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How Women Can Overcome Barriers That Some Men Don’t Even See

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wellness privilege-interrupting-laura putnam-equality-workplace-women-women in business-sexism-systemic change

Picture this. Several weeks ago I was on stage in front of an audience delivering a keynote speech about the topic of “Wellness Privilege.”


Laura Putnam

Author, “Workplace Wellness That Works;” CEO, Motion Infusion; Creator, Managers on the Move

For those who have never heard the term before, it is the concept that some people in the workplace have more advantages than others in their pursuit of well-being because of their gender, race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, or ability.  

To unpack the topic, I began listing several examples of what Wellness Privilege might look like in the workplace. For example, I discussed how some people can take breaks to engage in well-being activities, while others cannot. In the area of career well-being, I suggested some employees may have more opportunities to climb the ladder and grow in their careers than others. In relation to emotional well-being, I suggested that some employees may be given a wider berth to show up as they really are, while others are cued into “code switching” to hide an aspect of their identity.  

Case in point

Everything was going well, until I shared my last example. I stated that some employees get more air time in conversations and meetings. I began spelling out ways that women, people of color, and other marginalized workers often get interrupted, talked over or ignored in the workplace. 

As if on cue, a man in the audience jumped up and interrupted me. Gesticulating wildly and pointing his finger aggressively, he shouted, “I disagree with that slide! I disagree with your point!” The irony was not lost on the audience. In fact, many thought he was a plant — except he wasn’t.

After interrupting my speech, he went on to “explain” to me and to a group of mostly women, that the barrier I was outlining simply did not exist but was instead a discarded relic from the past. 

I listened, and then calmly responded by sharing results from a George Washington University study in which men were found to interrupt women 33 percent more often than when they’re speaking to other men. The entire audience erupted into applause. 

Little did he know that his behavior made the invisible forces of sexism visible and helped to prove my point. His action galvanized the audience, but he left the room unchanged. 

Systemic change 

So, where do we go from here? Certainly, we need more men who are able to see the invisible forces of sexism to speak up whenever they see sexism in the workplace. Notably, while a woman in the room powerfully spoke up to corroborate my point, none of the other men in the room did.

But, we need more than that. We need systemic change to unravel what Isabelle Wilkerson describes in “Caste” as a “long-running play” in which cast members are locked into their character roles, sticking to a script that was written long before. While Wilkerson was writing about entrenched racism, a parallel play is happening in relation to entrenched sexism, which is only further complicated for women of color.

Tackling systemic sexism in the workplace begins with senior leaders shining a light on the issue by initiating honest dialogue and spearheading organizational shifts, such as diversifying leadership ranks and creating policies that support women. Managers also need to be awakened to the key role they play. 

According to a broad, 19-country study conducted by ADP Research Institute, the team is where culture lives, and it is therefore up to each manager to facilitate psychological safety, curate a respectful climate, and normalize shared air time for all members on their team. 

Finally, every individual, especially those who hold Wellness Privilege, can step forward to not just call out, but to make the invisible, visible, so everyone can be seen and heard equally in the workplace.

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