BUILDING A BETTER WORKPLACE
“Victimisation” and Gender Equality at Work
We need to stop (incorrectly) using the term ‘victimisation’ to disparage other women from talking about their experiences at work.
I organise Women in Tech sessions for a large technical conference twice per year. This was the fourth meeting we’ve held such a session and each one is almost twice the size as the one before. Each session has a theme and this past one was about women’s rights in Iceland (our conference was held in Reykjavík) and closing the gender pay gap.
We had a fabulous panel, pulled together from the local tech community and Iceland’s all-female brewery (another extremely male-dominated industry). We talked about the history of women’s rights in Iceland and what still needs to change. We talked about perception versus reality: Iceland gets a lot of great PR for its women’s rights but problems like misogyny and domestic violence are still big problems for the little country.
We also talked about Iceland’s new salary parity legislation which will impose big fines on companies who are caught paying women less for the same work as their male colleagues.
Tackling the pay gap is no easy task — there are a lot of underlying factors that feed into the problem, some span all industries and others are specific to tech:
- Lack of affordable childcare
- Lack of adequate parental leave (especially for fathers)
- Skill strain after a career break leading to a move out of tech
- Lack of female leadership
Many of the women spoke about how they have personally experienced some or all of these in their careers. Changing any of these systemic issues requires drastic policy changes and resetting society’s archaic views of gender roles when it comes to raising children and having a career.
When I had my son nearly six years ago, my son’s father got two days off as parental leave. TWO days.
With my sixteen-weeks of mandatory maternity leave plus the 26 weeks of paid parental leave from my company, I was off for six months. Financially, we had no choice in the matter. I got paid to raise our child by the Dutch government and my (amazing) employer. The government and his employer offered him no such thing. He would have loved to take more time to spend with our son, but we couldn’t afford that.
Now, imagine if you worked in tech and took six months off to take care of a newborn baby.
You used to work 60+ hours a week.
You were always learning. You had to keep your skills apace or wither into irrelevance. We’re talking about an industry where it’s not weird to just replace actual eating with meal replacement drinks because it's more efficient.
We’re talking about an industry where developers write code into the early hours of the morning, sleeping on the nearest sofa for a couple of hours before starting all over again. Who needs sleep when your brain is jacked on endorphins from intermittent fasting and cold brew.
Before you had a kid, your only baby was your job.
Suddenly, you go back to work. And in the time you were away, your then-manager has been promoted twice and is now a division director. You’re standing in a scrum meeting, gripping your coffee mug with two hands because you slept a collective 12 hours over the past four days and you have no clue what the hell your colleagues are talking about.
You try to keep up for a while. But you can’t work 60+ hours a week anymore because you’ve now got another job occupying 128 hours of your week — motherhood.
And the child’s father? Well, neither the government nor his company expects him to take on much of the child-rearing. It’s just the way it’s always been and it doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
So, these are some of the things we talked about in our last Women in Tech session. We cracked jokes, laughed, shared our own experiences and probably through in a few jovial f-bombs. It was an engaging, informal and intimate session with about 130 people in the audience (about 40% men). Men and women came to the mics to ask the panel questions or share their own experiences.
I received a lot of feedback about the session over the course of the week directly from those in the audience, but also indirectly from colleagues.
The vast majority of what I heard was overwhelmingly positive. However, there was one bit of feedback I heard about a woman who felt like the panel discussion was “stereotypical” and had a “victimisation tone.”
Sorry — what?
I watched the video archive of the session again and am so utterly baffled and saddened that this is what ‘some’ women in the audience took away from a very important dialogue that men AND women need to be having if we are to achieve a more equal workplace for women.
But more than anything, I despised the use of the word ‘victimisation.’
The term speaks to carelessness and a lack of empathy. And it also speaks to a lack of understanding about the difference between victim, victimisation and self-victimisation:
Victim — A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.
Victimisation — Punishing or threatening to punish someone.
Self-victimisation —The fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons such as to justify the abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy, or attention seeking.
Clearly, the critic meant ‘self-victimisation’.
An accusation of self-victimisation is an accusation that the women on the panel and in the audience sharing their experiences were trying to manipulate the room, using their emotions as a red herring to blur facts.
Well, the facts remain:
- There is a gender pay gap. Women (especially black and Latinx women) are the victims of this.
- There is woefully inadequate parental leave for fathers. Fathers are the victim of this and a woman’s career is the victim of this.
- Women are harassed at work at a (much) higher rate than men. And yes, women are the victim of this.
Talking about these issues is not self-victimisation — it’s the crucial first step towards change.
We need to talk about our common experiences in order to move forward. And we need to share our experiences with our male colleagues so that they can move from bystanders to allies to hopefully ambassadors.
I know that we can’t win the hearts and minds of everyone in the room, but I hope that critics will take a moment to check their ignorance before making accusations that can cause serious harm to an important conversation.