There is nothing that changes the tone from professional to casual quite like a pet name. My mum calls me “darl”, my grandmother says “sweetie” and my friends tend to use “love”.
I get called “mate” a lot, but my female peers and friends get called a whole bunch of things, most of them in some way diminishing. I’m not talking about the insults, that’s too easy, but what about when something that sounds like an endearment?
“Sweetie”, “gorgeous”, “hun” and let us not forget the soft lean against our desks with a charming smile.
Yes, we have all seen this power play before.
I have seen my mother called “sweet” by a male superior before and I hear my friends talk about being told they are “looking good, babe”.
Good intentions are one thing, but this can go to the heart of your professional integrity. These names put us in a soft category, one which is less strategic and less about business.
Ashley Milne-Tyte, who records The Broad Experience, a must-listen to podcast, covered this in her latest episode and it got me thinking. Too often I see eye-rolls and hear sighs when women talk about being belittled in this manner. How do we counteract it?
I was recently at a dinner where a (female) CEO gave a speech. After she was done, not only did her male deputy correct her, and make a joke at her expense, when they were leaving he put his hand around her waist, and then on her bum.
This floored me. How could anyone think this was acceptable?
It was clear that part of their relationship was very friendly, but this was an egregious overstepping of the mark.
I asked a female company director about her experience in these situations. “Most people don’t know how to behave around senior women”, she told me and then recounted a plethora of stories where men thought they were being nice but were really shutting her down.
There are many ways to respond, and nothing ever works 100 per cent of the time. Sometimes a quick look or “don’t call me that” will work.
I have found small things can make a difference. Using a full name, for example, “Sarah” instead of “Sar” or “Nicholas” over “Nick”. It reminds people they are dealing with an adult in a work setting and keep the focus professional.
Alternatively, you might need to rip the bandaid off, and have an awkward conversation in front of all your colleagues, make it clear you will not accept putdowns at work. It can be scary, but you might even be surprised by the support you get from other people who had also seen unacceptable behaviour but weren’t sure how to respond to it.
For the more arrogant antagonist, you might have to make a formal complaint, even to the point of speaking to a lawyer if your workplace won’t take you seriously.
These issues will never be easy to deal with, but there is a genuine ripple effect of every firm rejection of anyone who puts women down.
Sometimes it can be the soft solutions that have the biggest impact.
Conrad Liveris is a workforce diversity specialist
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