when your older male coworkers are condescending

This is from a friend of mine, who agreed to let me use it as a question here. She writes:

I work in a male-dominated field, and don’t have the same technical background that many of them do. I was hired for my communications, organizing, and project management skills, but have noticed it takes some uncomfortable and awkward time for some of the new, older male members of my team to “accept me” for my leadership role. In most cases, the relationships have improved over time, but not after I had to uncomfortably speak up for myself and prove myself to them.

A new guy who just started last week reflects a similar situation. He waltzed in and started criticizing existing processes and speaking in a condescending manner about just about everything. He refuses to look me in the eye when I’m talking to him, and has already treated me in a subtley offensive way.

I’m 30 years old and have worked my ass off for the last decade and have the resume to prove it, as well as a boss who specifically recruited me because I worked for him previously and he knows I’m great. Apparently, my face looks like a 23-year-old’s and this may be a factor in older men being uncomfortable with accepting the fact that I’m an equal.

I don’t want to type too much here, but I think there’s enough here for you to get a basic grip of what I’m dealing with. I’m tired of it and it makes me angry, sad, and upset.

Dr. Phil says “You have to teach people how to treat you”, and I’m trying to figure out how to apply that to this situation without causing a stir. Any advice?

I once found myself in a similar situation — in my late 20s, I was working in an office staffed nearly entirely by much older men. I’d been brought in by the head of the organization specifically to make changes, and they Did Not Like It. Frankly, they probably wouldn’t have liked it if I’d been a 55-year-old man either — these were not people who welcomed change, regardless of the face of it — but it really didn’t help matters that they saw me as a little girl.

I decided I didn’t give a crap. I was going to do my job, I was going to do it well, and they could either get on board with it or not, but I was going to do what I was there to do. I ignored the condescension and their assumption that anything I said was rooted in inexperience, and I just went about my work. In time, some of them changed their attitude toward me and began treating me like a peer, and a few didn’t. I decided I didn’t care; I wasn’t going to let my ability to do my job well be held hostage to their attitudes about my age (or my gender, if indeed that was part of their issue), and my work would speak for itself. They could change their minds or not; it wasn’t my problem.

Now, obviously, it becomes your problem if they’re actually getting in the way of you doing your job. And if that happens, you need to speak up — just like you would do if someone were obstructing you for reasons that had nothing to do with your age or gender. You’d call them on it — pleasantly and professionally, but assertively. You’d tell them clearly what you needed, and if talking to them directly didn’t solve the problem, then you’d escalate it appropriately. In other words, go about this just like you would if it wasn’t about your age or gender at all, and instead were just about a coworker being obstructionist or difficult.

But the stuff that isn’t actually getting in the way of your work and is just annoying, like the condescension, the mistrust before you’ve proven yourself, or the not looking you in the eye? That more subtly offensive stuff you ignore, because that’s their problem, not yours, and it only has to bother you if you let it. Instead, you act as if of course they respect you, of course they’re behaving normally, because why the hell wouldn’t be they be? And you act that way until it’s true (or until you’re sick of it and go somewhere else).

Now, is it a pain in the ass that you have to do this? Of course. But it might be helpful to keep in mind that some of this — possibly a lot of it — is really about age and experience level, not about gender. And that can be pretty easy to overcome once you show that what you have to contribute doesn’t line up with their preconceptions about your age and experience level, as long as you’re dealing with at least semi-reasonable people. (And if you’re not, that’s a whole different issue, and raises fundamental questions about the organization where you’re working.)

You have the support of your boss, and you know that you’re awesome at what you do. Ignore the condescension and focus on your job. Eventually they’ll either come around or look ridiculous, or you’ll get sick of it and go somewhere where people look you in the eye.

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