Gender Equality | Workplace Equality | Difficult Conversations

How To Bravely Challenge Workplace Inequality

Recently, one of our Weekly Bold Moves on workplace inequality generated lots of comments and feedback, so much so that I’ve decided to explore in more detail how to handle those difficult discussions with co-workers on this topic.

The Insightful Question on Workplace Equality Was…

Here’s the Bold Move that’s been generating all the buzz:

Do you walk the walk – or just talk the talk? Virtually anyone can say “I’m committed to equality in the workplace” – but words are nothing without action. Are you willing to speak up, stand out, and go against the grain when the right situation presents itself?

This prompted one insightful reader to ask me for examples of how to “tactfully” address the issue of workplace gender equality in a more positive, productive way—with a focus on supporting working moms who are blamed for using non-traditional hours to balance work and family.

Walking The Talk When it Comes to Equality in the Workplace

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this issue, I do have some tips on what you can say and do when you encounter difficult situations to foster a more supportive environment for women and others in the workplace.

  • Be a role model of peace and acceptance. Work on centering yourself around who you are, what values are important to you – and why. As you become more willing to live in alignment with your authentic self, others may be more open and receptive to you. Likewise, a deeper understanding of yourself may help you to better understand others.
  • Use a low-key tone. How often has the wrong tone of voice shut down your listening to what someone says? Whenever possible, keep your tone soft and inviting – not sharp, aggressive, or loud. This is really important if you tend to get “overly enthusiastic” about a topic. And whether you’re listening or speaking, never underestimate the power of body language.
  • Gently challenge assumptions. This one can be a little scary. If you’re comfortable with it, try to help people see that they’re making assumptions that might not be true because they don’t know the whole situation. It’s a brave way to “walk the talk.” You might start the conversation with something like, “I can see how given your experience you might feel that way. I’m just wondering if you might be open to looking at this from a different perspective…”
  • Think dialogue, not debate. Create an open-ended conversation where you’re listening as well as talking. By understanding the other person’s viewpoint, you can help them to start considering yours. Doesn’t everyone appreciate being heard? If you often find yourself saying things like “I can’t believe I said that” or “I wish I would have approached her differently,” try gently practicing self-awareness in your interactions to respond more effectively.
  • Develop conversation starters. What you say will depend on your specific workplace relationship with the person you want to influence, but here are some examples to build on.


    • From a place of centeredness and peace, you could calmly say something like: If we truly are serious about diversity in the workplace/flexible hours, then we also need to honor X’s right to have flexible hours, which for her might mean taking time out to enjoy her daughter’s soccer game or being able to hold and bond with her baby. Or,


    • If other people taking time off is getting under your skin, maybe you need a little time for yourself, too? All of us benefit from that at least once in a while. [This one is to be used with caution – it’s mostly to help shed light on why people can sometimes be judgmental.]


    • Transparency can be key: Instead of jumping at the other person to prove your point or show them how “wrong” they are, consider sharing some of your own vulnerabilities. If it seems appropriate, you might start with something like, “I remember a time when I felt that way too…” then lead into how your own beliefs have since changed.

The Rewards of Courage

Ellyn Shook, the chief human resources officer of Accenture, is one female leader who is leading the charge for “courageous conversations” about gender inequality and sexism in the workplace.

As a recent Catalyst publication points out, having these courageous conversations will “keep the issue on the front burner and educate those around us.” Leaders in particular should continue to challenge the status-quo of workplace gender issues to move it forward, setting an example for others to follow.

Changes in this area won’t happen overnight, but by bravely speaking out we can begin with shifting perceptions—one person at a time. Today, I encourage you to look for opportunities right within your own workplace (and rest assured, they are there!) where you might transform an unproductive conversation into one that fosters deeper understanding and more positive growth for all.

Looking for ways to be a courageous leader who speaks up when necessary to foster workplace equality? Sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Move.