6 Strategies For Reluctantly Talking to Men in Your Male-Dominated Workplace

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani
Feature image via shutterstock


Last Thursday, I started my day off by talking to a male coworker on the way in from the parking lot. I went to my desk and was approached by two men for an impromptu meeting at my desk. I answered my phone (a male engineer), and briefly chatted with my (male) boss. I ran a lunch meeting consisting of 13 men and me, then went to the lab for a meeting with two men, plus me. The only woman I spoke to in person all day long was my girlfriend — who, as another woman engineer, also endures workdays that fail the Bechdel Test. That’s just how it is sometimes as a woman in STEM. Not all of the time, in my experience. But also not none of the time.

Wondering how I’m able to deal with the avalanche of men taking up space in my workplace all day every day? This is going to sound shocking but the answer, it turns out, is fairly simple: talk to them. Yes, that’s right. Men are people too. I’ve been reluctantly conversing with them for years now, and today, I’m going to share a few key survival strategies I’ve picked up in the trenches. Follow my advice and you’ll be well on your way to making apolitical small talk, scoring points for “likeability,” and building career-necessary rapport with 75+% of male coworkers!

**I don’t think anyone should actually have to do these things, this is just sarcastic commentary on my own experience!**


1. Approach men with confidence and a playful disregard for “who’s already talking.”

Men in the workplace love to interrupt. I know this because I get to listen to them doing it to me all fucking day long. It’s how they express affection, I can only assume. Demonstrate your friendly intent and understanding of male cultural norms by following suit.

2. Try to speak using the lower registers of your voice. But don’t whisper. But don’t shout.

Don’t be too shrill, but don’t be too soft, either. Avoid vocal fry and upspeak. Never apologize or apologize for apologizing. The best way to set men’s minds at ease during conversation is to eliminate all vocal traits and verbal tics they associate with women.

Listen. It’s not that your male coworkers dislike women. They’re just more comfortable listening to men, taking them seriously, and talking to them as equals. Why are you glaring? You should smile more.

3. Apropros of nothing, go ahead and share your Game of Thrones fan theories.

Although the HBO show typically airs from April to June, men are fascinated by Game of Thrones year-round. There is no bad time to bring up this show. I know this because this soft porn high fantasy gorefest has served as my workplace conversational workhorse for the past five years, bless it.

If you, too, have time to spare and wish to use Game of Thrones as a conversational tool to facilitate friendly interaction with male coworkers across a broad spectrum of ages and awareness levels regarding what constitutes rape, be warned that there are six seasons out. Getting into this show proved a sizeable time commitment for me even in season one, given that I had to watch each episode three times before I could distinguish between the many bedraggled-looking white men on the show. Persevere. Showrunners have confirmed that there will be two more seasons, which means it will be at least 2019 before your male coworkers change the topic.

Alternatively, if you’re short on time, try throwing a couple of these sentences out: “Arya died and the Waif is wearing her face. Jaime will kill Cersei, and Sansa will kill Dany. Bran is the Night King leading the White Walkers.” Boom. You just bought yourself 20 minutes of coworker engagement. Sit back, relax, and enjoy as a man explains to you why his theory is superior to your theory.

got-dany-yara

Businesswoman’s special, if you know what I mean.

4. Blah Blah Football Blah

Another winning strategy: mention football. Football is like conversational catnip for men. They love it. They inhale it. They will roll around in that shit all day long, if left unsupervised. Although this topic does have a “best used by” date, the NFL season runs from September to February. Even if you’ve completely lost track of space and time in the black abyss that is your professional life as the lone woman in a wretchedly male dominated field oh jesus christ why, there’s like a 50% chance that it’s football season.

Unfortunately I don’t have any specific advice for you beyond that (I’m on the Game of Thrones beat, remember?), except to remind you that this helpful list exists. I did join my first fantasy football league this year, though. To date, my main takeaway is that fantasy football consists primarily of puns and smacktalk. Yahoo! Fantasy gave my team a “B” on its draft report card, but I give Yahoo! Fantasy an “F” for that analysis because “Wookie of the Year” is a very clever name, dammit, and even though Dez Bryant got a concussion last Monday, he says he feels “unstoppable,” so. There’s that. Tips welcome.

5. Video games?

As conventional wisdom holds, most “gamer guys” are faking it, merely pretending to be interested in video games so that women will pay attention to them. And this is true. Undeniably. At least 90% of the time. But when it comes to that other 10% of the male population, there’s a chance you may be able to connect, particularly with the under 30/about-to-be-promoted-above-you crowd. Capitalize on this!

My suggestion: Heroes of the Storm is free, super fun, and clearly relevant to everyone’s interests. Check out these characters, y’all:

Heroes_of_the_Storm_1

Lumberjack Uther, Roller Derby Nova, Thunder Guard Zarya, Master Tracer, and Master Lunara.

Heroes_Of_The_Storm_2

Eagle Eye Tyrande, Johanna, War World Sgt. Hammer, Vampire Slayer Valla.

heroes_of_the_storm_3

Super Sonya, Striker Li-Ming, Novazon Nova, Zarya, Love Doctor Lt. Morales.

And:

Via Iliden-stormrage Tumblr.

Rainbow unicorn mount via fiscalthehuntar.

If this topic doesn’t land with your male coworkers, well, I guess I just don’t know men. (Kidding. I do know men. I spend hours upon hours in their company. Seriously, so, so long. It’s amazing how slow the passage of time can go sometimes. Like, an absolute crawl. I feel about 292 years old.)

6. Hold your breath. Let it go. Think of Ellen Page.

Breathe in strength, breathe out bullshit. All things eventually come to an end. The workday. The work week. Your male coworker’s lengthy explanation of his Game of Thrones theory. Football season. Capitalism. Patriarchy.

Saturday is coming. I promise.


Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And A+ members keep the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you're able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.

68 Comments

  1. I love this. Last week I was messaging a girl on my lunch break (if you’re reading this, heyyy), when a male coworker decided to begin an unsolicited conversation with me. His opener: “Checking in with the boyfriend?” Barf.

    Any tips on avoiding talking instead? I’m thinking a vow of silence might be my best bet, but I’m open to alternative suggestions.

  2. My fiancé is the CTO of a startup, and she found out that an incompetent male employee (who she fired) who worked under her was getting paid $30,000 more than her. The male CEO hasn’t seen the problem with this. She’s looking for a different job; I’m researching hexes.

  3. Advice from my male professor who works in the corporate world:

    Never let the guys know you are smarter than they are. Just hold it in and move on. It will be easier to navigate the corporate world once you realize a man’s ego is more sensitive than a woman’s. Once you know the power you have, it becomes easier to take the punches as they come. Be glad that you have a tougher skin than all the men in this class and in the work force because it means you will last longer and be wiser.

    So many guys in the class were seriously butt hurt hearing this from another guy.

  4. Ugh having worked in the corporate world, I thought it would have gotten better once I moved into academia. Nope, not one bit. I once sat in a group work session for half an hour silently waiting for two guys to derive the exact same answer I had to a formal theory problem when they didn’t believe I knew what I was doing because I “drew gamma weird.”

  5. OK, at the risk of outing myself as terminally uncool, question.

    I get that this piece is supposed to be funny (and let’s be honest, it is). But is talking to men or being around mostly men for significant periods of time really such an imposition? Just as men who complain about having to interact with women in daily life, talking and perhaps accomplishing work together and such, are terrible people, does it really make a lot of sense for women to express disdain towards half the species? I mean, what if you actually like Game of Thrones or football (I couldn’t care less about the former, but I’m a genuine NFL fan)?

    As for men’s bad behavior at work, Avawn’s professor’s advice is legit and definitely one way of going about things. But what about also just turning it back on them, as another alternative? Be an “asshole” (may or may not actually…some of us have been socialized to think asserting ourselves is a bad thing, and it’s not). If they interrupt you, interrupt them. Act like you know more than them with no basis to actually believe that (bonus points for the fact that you probably do). Project authority you don’t have. You’d be amazed how many men might actually fall in line when you do this because it’s all a game to them anyhow, and suddenly you’re playing it in a way they recognize.

    Certainly this strategy isn’t right for everybody, but I do think there is a place for showing up and acting like you run the joint…keep it up and you just might, someday.

    …ok, I feel like I need to add a disclaimer. The above might give the impression that I don’t think work is serious or that performance matters. Quite the contrary – I think in an ideal world competence and performance are the ONLY things that should matter, and nothing absolutely pisses me off more than people advancing further than their abilities should have allowed at the expense of better workers. What I guess I hope is that enough of the genuinely sharp and competent people will stop hesitating to put themselves out there, demand attention, demand compensation and promotion. It’s not ideal, but I’d certainly rather the people who know what the hell they’re doing behave this way than the empty suit morons who run institutions into the ground while they line their pockets.

    • I do feel like it’s a bit ironic that you critiqued the article, asking if talking to men/being around men is such an imposition and then gave us a list of strategies to use in order to do it successfully.

      For some of us, using such strategies is pretty out of the normal and not something we usually use at work (I work in a largely female dominated environment, and not in the US) and if I felt like I had to use them every day for eight hours a day, that would definitely be an imposition!

      And personally yeah, while obviously being around the occasional man or two isn’t too bad, working in a completely male-dominated environment sounds pretty exhausting from every report, including your post!

      • I did specify men’s bad behavior. I don’t find most men at work or in my daily life behave this way. And yeah, if it’s really out of the norm for you, you shouldn’t try it. I think everyone can benefit from being more assertive, but some people are naturally more subdued and prefer to go for consensus, and the professional world needs those folks too. I personally would not find working in a male-dominated environment exhausting, though. I lived with two dudes in the middle of nowhere every day for nearly a year during the course of my research. I was a little bummed when my female field assistant left, but that was because she was a close friend and I missed her terribly, not because there was anything wrong with her male replacement. But yeah, it was fine. I would do it again in a heartbeat if I thought my research would be successful.

    • Turning it back on men and being an asshole right back can work in some instances, but in other cases it can be dangerous. As others mentioned, you risk loosening you job because you’re percieved as being too “bitchy.” I’d say this is especially true for those of us who are AFAB and are masculine of center. We risk coming off as “man hating dykes” if we’re too assertive.

      • I guess. Judgment is necessary in such situations, I suppose, but I think it’s worth a try. My experience is from academia where I guess in some sense we all secretly can’t stand each other anyhow ;) I would be one of those tomboyish, masc. of center, whatever you want to call it folks. I can’t say whether that makes it easier or harder. I may be too clueless to know whether I was ever perceived as a man-hating dyke.

        • Men in general lie through their teeth and misrepresent themselves. Doesn’t mean they are intentionally malicious, but that they are behaving one way in front of you and another in front of the other men in their lives.

          The shit they say to each other when they think we’re not around is always night and day from what they say to our faces.

    • I’m not sure I 100% follow this comment, but yes! It’s an imposition, I do actually like Game of Thrones, and I expend quite a bit of energy attempting to project authority in the workplace.

      I also would love it if we could be rid of empty suit morons.

  6. “But is talking to men or being around mostly men for significant periods of time really such an imposition? Just as men who complain about having to interact with women in daily life, talking and perhaps accomplishing work together and such, are terrible people, does it really make a lot of sense for women to express disdain towards half the species?”

    In short: Yes. When Earth is governed by the matriarchy, when men are underpaid and disadvantaged, THEN we’ll be assholes for complaining about men.

    Does it make sense to express disdain toward straight people? How about race? Cis and trans?

    We all go through bullshit. Comparing our experience or our interactions to men is bullshit too. I don’t mean this as a personal attack. I get what you’re trying to say, but men don’t NEED you to be their apologist. The patriarchy in general NEEDS to change and we’re entitled to kvetch about it.

    For every man that doesn’t meet these criteria? No, it’s not an imposition to talk to them or be around them all the time. I love my guy friends and my little brothers. Are they still capable of saying insensitive or stupid things from a position of male privilege? Yes.

    “But what about also just turning it back on them, as another alternative? Be an “asshole” (may or may not actually…some of us have been socialized to think asserting ourselves is a bad thing, and it’s not). If they interrupt you, interrupt them. Act like you know more than them with no basis to actually believe that (bonus points for the fact that you probably do). Project authority you don’t have. You’d be amazed how many men might actually fall in line when you do this because it’s all a game to them anyhow, and suddenly you’re playing it in a way they recognize.”

    Have you ever been fired for being insubordinate? Bitchy? My personal favorite… “not a team player” (everything has to be sports with the patriarchy)? We can’t just act like they do without consequences in a lot of job. We HAVE to play games and be twice as good just to MAYBE be considered an equal.

    It’s bad enough when men mansplain.

    “What I guess I hope is that enough of the genuinely sharp and competent people will stop hesitating to put themselves out there, demand attention, demand compensation and promotion. It’s not ideal, but I’d certainly rather the people who know what the hell they’re doing behave this way than the empty suit morons who run institutions into the ground while they line their pockets.”

    Really? Because in my reality people try that and get terminated or don’t try it because they know they’d get sacked.

    Don’t put the blame on us. Don’t be a male apologist. Don’t think we just need to be plucky and try hard or demand attention. This isn’t the Mary fuckin’ Tyler Moore show.

    The problem is systemic discrimination. It always has been.

  7. A bad employee doesn’t compare to a bad customer.

    Cause at least a bad employee or employer you can tell it to their face.

    A bad customer no matter what you have to smile

    Most of you work in a field where you have no customers. Lucky you. The rest of us well not so lucky.

  8. I needed this, thank you! I’m the only woman on a team of nine. To be honest, football and Game of Thrones seem pretty mild compared to the shit I put up with on a daily basis. Tomorrow there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll see or hear something disgusting (porn pic/misogynist joke).

    The worst part is that I feel like I have to participate in the locker room dynamic in order to have positive, productive relationships with my male coworkers. If I don’t, I’ll be labeled an uptight bitch, and my teammates will stop trusting me and listening to my input and advice when making technical decisions. It’s soul-shredding.

  9. I’ve been working as a wildland firefighter for eight years now. Theres long lasting friendships formed with genuinely good men annnnd theres always that one douchebag that think he’s god’s gift to this profession despite his inexperience.
    Needless to say theres no work week’s end. Sometimes I just gotta embrace the suck and the gnarly jokes. Breathe in strength, breathe out bullshit. I like it.

  10. I’m an infantry officer in the US Army. Some rules I live by are: always fight back, never complain, never fall out of a formation, never expect different treatment and never ever cry. Dipping helps. As does talking with my girlfriends in other units as often as I can

  11. My advice for dealing with men is to NEVER act like you don’t know something. If you sort of know it, if you used it once 5 years ago, if you did it once but now mostly forget, if you have even heard of it, you are an EXPERT. You are the best at whatever it is!! THE BEST! Then, when you have to actually do the thing, only cop to being “a little rusty” and ask questions from there. Why is this? Men LIE. They lie to get jobs; they lie to get promotions. They don’t think it’s lying. They think it’s selling themselves and they have no problems with doing it. Women are told to be humble, to tell the truth, to defer to others. Well, stop it. Fake it until you make it… just like the dudes.

    Also, never say “just” as in, “I just have a question” or “I just thought I’d email you about blah blah.” Rip that word out of your vocabulary unless you’re talking about something that just happened in terms of time.

    Football and video games are also a life saver. Don’t mention you play World of Warcraft unless you know they do too, though… you end up getting teased. :P

    • Men think they can know 50 or 70% of something and that makes them good enough because they were socialised that way. Women are told over and over that if they don’t master 110% of something they better not try.

      This has super heavy repercussions. When a promotion opportunity comes up, women will look at the requirements for the promotion, see that they fill 70% of those and think “mh I guess I can work on the remaining 30% during the next year and apply next time an opportunity comes up”, while men think “hell yeah 70% I better apply, this promotion is mine”

  12. It’s so (fucking) tiring having to be an asshole and pretending like I know more than I do.

    I wish we all got together to make our own technology companies, movie companies, medical clinics, etc, and promoted each other, and led each other instead.

    Like Autostraddle, I suppose. Three cheers for Autostraddle!

  13. See I am doing the opposite, I’m really working on making men want to avoid talking to me completely. I find that men think I’m charming and only joking when I flat-out insult* them so I’m trying to go deeper than that now. Currently I’m trying to slowly build up a bad rep with all the men I am surrounded by all day by recommending women for jobs I know these particular men are specialized in and have expressed interest in doing more work in. I’ve also started only ever mentioning female names or names of female-led things when I recommend anything in general, and dismissing any male they ever say is good at anything. I’LL KEEP YOU POSTED ON MY PROGRESS

    *Example real-life conversation:
    HIM: I just went on a dating site, I’ve messaged so many women but no one’s messaging me back.
    ME: I’m not surprised. You write really badly and women don’t like sexist arseholes.
    HIM: Hahahahaha! Yes maybe that’s it!

    ????

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