Back in the late 1970’s, I was employed as an Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor and Trainer on a project basis by the state of Wisconsin in their first Affirmative Action Office. I investigated a prima facie case of sex discrimination in hiring, where the interviewing supervisors refused to hire women for lead building maintenance positions. As a result of that investigation, all of the building maintenance superintendents were ordered to attend a training session. They came into the session knowing that I had “fingered” them.
I began the session from a very self righteous position, knowing that I was right and they were very wrong. My tone, my demeanor, and my words all came across with a clear message to the participants: “You discriminate against women and you need to stop that right now!”
The men were all in their forties, fifties and sixties, and very large and strong, since they spent their days in physical labor. They were also furious with me. As I pontificated, one of the men stood up and started bellowing at me and moving toward me. I had no where to go- he was between me and the exit. I was so frightened, I couldn’t move anyway. So I did the only thing I could think of to save my hide: I asked him why he was so angry.
He proceeded to tell me that he had a wife, sisters and daughters, and he would not want any of them up on the Capitol roof sweeping ice during a snow storm. It was much too dangerous! He had been raised to protect women and that was all he was doing when he refused to hire women into the lead building maintenance positions. It would be irresponsible and completely against his social and family responsibilities to allow a woman to be in danger.
It had never occurred to me. I suddenly realized that I had been sorely mistaken about their intentions. It didn’t change the fact that their ultimate behavior was illegal, but it opened up a very different avenue for conversation. So I admitted that I had not understood before, apologized for never asking for their reasoning, and thanked the man for explaining their perspective on the situation.
Rather than telling them what they had done was wrong, I started to ask questions to help them recognize that women had a right to decide for themselves if they wanted a particular job, even if it was dangerous at times. I was able to draw on their love and concern for the women in their lives as I framed the questions. They certainly would not want someone else standing in the way of their loved ones’right to make decisions that affected their economic well-being.
I completely changed my tone, he sat down (whew!). we all had a great conversation, and every one of the superintendents voluntarily sent all of their supervisors to the next training sessions.
I learned a very important lesson from that group, to set aside my “holier than thou” mantle and ask questions so I could really understand where they were coming from and what they were thinking when they acted in certain ways. I learned the hard way to treat the participants with respect.