Death By A Thousand Cuts

This is what a 'thousand cuts' looks like to me.

Investopedia defines the Western expression, “death by a thousand cuts,” as “the idea a small cut will not kill you, but if enough are inflicted, you eventually bleed to death.” Wikipedia explains it as a “creeping normalcy, many slow and unnoticed increments that are not perceived as too objectionable, yet result in negative outcomes regardless.”
These two overriding concepts are how I often think about the multiple forms of bias and exclusion that women encounter from men in the workplace on a recurring basis. These “micro” slights of behaviors indicate discomfort, unawareness, naiveté, or even an intended bias toward women. Likely not rising to legal standards of discrimination and harassment, and often not even recognized by men, the cumulative wear and tear of “small nicks” eventually manifest into individual and/or group dysfunction. This may include workplace feelings women experience such as confusion, isolation, uncertainty, hurt, anger, resentment, depression, and mistrust.
These outcomes obviously run counter to having a fully engaged and energized workforce. They also fly in the face of espoused corporate values of respect, integrity, ethical behavior, trust, and inclusion that routinely are displayed in office cubicles and hallways. If enough individual “mini” biases become codified in work practices and group norms, then that organization’s work environment becomes one that is toxic and exclusionary to women. It can even happen in companies where women outnumber men in the overall employee population, but significantly lag behind men within the ranks of management. Gender exclusion is before our eyes, and men generally don’t recognize or acknowledge it.
So, what does “a thousand cuts” look like? Following is a partial list to consider. You will notice the examples range from the obtuse to the obvious and from the individual to the systemic. I believe it is important for men to try and imagine how frustrating and demoralizing it must be to have to face these multiple forms of exclusion on a daily basis: 

- Women frequently picking up signals that men don’t realize are being sent through facial expressions, body language and voice tonality, indicating men are uncomfortable, unsure, and even dismissive of women they come in contact at work with.
- Having to constantly jump over an invisible hurdle that women cannot ostensibly handle the requirements of an important task or job assignment, until they prove it.  Men, on the other hand, are given the benefit of being able to perform their duty until they prove otherwise. This unrecognized double standard often creates a dynamic with women to over-achieve expectations.
- Extending a significant amount of energy to get men to recognize the talent, ability and contributions women make to the organization... if this acknowledgement is ever made.
- Having inadequate access to critically important training and developmental opportunities necessary to compete for future advancements.
- Lacking access to important relationships, information, and decisions forged in bathrooms, golf courses, hunting and fishing trips, sporting events, and after-hour cocktails. Alternative forms of access for women who do not participate in these activities are seldom provided.
- When a women is selected for a developmental or new job assignment, it often is expressed that leadership is willing to “take a chance” with this person. For the male counterpart, it’s seen as “making a significant investment” with the individual.
- Frequently working with men, who in the normal course of business, will not be alone with women. This includes meals, car rides, travel and behind closed doors. 
- Women are likely not provided meaningful and on-going job performance and career feedback because the male manager wants to avoid “drama.”
- When women are promoted into positions that historically have been held by only men, management support and mentoring oftentimes become non-existent. The individual is left to “sink or swim” on her own.
- Routinely being asked to take meeting notes or given the responsibility to organize business functions and social events.
- Constantly being talked over, looked through, and generally ignored by men in meetings. Should a woman ever assert herself, she is likely labeled as “aggressive” and “pushy.”
- Continually managing the various types of relationships men want to tag you with, other than as a professional and equal to them. This includes being their mother, wife, daughter, sister, and girlfriend.
- Overcoming the belief by men that women place greater importance on gender equity than professional responsibilities. Concurrently, whenever a concern, question or the topic of workplace gender equity does come up, being expected to speak “on behalf of all women.”
- Should a woman ever have the courage to proactively raise a concern regarding gender equity, the issue is likely denied or minimized as an overreaction. And there’s a good chance that this person is perceived as whiny, needy, or possibly the cause of the problem in the first place.
- Working with men in significant leadership roles, who react to gender equity concerns as an inconvenience, are seldom part of any solution or hold others accountable for corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives.
- Personally having conversations with or hearing men express the opinion that they do not believe women are treated unfairly, that the playing field is level, meritocracy should be the sole determinant of promotions, and men are now the ones at a disadvantage and being discriminated against in the workplace.
- Personally having conversations with or hearing men express the opinion that women with children are being selfish to pursue a professional career or that they should be in a less demanding or part-time job in order to spend more time at home with their children. 
- As a result of pursuing a career and being a mother, women are frequently seen by men as needing male supervisors to decide for the woman as to whether or not a certain work assignment, promotion, or relocation opportunity is in her best interest.
- Being present in meetings when men speak or joke about their wives’ spending habits and credit card charges.  This includes listening to constant sports and military jargon as part of the business vernacular, inappropriate jokes and language, and stories of male sexual “conquests.”
- Men being rewarded for compliance and silence when obvious inappropriate male behavior occurs.
- Despite having formal diversity and inclusion initiatives, men generally remain inactive and not supportive of company-sponsored activities and efforts.
- The absence of identifiable skill sets and robust workforce planning initiatives directly connected with leadership development and succession planning processes at a time when glaring gaps in female representation throughout the ranks of upper management exist.
- Men being rewarded for compliance and silence when obvious gaps remain for women in the areas of compensation, hiring, developmental assignments, and job selection processes. 

This is what a “thousand cuts” looks like to me. I personally believe the ones that hurt the most are when men are unaware of, disinterested in, or working from a misconception they are not directly affected by female gender inequity.
Questions for MARC readers’ input:
What is your reaction to the list provided? Do you have other examples that could be added to the list?  Have you ever noticed any of these behaviors? If so, which ones and how often? And finally, have you ever stepped forward to disrupt the pattern of behaviors provided? If so, what happened? If not, why not?
Posted by Frank McCloskey on May 21, 2012 3:11 PM America/New_York

Blog Post Comments

Log in to post a comment.

Tremendous list, Frank. You're obviously listening to women describe their challenges. Such listening, for me, is the key antidote to the male tendencies you so clearly delineate. Wish I was guilt free - among female colleagues and friends, I can interrupt too often, I talk too much and listen too little, and I don't always strike the right balance between support and delegation. Thank you for reminding me that such ineffective behaviors can inflict a cumulative price for women with whom I work and live.
  • Posted Tue 22 May 2012 08:45 PM EDT
Not to mention, the increased pressures for women of color, disabled or don't have "the look".
  • Posted Wed 23 May 2012 10:00 AM EDT
Chuck, thank you for reading the post and sharing your sights. All of the communication "opportunities" you listed, are ones that I personally struggle with (and a few more) on a daily basis.
  • Posted Wed 23 May 2012 11:55 AM EDT
Maureen, hello and welcome to MARC. I am so glad you posted and shared your insight.

After submitting "Death By A Thousand Cuts," I realized I unintentionally left out the VERY important point you have identified. For anyone who reads this post, it is my opinion that the partial list provided is exponentially magnified if you are an African American female, or women of ethnic identity.

Thank you for taking the time to read the post. Frank
  • Posted Wed 23 May 2012 12:13 PM EDT
One additional comment to Maureen's note. The other two dimensions that she identified are ones that also create very difficult barriers for someone to overcome. By making the special emphasis that I did, I am not saying one identification is more or less challenging than the other. There are many other human dimensions of diversity that we can name and the list would also apply.
  • Posted Wed 23 May 2012 12:25 PM EDT
Appreciate the list Frank and your additional comments. 'Normalcy' is the bain of virtually any issue, business or personal. Things can really creep in without one's awarness and without an invite. That is why doing a hard look at one's company, or ones self is always a good idea but equally difficult.
  • Posted Tue 29 May 2012 10:29 AM EDT

Mark...thank you for reading the post and taking time to share your insight. It means everything.
  • Posted Wed 30 May 2012 12:03 AM EDT


Have you taken part in an ERG that wasn't expressly "for you"?

Not yet!

Mention Colleagues

Simply type “@” followed by the user’s name. After three letters, possible matches will appear. Select the desired username from the dropdown to @Mention them!

Questions? Visit our @Mentions tutorial for more.