A few years ago, one of the top advisors in the country approached me at a cocktail party. It was the eve of the big event where I was thrilled to be one of the event’s keynote speakers.
He was a seasoned and congenial guy, and I believe genuinely interested in who I was, what I’d be speaking about. He asked where I was from (New York City) and then whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of him with a well-known female advocate for women’s rights.
“I’m a feminist,” he beamed proudly.
And the next sentence out of his mouth, I kid you not was this:
“So what does your husband do?”
I imagine that would make sense if I had been there with my husband, the keynote speaker. But my husband wasn’t there to do anything. He wasn’t anywhere. Because he doesn’t exist.
I was stunned by the question because I couldn’t believe people still asked that (though, granted, he had been asking it probably for as long as he could remember).
“My husband?” I asked. (You know I wasn’t going to let this go.) I raised my left hand, free of any and all jewelry. “What husband, Bob?” (His name is not Bob, btw.)
He started to stammer, “Oh I thought you said…”
Said what? In our brief first-ever conversation you imagined I had also talked about a husband I do not have in the five minutes we’ve been standing here talking about what a feminist you are? Mkay.
Now, this guy I was talking to is hardly public enemy #1. He was a perfectly nice guy. He wasn’t propositioning me for chrissakes. But this is precisely how women experience just this kind of thing—it’s rarely an over-the-top rude or aggressive thing (though that has happened to me, too, as I’m sure it has for you). It’s that a passing comment or presumption is like a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg, a very old iceberg that seems not to be budging nearly as quickly as we would hope. (I will add, having had many of these kinds of exchanges, I do wonder how it is that men find it so hard not to step in it when talking to a woman they don’t know).
In her fantastically cogent book The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work, Kate Eberle Walker outlines the very clear guidelines to managing, supporting, and advocating for women in the workplace that are so straightforward and obvious you can’t believe someone has to spell them out, but someone does, and thankfully Eberle Walker has.
Rule #1 Call her by her name (not sweetie, not honey, not young lady).
Rule # Don’t ask, “What does your husband do.” (Thank you.)
Rule #4 Don’t sit in her chair.
Rule #8 Be an equal opportunity asshole.
Eberle Walker says that for years she was ‘stuck in the mindset that women needed to learn how to adapt themselves to their environment to be successful…I was trying to change the way women played the game…What I needed to do instead was ask how we could change the game.” And we can do that not just by having female role models, but by asking all managers to advocate for women. Not by being superheroes or martyrs. But by following the basic, clear rules of decency, which she clearly lays out.
In the hair-trigger world we live in, it’s easy to think that “anything” you do will end up offending someone. It’s easy to throw up your hands and say “I give up! You can’t say anything these days! Sheesh!” But assuming that the world of work is an impossible minefield you will never successfully navigate is simply untrue—though it is a good excuse for not trying harder.
Eberle Walker makes it clear as day that while navigating the workplace (and the world) is increasingly complex, the rules are easy to follow and so common sense you can’t believe she has to say them (but I for one am so glad she has). The Good Boss is definitely worth checking out.
And if you want to discover how to unmute yourself (which I recommend), check out my free training here.