A reader writes:
My new boss is an elder in his church which has very old-fashioned beliefs about women. They believe that the role of women is to obey their husbands unquestioningly and more or less only speak when spoken to, at least when there is a man present.
I don’t have a problem with him being a church elder, but I am worried that his church’s beliefs about women may affect how he sees (or more importantly, doesn’t see) women in the workplace.
I am one of only two women who report to him, and the other woman who reports to him is a shy person who never speaks up about anything anyway.
I am the most senior level employee in our unit, with over a decade of experience doing cutting-edge innovation in a highly technical field. I notice that in meetings my boss immediately gives uptake and attention to ideas thrown out by very junior level male colleagues who are not even fully trained in their current roles. He does let me speak, but I might as well not have, because nothing I say ever seems to have any effect on the topic under discussion. Everybody just moves on to the next (male) person’s comments after I say anything. It makes me feel invisible.
I’m not so new to the workplace that I’ve never seen this kind of thing before, particularly in a relatively male-dominated field. But even when I schedule an appointment for a private meeting with my new boss, the work-related topic that I made the appointment to discuss gets almost no airtime at all, and the meeting quickly turns to friendly workplace banter about home and family. (“How’s your Dad doing since his surgery?” “Did you notice that the daffodils are coming up early this year?” “My son is learning to play the trumpet; don’t you have a son who plays the trumpet too?” etc., etc.)
I’m really starting to wonder if his religious views make it impossible for him to actually see or hear women in roles other than obedient wife and homemaker. I could use some ideas for how to handle this other than by looking for another job. (I have worked there for 13-1/2 years and only need to work there for 1.5 more years to be vested in the pension plan, so this would be a bad time for me to leave financially.)
I wrote back and asked whether the company has competent HR and what the letter-writer’s sense is of how much the rest of management might share her boss’s views. The response:
HR: I don’t really know. I avoid HR as much as possible. There is an HR director who seems like a very smart person but the few times I’ve been in meetings with him he always acts like he is much too busy to be bothered with unimportant things like the meeting we’re in.
Generally: I think executive management is conservative but doesn’t want to take controversial positions on anything. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be seen as biased against religious employees. But for the most part the official position is that religion doesn’t belong in the workplace.
I think you’re going to have to go to HR on this — because what your boss is doing is sex discrimination, it’s illegal under federal law, and if your company has any sense it’s going to want to put a stop to it because of the legal liability he’s creating for them.
But before you do that, spend some time documenting every instance of you can of times and ways he has treated you differently than men, or seems to be basing his treatment of you on your gender.
The complaint you’re taking to HR isn’t “my boss is an elder in a sexist church and I’m worried it’ll influence how he manages me.” Rather, it’s “my boss demonstrably treats me differently than he treats men, and here is a list of what that looks like.” So start making that list.
If you want, you could also try addressing this directly with your boss — “I appreciate you asking about my family, but I’m hoping to spend our time today talking about Work Topic X” and “I’m finding that my ideas in meetings generally are ignored in favor of ideas from junior trainees — what should I be doing differently?” and so forth. I’m skeptical that it will change anything, but it’s worth seeing how he responds, if only because it will give you more data and the ability to answer “yes” if you’re asked if you’ve tried speaking to him about it directly.
Ultimately, though, I think you’d be well-served by speaking with an employment lawyer for guidance. Talking to a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re preparing to sue or that things will go in that direction. A lawyer can advise you on what documentation will be most compelling, how to approach your company when it’s time, and whether and how to mention the religious element, and can guide you in the background through your entire dealings with your company. They can also help you decide what outcome you want — because even if this guy begrudgingly agrees to toe the line, a boss who only treats you as equal to men because he’s forced to isn’t a boss who will be great for your career, and a lawyer can help you figure out what you want in that regard and how to negotiate it.
At some point you might decide you want the lawyer to play a more up-front role, but just having someone guide you behind the scenes can be incredibly useful when you’re dealing with clear and obvious discrimination by someone with power over you.