When Fixing Is The Wrong Thing

There is an issue that pops up often in situations where a person works in job that is considered primarily specific to a gender that is opposite their own.  This would include things like women in IT or men in nursing.

That issue comes down to culturally excusing what is essentially a form of sexist behavior.  And both genders participate in it.

The quote to the right is how many of us who are in “gender inappropriate roles” feel when we are expected to swallow what is quite obvious gender discrimination.

Sadly, even those who are willing to stand up and fight such behavior can fall into these culturally normative behaviors.

Recently, I had an interaction with an IT customer service representative.  It went badly, to be honest.  It is extremely difficult when describing the interaction to someone who was uninvolved with the conversation, how it was blindingly obvious to me that the representative was dismissive and condescending. Additionally, his first reaction to my request was not to refuse due to policy constraints, but to refuse because it was “far too complex to discuss with you over the phone.” Had he opened with “I’m sorry, ma’am, our policy prohibits your request,” I would have been disappointed, but would have thanked him for his time, and wished him a nice day.

Instead, he chose the value judgement.

Speaking to family members about the issue brought up some responses that, again, are culturally normative but not necessarily a good cultural norm.

My father, for example, asked me to allow him to discuss the situation with the company involved.  I’m sure that he made this request because he was unsure how my interaction with the company would reflect on his own relationship with them.  I can understand that concern, but from a professional standpoint the simple fact that he is my father would add a rather negative connotation to the discussion. I was interacting with the company with my work experience, and from under my professional hat.  Allowing my father to essentially “ride to my rescue” reflects badly on my own professionalism, and would undermine the specific concern I had with this particular representative.  Instead of being a valid critique of the specific representative’s customer service skills (given my own experience being technical support), it would become “See? Women don’t belong in IT. She can’t fight her own battles.”

Given my personality, can you really see me actually hiding behind my father’s coat-tails?

My sister, as well, brought up a very culturally normative response.  While we discussed it further, I was able to explain some of my reasoning, but not persuade her to agree with my assessment. When I quoted the above to her, she responded with “that may be true, but you have to go back to one with each new person.”

This is where the discussion ends up becoming frustrating.  You can describe the tone of the discussion, the non-verbal ques that make it very obvious what is going on, but still the culturally approved reaction is to excuse the behavior for any number of reasons, including that the representative may have had a bad day.

I understand this.  IT help desk is a grueling job.  It is day-in-and-day-out dealing with people who probably should never have been allowed to even LOOK at a computer, let alone own one.  It’s one of the reasons why there are so many jokes about people who call for technical support.

HOWEVER, no matter how bad your day is or how close you are to the end of the day or how many complete idiots you may have spoken to in the last hour or any of a million other excuses, you cannot and should not allow that to infect your interaction with a customer. I’ve been fired from technical support jobs for allowing my emotions to color my interaction with the customer.

Customer service representatives, of which IT help desk people are STILL a part of, are expected to be able to suspend their emotions from their interactions with the public.  If they are unable to do this, they are given a little slack to allow them to calm down from a particularly bad experience, so they can take the next call in the correct frame of mind.

I learned this a long time ago when I was working as a receptionist or secretary.  Forcing that smile, and offering a cheerful voice was a requirement of the job, same as with customer service representative.

But, if someone is particularly obvious – during the conversation – to be dismissive as soon as he found out I was a woman, I am still expected to excuse his behavior.  I am expected to swallow his lie that the process we were discussing (which I have done before in a business setting repeatedly) was “far too complex to discuss” with me.

And, yes, he was polite in those first few seconds, until I introduced myself as a woman (with a name like Catherine, it is highly unlikely that I would be a man).  At that point, his voice became both dismissive and condescending.  Which means, yes, he was making a value judgement based on my gender.

But, again, from a professional standpoint, it is contraindicated for me to complain to his supervisors and state clearly and unambiguously that it was a sexist discussion.  Why? Because when a woman – regardless of her IT experience – complains about institutionalized sexism in IT we are automatically silenced.  Oh, we can scream and complain and fight, but it gets us no where.  Only framing the issue as a business faux pas gets any kind of corrective action.

And it isn’t any different for a man working in what is considered a woman’s job.  No matter how obvious the sexism is (and yes, women can commit a sexist act on a man…it simply requires her to have power and authority over that man), no changes will come unless the issue is framed not as a sexism issue, but rather a business-related issue.

My family doesn’t quite understand why I find these things to be so very frustrating, nor why I choose to try to point out the issues so they can be – hopefully – fixed.  They remind me to “choose my battles” but what they really mean is unless you or someone you love is being harmed you should just let it go.

In relation to certain subjects, I can’t let it go. My conscience won’t let me.  Not everyone has the willingness or personality to be the squeaky wheel. I do.  And I would feel like I was not being true to myself if I chose to ignore this kind of behavior.

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Categories: ethics, Feminism, Gender Inequities | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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