Those who know me know that I really cannot stand to see gender prejudice. When we think about gender bias I am sure most people consider it in terms of rights for women, but we should remember that it can go the other way too. This week I had an experience which I found quite shocking, both in terms of what happened and then afterwards discovering what my colleagues felt about it.
What started the whole thing was a pair of shorts. We are in eastern Europe. It has been consistently 33+ degrees outside for the last goodness knows how many weeks. It is hot, and what I mean by that is that it is seriously hot. Hot enough to be permanently tiring. Hot enough to feel permanently uncomfortable. Hot enough to generate a near-constant sheen of sweat across my brow. It is hot.
A fairly new male member of staff came to work wearing a pair of shorts. They were smart shorts, knee length, inoffensive in no way whatsoever. This staff member was told to by his line manager, not in private, but in full view of his whole department, that his dress was inappropriate and unsuited for a work environment and that he should go home and get changed into full length trousers. I did not witness this conversation but am told afterwards that everyone was laughing at him and the manager’s approach was very blunt, and borderline rude.
I checked the policy when I heard this story. Our office dress code is ‘smart dress’ and nowhere in the document states that men have to wear full length trousers or that shorts are forbidden.
Needless to say the staff member in question did not take this order well, and the situation escalated into a discussion with the head of the office and the HR head and a series of latter communications over the subsequent hours and days – the contents of which obviously I was not privy to – but the end of the story is that his contract was terminated.
When I heard about this situation later on, I was outraged on his behalf. From what I hear his behaviour after the initial incident was certainly unacceptable and as a department manager myself I certainly would not have tolerated that in my own team. However, my point is: the incident which started the chain of events – the request that he go home and change into trousers – shocked me. I completely understand that he would have found that a frustrating and unjustified request. I am not surprised that he reacted negatively.
When I challenged my fellow managers on this, I was further shocked to discover that not a one of them, male or female, agreed with my point of view or saw the decision to send him home to change as a poor decision. When I asked on what basis they felt this was the right thing to have done, not one of them could give me an answer. I pointed out that no one is forcing me to cover my legs in full length trousers or tights in this weather. They laughed. “Are you hot in those trousers?” I asked a male colleague who was wearing suit trousers. He refused to answer. “Do you not see that this is gender bias and is not acceptable?” I asked them. Two of them told me it was not gender bias but “the way things should be.”
I was disgusted by the reactions of all of them, and felt incredibly disappointed that the company I work for, that prides itself on having a modern and open culture, a ‘western’ culture in a traditionally closed and hierarchical society, had a group of such narrow-minded people forming its leadership team. I told them so, and also that I didn’t blame him for being annoyed at being told to go home and change. I explained how disappointed I was to be working among a team of dinosaurs, and left them to hopefully consider what I had said.
At the end of this month I am leaving the company. A career change into a new industry will be my next chapter, and I am pleased to say that at face value my new employer appears to actually embody that modern and open culture that my current company thinks it has. I have recently discovered that my new workplace actually has a gender neutral dress code. There is a little spark of hope within me that I will find the beliefs and opinions of my new colleagues more in line with my own, or at the least open to the ideas of others and open to the idea of change.
Gender bias works both ways, against women, against men, and neither is acceptable. Here, where it was based on unchallenged traditions and illogical decisions, it was a shocking demonstration of old fashioned values conflicting with the modern world. I can only hope the people around me will learn to open their minds a little more after this week’s episode.