I have been working at my company for about two years now. We are very diverse in all departments and have been very welcoming to all - several of my coworkers who are female / minority / etc. have mentioned how much they have appreciated it.

Earlier this year we got a new VP of HR. One of her new initiatives has been a "Women's Support Group," where all women in the company are invited to a monthly catered lunch to either discuss a topic or listen to a presentation. These meetings have been on topics that are of general interest to all professionals, not just limited to "women's issues," e.g. interpersonal communication, leadership, etc.

Because this initiative is limited to women and there is no equivalent professional development opportunity available to men, I see it as discriminatory and am concerned that it will lead to tensions between genders that have never been an issue before. I would like to respectfully make my position known, but I'm unsure how to address such a hot-button issue without coming across as an ass. Initially I considered approaching the VP of HR directly but I'd prefer to stay off her radar for various reasons. I've also pondered writing a short "memo" requesting that we be more inclusive, and submitting it to her anonymously. Of course, there is always the snarky comment route ("shame we're so sexist and the dudes can't come, haha").

Is there a more effective way I can go about this? My goal is first to encourage inclusivism, and second to make my disagreement with the "Women's support group" initiative clear. Are either of these even worth doing, or is my best bet to keep my head down while looking for a company more aligned with my personal values?

Edit: two points of clarification.

  1. I'm female.
  2. Our company is pretty small, about 150 people, so we don't have things like a personal / department HR rep. I know it sounds silly to go directly to the top, but my options are slightly limited.
  • 13
    Why not propose 'hidden discriminatory practices' in the modern workplace as a topic of discussion for the next meeting?
    – Strawberry
    Nov 14, 2019 at 15:23

11 Answers 11


First of all, understand and convey this: You have no objection with the setup, you're just not happy about the male co-workers missing out a chance to learn and grow.

You don't need to necessarily fight the decision, you can also take the alternate route. If you're not OK with going to the VP of HR directly (which you need not anyways), you can have a chat with your superior, or, HR manager / partner and say something like

"Hey, I got to hear that yesterday there was a very informative session / presentation / lecture on [XYZ Subject], unfortunately some of us could not attend because it's part of the "Women's Support Group" initiative. Do you think we can have the same session repeated for the global audience so that everyone can benefit from that? Or, if it's possible, can we have sessions like these, be made open to all to attend?"

  • If they're to make arrangements for the repeat sessions, your goal is met.
  • If they choose to make the sessions open-for-all, your goal is met.
  • If they choose to webcast/ podcast the sessions (with or without live interaction), your goal is met (at least partially).

At the end of the day: your target is to enable all to know, learn and grow. In what setup that happens, should not be your concern, as long as some are not left out.

Update after the edit:

1. I'm female.

Does not matter. Your gender has nothing to do with your concern.

2. Our company is pretty small, about 150 people, so we don't have things like a personal / department HR rep. I know it sounds silly to go directly to the top, but my options are slightly limited.

In case there are no member of the HR team, and the VP of HR is the sole proprietor of the HR department, you either reach out to them, or to your immediate manager / superior. As you mentioned, choices are limited here.

  • 40
    You didn't address the free catered lunch issue. I'm pretty sure that's the real heart of the matter ;)
    – Mars
    Nov 14, 2019 at 7:35
  • 29
    @Mars Ah, it's always the free food that matters..... Nov 14, 2019 at 7:37
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    @Mars I'm a woman, and I have issues with women-only support groups at work. Fine if it's a group that supports the idea of promoting women and their point of view (with the aim of overcoming the societal bias against women), but everyone should be able to attend. (It's also fine if the support group is dealing with issues that affect specific people, such as pregnancy, menopause, etc... which aren't just limited to women (e.g. trans men, non-binary, etc).) I would most likely avoid the OP's women-only meetings like the plague!
    – Boneist
    Nov 14, 2019 at 10:38
  • 32
    Good advice. One point of dissent: Her gender certainly matters, it makes communicating this opinion much easier.
    – Stian
    Nov 14, 2019 at 14:48
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    @Z.Cochrane Your second sentence is, I think, more pertinent: while we have "women in the workplace" and "disability in the workplace" groups/session where I work, which are advertised via posters and internal mail to everyone, they are always careful to explicitly include a disclaimer at the bottom that the sessions are open to everyone, and that the description refers to the subject, not the audience. Nov 14, 2019 at 15:51

My advice would be tread very carefully on this. First because it's a hot button issue, but also because you seem to have got some misunderstandings about discrimination.

You claim that having a Women's Support Group is sexist and discriminatory, but you offer no evidence to back it up. A selective support group is not discriminatory if it is seeking to address an existing imbalance. (Any more than giving wheelchairs to the disabled is discriminatory because they aren't given to the non-disabled too.) In other words if women are already being treated equally (and that means everywhere, not just in your company) then giving them preference is a problem, but if they are not then redressing the imbalance is not a problem, it's a solution to a problem. This is a principle that has long been established in anti-discrimination law and practice, and without it no imbalances would ever be removed. The existence of this group already shows that your new VP believes there is an imbalance. You are of course free to disagree with this view, but by doing so publicly you run the severe risk of being on the wrong side of this issue.

If you want to address this, start by talking to your female colleagues. Yes I know you are a woman, but that doesn't give you the right to speak for all women. Do they see an imbalance? Do they see men getting opportunities that they do not? If so then your opposing this group is going to make you very unpopular, and with reason.

If you still want to oppose this initiative, then I would go to the VP. But don't lead with "This group is sexist", or you will come across as an uninformed jerk. Instead you could lead with "I think there is a lack of mentoring and support for everyone, not just women. Could we have some similar support for our non-female colleagues?"

EDIT: In a comment the questioner reminds me she says "We are very diverse in all departments and have been very welcoming to all - several of my coworkers who are female / minority / etc. have mentioned how much they have appreciated it." I would say that it is possible for a company to be diverse and welcoming but still discriminatory for example of they have lots of women, and are friendly towards them, but still keep them in lesser roles, reserving the higher roles for men. And even if that's not the case there may be women in your company who have been previously discriminated against and as a result are behind in their career compared with what they are capable of. Either one is a good reasn for organizing something like this. However if your female colleagues are in agreement that this initiative is unnecessary, then get all of them together and go to the VP as a group and tell her that.

  • 4
    The problem with this is that the 'imbalance' is often unquantifiable, or occurred in the past such that there can be legitimate debate over whether or not it should still be considered. Since there is (usually) no deterministic way of proving the balance, everything is up for debate and arguing. Furthermore, your last sentence reads literally as "separate but equal" for the two genders, if they have separate groups, and plainly discriminates against non-binary folks whom don't fall into either group.
    – GHP
    Nov 14, 2019 at 17:36
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    Actually, in the case of wheelchairs the point is that people who are able bodied do not need them. However in the case of,and I quote the OP (my emphasis though) "and there is no equivalent professional development opportunity available to men", plenty of me do need that. lastly "But don't lead with "This group is sexist", or you will come across as an uninformed jerk." to the sort of people who think men's careers never stagnate, perhaps...
    – user100499
    Nov 14, 2019 at 18:07
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    @DJClayworth all we have is OP's description of the situation and that explicitly says "and there is no equivalent professional development opportunity available to men", so no, men don't get that kind of opportunity in that company. If they get these skills self-driven outside the company that doesn't mean it would not be helpful to them to make it available by company support. Nov 14, 2019 at 18:44
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    And the group is definitely sexist, it discriminates by sex, nothing uninformed or jerky about that. It's just that it's a form of sexism we sometimes tolerate to counter-balance other perceived sexism or sex-based disadvantages. Whether that's good, moral etc. typically depends on your viewpoint and the exact circumstances. Nov 14, 2019 at 18:46
  • 5
    Existing imbalance [citation needed]
    – Jeffrey
    Nov 14, 2019 at 19:38

Simply ask her to open it up

Your goals seem to be fairly aligned with what you can imagine the VPs goals were (to improve inclusivity, and equality in the workplace). It seems that the sticking point for you, is more on implementation rather than any fundamental ideological difference (which would have been more dangerous).

At our office, we've got a similar group - however, it is fully open to any men who want to come - still under the banner of "Women in [industry] Lunches".

The key thing, is the group's focus hasn't changed - it's still a place to allow women to talk openly about the issues that affect them in the workplace and their careers.

If you speak to the VP, either by email or in person; explain to them that including men would not be diluting their goals at all - but that it would open the meeting for men who are supportive of inclusivity, to be a part of the discussion and understand the issues better.

From my experience with having an open "Women's Group" here - participating men have at no point hijacked the group, or otherwise negatively impacted it. The only men who will turn up - are those whose values align with the group in the first place; while those who don't want to be a part simply won't come (but won't use the group as ammunition either).

Open the discussion with the VP, what you're asking for isn't a taboo and is simply a change in methodology, not in ideology.

  • 2
    Yup. You can point out how everyone can benefit from open meetings... For example, if the topic is discrimination, men may also want to find out what role they can play in recognizing and stopping discrimination (it's not women's problem to stop being discriminated against, it's everyone's problem to stop discriminating!). If the topic is health issues, there may be transgender men who are still impacted by the same health issues, or there may be men who have women in their lives with the health issue and need support. Nov 14, 2019 at 14:44
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    There is a problem with this. Some women do not feel comfortable discussing issues of sexism with men, especially if some of the men present might have been responsible for the discrimination they have experienced. Nov 14, 2019 at 15:32
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    @DJClayworth I think the key is that OP says "topics that are of general interest to all professionals." This isn't a company-sponsored support group; they see it as general career development with a discriminatory attendance rule.
    – Sam
    Nov 14, 2019 at 17:08
  • 2
    Still doesn't make it discriminatory if it's intended to address an existing imbalance. Nov 14, 2019 at 17:26
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    @DJClayworth such imbalances can typically only be measured on the average, so even if on average women in this company lack the skills these meetings provide, that doesn't mean all of them do nor that some men could not benefit from a session. It discriminates as it doesn't look at individuals but applies the same brush to all women and men. It's also just reinforcing existing prejudices: "Oh them women don't know their professional stuff and need additional courses, no wonder there is a pay gap!" Nov 14, 2019 at 18:40

Initially I considered approaching the VP of HR directly...

Bad idea.

... but I'd prefer to stay off her radar for various reasons.

Very good idea.

I've also pondered writing a short "memo" requesting that we be more inclusive, and submitting it to her anonymously.

Not so good idea either.

My goal is first to encourage inclusivism...

Not bad.

... and second to make my disagreement with the initiative clear.

But why? that's a nope. Not in front of the VP, at least.

Edit: since you are a female, you should not do it alone, read below. Do it together with your other female colleagues.

several of my coworkers who are female / minority / etc. have mentioned how much they have appreciated it.

That is very good, and it might work in your favor.

If I were you I would do the following. Please note that it is just a grand way of thinking, the details can be adjusted to the objective reality.

  1. Understand the position of the women on the subject. Do they agree? Are they happy? Do they share your frustration? Also, it might prove useful to know the position of the other men.

  2. Express (when occasionally interacting with the women) your regret that you cannot join the said activities, since they seem to be so informative and potentially helpful.

  3. Express your "sorrow" at being discriminated based on your sex, even though you are in the "majority" group.

  4. Ideally, women will be on your side, and they will approach the VP on the subject. Their argument could be that the new initiative will place them in a position of conflict with the rest of the company.

  5. Repeat 2. and 3. with the men. If they actually share your opinions and feelings, act as a group to get rid of the discrimination.

Alternatively, if there is a work union, you might bring the subject to them, and they will have a different negotiating power with the VP.

I'm female.

Well, that changes the situation slightly. You are no longer "begging" for something, you are one in the position to "give" something. As explained above, it will be much easier and safer for you to get the support of the other girls / women in the company. You might even use the reason:

A support group created especially for women transmits the idea that we, the women, are somehow inferior, which we disagree with. We would prefer ... (and here you choose your alternative to the situation).

  • 3
    In the United States, women are the majority, not men. In companies, it really depends on the type of company. Nov 14, 2019 at 8:53
  • @StephanBranczyk: I fully agree with you that things are different from country to country and from company to company. I just shaped my answer based to the info provided by OP.
    – virolino
    Nov 14, 2019 at 9:14
  • 2
    Does your answer change given that OP is female?
    – Mr.Mindor
    Nov 14, 2019 at 16:09
  • @Mr.Mindor: Slightly, to accommodate the change of gender. For me, equal opportunities really mean equal opportunities. If I would receive an opportunity and my colleagues would not, I would complain. When I have an idea, I present it in a way that as many people as possible benefit from it. One does not need to be on the "losing" side to complain. I hope I understood your question correctly.
    – virolino
    Nov 15, 2019 at 5:30

Although I like the answer by Sourav Gosh it does not adress you problems with the women's support group itself.

As I (now, thats why its edited) understand you do not see the neccesity of a Women support group. Do you know to the full extend how your peers feel about it? Maybe it is different in other departments? It might be rather different than what you are feeling. That would be an appropiate topic for such a Women Support group and than maybe together you can decide that it is no longer neccesary to have one. So I do not think you should try to stop the group. I do think that you could try to change the focus or topics of the group.

So about the topics/sessions which are now part of the Womens Support Group I agree with the answer given by Sourav Gosh.

So to answer your question:

Are either of these even worth doing, or is my best bet to keep my head down while looking for a company more aligned with my personal values?

Edited after comments by OP: Flip genders and it indeed becomes problematic. Therefore in a perfect world/company the current is also problematic. That is why I think the topics are important. If the topics are about the problems women face (which are gender related) within the company then the world/company is not perfect yet and the group has a function. If it only discusses topics interesting to all then the world is apparently already perfect and the group should be opened to all.

So in the first case: Do not try to shut down the group. In the latter case however you can, maybe via peers or direct supervisors (or a thrust person if your company has one) let your concerns be known

  • 2
    I suggest looking at OP's profile...
    – Mars
    Nov 14, 2019 at 9:03
  • 1
    @Mars I did indeed draw wrong conclusions from the question. I have edited it.
    – user180146
    Nov 14, 2019 at 9:48
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    The issue is not the topics covered. The existence of the group itself is what I find concerning. Flip the genders: having an official group dedicated to professional development and excluding women is clearly problematic. Nov 14, 2019 at 11:54
  • 1
    @Sigma while I agree with you in theory, the genders are not "flipable" in our society. Programmers like ourselves struggle with this, its like a function that takes a boolean parameter but throws an error if 'false' is passed in instead of true. We want the rules of society to operate on gender/race/religion parameters like any good enumeration value, but this is not the way the society actually runs right now.
    – GHP
    Nov 14, 2019 at 17:30
  • 1
    " If it only discusses topics interesting to all then the world is apparently already perfect and the group should be opened to all.". That assumes that the only purpose of the group is its obvious and simple one of imparting knowledge. In fact a group like this can have multiple purposes, some of which would not be served by making it open to everyone. Nov 14, 2019 at 17:33

but I'm unsure how to address such a hot-button issue without coming across as an ass.

By minding your own business or starting your own support group.


There are some good answers here already, regarding how you might approach the situation. However, in my experience, mixed groups in this kind of scenario will quickly be dominated by men. Many women feel less comfortable asking questions and participating in general when in mixed company. It is not uncommon for men to interrupt women, or 'mansplain' uninvited, or engage in other behaviours that result in the women getting less out of it than they might if the men were not present.

The goal of your VP of HR is not to exclude men, but to give women a forum where they feel more comfortable to engage with the subjects being presented. I can't see any reason why she would object to the men doing something similar, but I can see why she would not be willing to open up her Women's Support Group to be more inclusive.

  • 1
    This, essentially. HR is not concerned with fairness, but with what is giving the most net positive effect. Nov 14, 2019 at 16:33
  • 1
    @SimonRichter Yes, net positive effect. Segregation is great, cause it keeps one group safe from another. Net positive. Fun reading about pc crowd trying to justify sexism.
    – paulj
    Nov 15, 2019 at 13:10

This is an excellent topic to bring up during the group session.

That would be the best thing to do and since it's aligned with the group idea of bringing issues to the forefront for discussion would not be out of place or make you look like an ass. Instead you would come across as an earnest and thoughtful contributor.

  • Perhaps talking to other attendees first to see if they believe as the OP does would help. They could bring it up together.
    – CramerTV
    Nov 14, 2019 at 18:29

What is your goal?

Do you think you can stop the VP from starting her group? That's very doubtful.

Do you want to be invited to these meetings? I really doubt that. It's not like you will be in charge of its agenda or its speakers. And participating in its regular meetings may annoy you even more than you currently are.

Do you want to create a man's support group? In this political climate, I would not start one of those through your company. If you really want to start one, do not get your company involved.

Do you want to create your own generic support group at work? You certainly could. For instance, here are the instructions for starting a Toastmasters public speaking club. http://www.toastmasters.org/start-a-club

I suppose you even could start one for professional advancement, sales, technology, Yoga, meditation, running, nutrition, etc. Just be careful of what you wish for. Starting a group is actually a lot of work.

  • " ("shame we're so sexist and the dudes can't come, haha")." Sounds like OP is already attending.
    – Mars
    Nov 14, 2019 at 8:53
  • These are good suggestions, but don't really answer the question. A few of my friends and I already have an informal learning club, where we "meet" during break hours and discuss books we're reading, new technologies we're looking at, etc. The issue is more about how to address an inequitable company policy, rather than how to create a new group to compete with it. Nov 14, 2019 at 11:49

This is a double standard that you're just going to have to deal with, like any other affirmative action. Trying to protest it will just get you labelled misogynist.

Simply put, according to many forms of left-wing political thought, certain groups are historically disadvantaged and to counter-act that, they should be given special advantages that members of the historically advantaged groups do not get to "balance things out" and achieve equality. One of the groups that is typically said to have been historically disadvantaged is women, and the idea that women should be given special things to compensate for it is essentially one of the fundamental beliefs of modern feminism.

As a result, protesting against women getting special treatment is essentially regarded as anti-feminist, and will get you labelled as such. It is also unlikely that you will be able to convince a feminist to give similar treatment to men, as doing so is directly opposed to their socio-political ideology. Additionally, depending on location, there may be special exceptions for this type of activity written into the local anti-discrimination laws.

  • 3
    I'd appreciate if the downvoters would explain why I'm being downvoted for providing a description of Affirmative Action and why trying to fight against it in the workplace is likely futile.
    – nick012000
    Nov 14, 2019 at 13:39
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    @AaronF I'm simply describing their beliefs - beliefs I personally disagree with, but which are genuinely held by the people who belong to those political groups. It's not a non-answer, either; it's a Frame Challenge.
    – nick012000
    Nov 14, 2019 at 15:15
  • @AaronF I would say that it's a complicated issue and the oppressor/oppressed view of history oversimplifies things, and that the comments of an answer on the Workplace SE aren't the correct place to discuss it. The political groups I'm talking about are the feminists and similar left-wing groups that champion other "disadvantaged" groups through affirmative action.
    – nick012000
    Nov 14, 2019 at 16:19
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    @AaronF Describing a more nuanced view of history is more complicated than describing the simplified, politicized version of it, yes. And yes, I don't think that the comments section of an answer in Workplace is the correct place to discuss it. If you want to post a Question on the Politics or History StackExchange, though, I'd be happy to post an Answer there.
    – nick012000
    Nov 14, 2019 at 16:41
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    I'm a left-leaning femisist who thinks some degree of special treatment is necessary for disadvantaged groups, and I see nothing wrong or disrespectful about your answer, which explains the situation in pragmatic terms. Have an up-vote.
    – GHP
    Nov 14, 2019 at 17:49

To start with: I admire your principles. I believe you are absolutely correct from an empirical point of view.

Now let's address the world how it is: The whole MeToo movement has, rightly or wrongly, sent a very cold chill through the corporate world to men and there is a very real, and quite valid concern that being in any sort of 1:1 context regularly with a female subordinate or colleague will open the door for false accusations. How valid that concern is would be quite hard to determine, but it's there.

Consequentially, a lot of male industry veterans are going to choose men to mentor, and avoid women. That stinks, but that's what's happening.

In my mind, this support group is a VERY good response to that truth. And if you don't feel that you need the support from the group, consider for a moment that you are the support that someone else in the group needs.

Again, this is all contextual and certainly subjective, but it's real.

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