Ombuds' Corner: a land of equal opportunity?

Sometimes sexism hides behind the words and apparent compliments that women hear from their colleagues, supervisors and managers. This can be a slippery slope, where the rules of the game often depend on the cultures involved, and the players’ actions may be said to be defined by their own perceptions and reactions.

“We have a great team! Three girls and two men working on this project”… Girls??? Who are you calling “girls”? Do you mean your female colleagues?

“By the way, Laure, I know that it will be difficult for you to attend that conference – with your kids and everything… so Marc has kindly agreed to take your place” … Wait a moment… who made that decision and why? Doesn’t Marc have kids, too? Why is it a problem for me and not for him?

“No Mary, I haven’t forgotten our discussion – you are of course the right person to lead the project. Let’s just wait and see how things stand when you are back from maternity leave – things may look different then”… In other words, you doubt my commitment?

The above examples show how apparently kind comments can actually hide an underlying sexist attitude that is perceived by our female colleagues, gnaws away at their confidence and may even end up undermining their performance. These examples suggest that although we work in an Organization that values diversity and clearly condemns gender discrimination, our everyday reality shows that sexism can be very much alive and sometimes, even kicking.

Then there are all those times when a male colleague stands too close to Brigitte, … stares a little too long at Petra… keeps insisting that Michelle join him for a coffee, or a beer, or a drink after the conference dinner… and they are all left with a familiar sinking feeling, trying to laugh it off and pretend that they do not really mind, knowing that they must not appear too aggressive or humourless, yet all the time wondering why a simple “no” does not suffice.

The last six years have seen approximately equal numbers of male and female visitors to the Ombud Office. However, when mapped against the corresponding staff member populations, these numbers show that there are proportionally three to four times more women than men consulting the Ombud. This pattern is mirrored in the Diversity in Action workshops, which also seem to attract a proportionally higher number of female participants. Although the issues raised by women are essentially the same as those faced by their male colleagues, there is often another experience lurking beneath the surface, and a closer examination reveals examples of stereotyping and unconscious bias that is common to many of them.

That women regularly have a need to discuss and share these more insidious experiences clearly raises the question as to whether or not our work environment is equally supportive to all colleagues. However, if we are indeed to get any answers, their experience needs to be shared with a wider audience, and male colleagues are strongly urged to get involved and enter the discussion! Let us all join forces to make CERN truly a land of equal opportunity!

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