences. She holds a master’s degree in international social development from the University of New South Wales in Australia and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago.

The full study, “Was It Me or Was It Gender Discrimination?” How Women Respond to Ambiguous Incidents at Work,” was published in the journal Sociological Science. It may be accessed here.

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