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Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers: A Refusal to Eat Alone at My Desk

Written By: Dr. Sheva Guy

“No offense, but this client is as bad at making decisions as my wife is at deciding what she wants for dinner.” laughs in corporate (IYKYK)

I was sitting in a Zoom meeting when a senior colleague made the above comment.

Of course, every other person in the Zoom room was a cis man, and while some looked visibly uncomfortable, most chuckled or smiled at the “joke”.

Why didn’t I just say something out loud? In hindsight, I really wanted to say:

“REALLY, [insert generic white guy name]?! First off, if you have to preface your thought with 

‘no offense,’ JUST DON’T SAY IT. Second, your wife probably cannot decide about dinner because she makes TEN THOUSAND DECISIONS A MINUTE AND HAS DECISION FATIGUE. Seriously, do you even make your own haircut appointments and pack your luggage yourself? Do you know your kids’ homeroom teachers’ names? No? Then sit the f*ck down.”

But even with how outspoken I am, I was still afraid to say anything at that moment. Aside from the awkwardness of this being a virtual meeting (I’d like to think I would have had more gumption in person), I was the only woman in the room, and I was also one of the only non-senior-level members of the group.

I felt like a grub—a worm who was afraid to stand up for herself and other women. And I know I am not alone in this. Let me explain.

As a woman whose job history has primarily been in academic STEM fields, I have encountered firsthand the challenges posed by gendered workplace dynamics, particularly the prevalence of boys' clubs. These exclusive groups create barriers to inclusion and professional advancement for women.

We all know the water-cooler-talk scenario that people claimed they missed so much when COVID-19 hit. The reason why is simple: we make connections with our colleagues in informal settings, not during formal meeting times. Some of the most important business decisions get made over long lunches during the workday, or dinner and drinks after a long day of back-to-back meetings.

As such, boys' clubs in the workplace can have a profound negative impact on women's experiences. One common scenario is the isolation felt when women are excluded from informal networking opportunities, where many women, myself included, find themselves eating lunch alone at their desks, unable to participate in the camaraderie and professional bonding that often occurs during these gatherings (another reason why I cherish working remotely).

When I worked in an academic healthcare setting, I used participatory tools to engage women in biomedical informatics, where, at the time, women made up less than 25% of the department (although I doubt the numbers are much better now). In my recent paper on the topic, "To 'talk softly or to not talk at all,' that is the question: Using Participatory Tools to Engage Women in a Biomedical Informatics Department" (Guy, 2022), I highlight the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields and explore how participatory practices can empower women and promote inclusivity. During my investigation, I heard consistent feedback regarding exclusion and a chilly climate towards women, where women in the department felt lonely and ignored. One woman stated that she “sometimes feels left out of the camaraderie between the guys,” and this was echoed by a majority of the other women in the group.

The chilly STEM climate has been thoroughly investigated and reported on, yet the problem persists. My experience confronting boys' clubs in an academic medical center setting through evidence-based, participatory, inclusive practices can be expanded to other male-dominated settings as well, where boys’ clubs are present to the detriment of women’s careers and professional development.

To challenge and dismantle boys' clubs, we must take action. Here are some manageable, actionable steps:

  1. Raise Awareness: Educate colleagues and leaders about the negative impact of boys' clubs on workplace culture and productivity.

  1. Promote Inclusivity: Actively include women and other historically marginalized groups in informal networking opportunities and decision-making processes.

  1. Support Each Other: Create a supportive network of colleagues to share experiences and strategies for navigating gendered workplace dynamics. 

  1. Advocate for Change: Advocate for policies and practices that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. This can include advocating for gender-neutral hiring practices, mentorship programs for women, and accountability measures for addressing discrimination and bias.

  1. Engage in Male Allyship: Actively engage in male allyship by challenging sexist behavior and language, supporting women's ideas and contributions, and advocating for gender equality in all aspects of the workplace.

Male allyship is crucial in the fight for gender equity in the workplace. By actively supporting and advocating for women, male allies can help dismantle harmful stereotypes and break down barriers to advancement. Male allyship can take many forms, such as challenging sexist behavior and language, amplifying women's voices and ideas, and advocating for policies that promote gender equity.

Men need to recognize their privilege and use it to uplift and support their women colleagues.

In male-dominated fields, such as academic STEM, male allyship is particularly crucial due to the entrenched gender dynamics and barriers that women often face. These fields have historically been shaped by and for men (white cis-het men in particular), leading to a culture that can be unwelcoming or even hostile to women. Male allies can help challenge and change this culture by actively supporting and advocating for gender equity. Their actions not only benefit individual women but also contribute to a more diverse, innovative, and inclusive work environment.

Suggested Further Reading:


Meet the Author

Dr. Sheva Guy

Dr. Batsheva (Sheva) Guy (she/her/hers) is a Prosci® Certified Change Management Consultant, a Certified Diversity Professional® and a Participatory Action Researcher. Dr. Sheva Guy implements participatory and community-based methods to engage and support diverse groups and advocate for inclusive and equitable practices in higher education, healthcare institutions, nonprofits, industry, and more. Sheva is a professional troublemaker and positive disruptor, constantly challenging the status quo to dismantle inequities. She proudly identifies as "Antiracist AF" and unapologetically embraces the title of "Tattooed PhD." To connect with Dr. Guy, visit her LinkedIn and follow her hashtag, #TheRealDrBatGuy, or visit her website.



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