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(TL;DR: I scolded a female employee who caused a serious problem and was told I should have treated her differently because she's a woman having a hard time in a male industry)

This happened in the late 90s but it is still in my mind because I feel like it was a lose - lose situation.

It was in North America, at a large tech company at the top of its field. Large offices, thousands of employees, etc. I was in a lead position back then with coding and management.

The team was maybe 50-60 people, very male dominated (maybe around 90%).

I've a very direct style of dialog and until this day, I always tell people that I don't care if they make a mistake, I'm just interested in how we're going to fix it. At the same time negligence has always been a pet peeve of mine. Since we built products that, back in those days, couldn't be updated, being very rigorous was very important.

One day we had a series of problems and had to figure out what happened. As data was processed in a pipeline manner, the key was to find at which steps things got wrong. The data was highly numerical so not something you can observe and tell if it's wrong or not. Everyone had to run some tests on their own to try to identify if their part was responsible or not but nothing came out of it.

I called a meeting and we started to discuss it, trying to bounce ideas at each other, etc. Until it all pointed to one programmer that confessed after a little bit of pressure that she didn't run tests on her side because she "knew" the problem couldn't have been on her end. As the discussion progressed it turned out that she also hadn't run her own normal regular tests either and was under the assumption that if something failed it couldn't be her. I berated her about it and explained how this wasted time from everyone in the room. Afterwards, she went on to find she had caused the problem and eventually fixed it.

Fast forward a couple days later, a few of us were out and one of the female employees, that I was friend with, took me apart for a chat and told me: "you shouldn't have done that to her, you have no idea how difficult it is to be a woman in this industry". To which I replied that I always treated her the same way as everyone else and we went in circles.

So, my question ends up being: how should have this been handled?

  • On one end, treating her like everyone else brings me some light scolding since I should have been sensitive that it's hard to be a woman in that team while
  • On the other end if I had treated her differently because she's a woman, I believe it would have set a wrong precedent and possibly demean her in the team as well.

Due to how the situation unfolded and everyone wanting to know the guilty party on the spot, there wasn't really an opportunity to take that discussion offline. I don't think it crossed my mind at the time either since we were all in the heat of the moment after a week of long hours and frustrations.

Every now and then, when we discuss work situations this one comes to my mind but I never made peace with it.


Edit:

With 20+ more years of experience, I know that public criticism wasn't the right way to do this and it should have been taken into a private discussion. At 50, I hopefully learned a great deal more about people than I used to know back then (I believe I was 26-27 when it happened).

But the question hinges on the Male vs. Female issue since the criticism was in essence that it was harder on her, as a Woman, than if I had issued the same criticism to a Man.

For this reason, I can't accept as answer the otherwise valid points that suggest this should have been handled in another manner since they do not address the core question.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 10 at 3:05
  • Why are you having people test their own code, and not each other's (4-eyes principle)? This seems to be the underlying process issue actually causing the problem (though it's likely off-topic here). Apr 10 at 23:22
  • @PaŭloEbermann peer review wasn't that common at the time (we didn't do it) and wasn't easily applicable in this case as it happened on a math heavy tool chain; most errors were mathematical in nature rather than in code and a simple code review wouldn't have worked since it would require an intimate knowledge of each part. Those were also the days where the concept of "bus factor" didn't exist, many people had specific knowledge and internal competition prevented much of the sharing and losing some key people could be catastrophic. (->)
    – Thomas
    Apr 11 at 0:04
  • So instead we relied on tools validating the "sanity" of the data at several points in the pipeline, but it only caught very obvious bugs. Most of the issues would be noticed in the final stages of the pipeline and would be hard to track. Our main challenge was always speed (all was done in C and ASM). For this reason, all programmers were required to have a clean implementation of their part, used to validate data, and the fast one going in production. In theory they should output the same results (->)
    – Thomas
    Apr 11 at 0:06
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    @Thomas It seems odd that you are so concerned about the right thing to do 20 years ago. The purpose of Workplace, as I understand it, is to provide useful answers to future visitors to the site. It's hard to see how insisting that answers are relevant to the workplace 20 years ago does that. Apr 13 at 16:10

17 Answers 17

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I berated her about it and explained how this wasted time from everyone in the room.

You shouldn't do this with any employee, male or female. If there is corrective action required, you do this in private and use a communication style that's appropriate for the problem and the specific employee. Each employee has their own strengths weaknesses and preferred communication style. Gender may play a role in this, but you should simply adjust what works best for the employee.

Then the whole gender/race/religion etc thing can be easily accommodated.

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    Yeah just in general, regardless of who the person is, putting them on blast in a public situation is an irreparably harmful act. Apr 8 at 14:40
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    Put another way, both halves of "you shouldn't have done that to her, you have no idea how difficult it is to be a woman in this industry" are true — but perhaps independently.
    – GManNickG
    Apr 8 at 21:46
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    Perhaps you can touch upon how this should be handled if the issue is discovered publicly? As the questions relates to discovering the issue during a group brainstorming session.
    – slebetman
    Apr 9 at 3:37
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    As I wrote in the question edit and in the comments, I am aware this wasn’t handled right. I didn’t have the experience at the time to handle conflicts properly. But, all things being equal, the core of the question remains if it would have made sense to have a special handling on the basis that it’s hard to be a Woman in that industry vs. equal treatment regardless of general inequality. It’s clear that the overall outcome wasn’t right but the core question remains the same.
    – Thomas
    Apr 9 at 11:10
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    @Thomas I disagree, I feel the answer provides a healthy framing change. The question reads as "Should I mistreat a woman as much as I would mistreat a man?" and I think "you shouldn't mistreat anyone" is a reasonable answer to that.
    – undercat
    Apr 9 at 16:56
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I wish I could just say it was ok as long as you treat your male colleagues equally, but it isn't that easy.

Unfortunately women receive harsher punishment at work for mistakes and misconduct.

I can also confirm that it is a thing that a woman making a mistake is seen as proof that she is incompetent (in extreme cases that all women are), while the same mistake with a man is not seen that harshly. So it is possible that your colleague meant this when she told you that it is difficult to be a woman in this industry.

How should have this been handled? In the short term I don't know. On long term make it safe to admit mistakes, so you waste less time because of that.

Also in the long term, the solution on having a hard time as a woman (or any other minority) in a male (or other majority) dominated field is to not allow toxic behaviour. I am myself a woman in IT, but currently my male colleagues don't give me any bad time. I am just one colleague more to them, and it's safe for me to admit I make mistakes or that I don't know something.

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    This is the answer to the specific question. 20 years ago women (and minorities as you say) had to work twice as hard for half the recognition. So even if the reaction was "equal" it was doubled by that standard. It's not that she was a woman. It's that she was not the same as the majority. Apr 8 at 16:12
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    When I was a manager, I had a female employee that consistently failed to meet expectations. I was very accommodating and tried every non-punitive measure I could think of to help her perform at the most basic level expected. Eventually (years), one of my superiors (a woman) made the decision to let her go. I always viewed it as a failure on my part, both the inability to help her and my reluctance to treat her the way I treated other (male) employees i.e. my expectations were much lower. I have trouble, therefore, accepting the statistics of the school of social privilege on this.
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 8 at 21:22
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    @JoshPart: No, the answer is "don't berate people for making mistakes, both because we know that this disproportionately falls on women in practice, and because it's unprofessional anyway."
    – Kevin
    Apr 9 at 2:06
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    @JimmyJames you've cited a single data point. If you were one of the numerous folks who instead have higher expectations of women, would you be on these comments bragging about it? Apr 9 at 5:36
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    According to my experience (that may not be so much), women usually interpret same blaming as more harsher, and unfortunately, the believing that they are blamed because they are considered less able because of their gender is more from their own mental background than the real environment around them. I can say that their gender plays a very important role in their interpretation of communications, and maybe this is the main cause of the problems of this sort (of course this difference makes a responsibility for their manager and I do not consider it as a weakness at all).
    – Ahmad
    Apr 9 at 7:10
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"one of the female employees, that I was friend with, took me apart for a chat"

The source of your 20 years of cognitive dissonance is the mistaken attitude of that female friend (FF).

You have been going over your reaction to your subordinate female employee (SFE) during the troubleshooting meeting, trying to determine what you did wrong. You did nothing wrong.

Instead, you should be reconsidering your reaction to FF when she told you that you should treat women differently in the workplace. You should not.

You showed great respect for SFE when you scolded her for her actions, just as you would have scolded any man.

What you instinctively understood, and FF failed to understand, is that affirmative action is sometimes necessary, but once SFE was in the thick of things, she must be accorded the privilege of taking her lumps along with the men. Otherwise you would be treating SFE like a "girl" and foreclosing on any opportunity to treat her like an equal.

FF was wrong and 20 years ago you missed a clear and immediate opportunity to set your friend straight.

Do you still have her number?

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    Berating colleagues is never the professional approach in a team setting. FF was pointing that out, though making it gender-specific. OP should've discussed the situation with the SFE calmly afterwards to explore what was learned and how to improve how the team works together.
    – Erika
    Apr 8 at 21:30
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    @Erika: I am responding to querent's actual question, which is "How could the situation have been handled to avoid two decades of unresolved anxiety?" - Note that FF did not say "You shouldn't scold anyone in an open meeting," which would have been correct. FF said "You should give SFE special consideration because she is a woman," which was, and is, wrong. Apr 9 at 1:16
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    @A.I.Breveleri notice also that FF treated his mistake much better than he treated his colleague's: in private, openly and told him precisely what he did wrong. As in, he didn't understand the struggle the other person was facing and decided to go full blast in public. And that's why it bothers him 20 years later. He was wrong but he didn't change.
    – jo1storm
    Apr 9 at 5:46
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    "FF was wrong and 20 years ago you missed a clear and immediate opportunity to set your friend straight... Do you still have her number?" If someone called me out of the blue to "set me straight" over such a matter twenty years later, I would be concerned about their mental wellbeing, and I would not be entirely comfortable about any person who suggested this was a good idea, either. I am pretty sure you will not understand, but there is something creepy about this suggestion.
    – sdenham
    Apr 9 at 14:50
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    This hasn't caused anxiety :) and I would certainly not try to find her and contact her to discuss the topic now. It's just that when we reminisce about history, it's one of these cases that always felt unresolved to some extent. I think also, from the comments on this thread, many people may not realize how collegial and aggressive the dot com era was. It would be insane by today's standards and look like open executions. I've seen people gets screamed at and fired on their first week, people starting/relocating and get dismissed right away, etc different times and I don't miss them.
    – Thomas
    Apr 9 at 21:41
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Drill Sergeant School of Management

I've never met a software engineer, or any employee of any business, who said: "The best boss I ever had really stuck out in my mind because of the way he would yell at people when they screwed up." I myself have never considered a boss to be an excellent manager because of the way they embarrassed The Guy Who Screwed Up. Now, I've never been an executive. If I had, I would probably be pleased at the way such a manager was whipping the plebes into action. But I absolutely guarantee that this management style is not going to win any loyalty points or motivate the team.

I myself have made plenty of mistakes in my career. But the best boss I had did not rake me over the coals for making a mistake. He discussed problems in his office, with just me or one or two other close team members. He covered for me while I fixed things, and together we worked to make sure everything was ok, both technically and business-wise. He was willing to do that because I also delivered really good results for him, and getting on my bad side would not have been a career win for him. Other people on our team screwed up too. But I don't recall him calling any of them out in public (team meetings, in open areas, etc.). He knew how to have those conversations in private. He didn't always succeed. But when he ended up with a weak performer on his team, he usually managed them onto another team. If someone was really bad, he would do one of the hardest things a boss has to do and fired them. He didn't fire many people, but the people he did fire were never missed.

Society is Evolving

We have to be honest: society and culture has evolved a lot in the last 30 years. The changes are almost mind-numbing. Things that were considered perfectly acceptable 30 years ago will get you on the losing end of a lawsuit today. I'd like to think that things are generally getting better, but reasonable people can disagree. I myself have changed a lot over that time, and I certainly said and did things 20-30 years ago that 2020's-Me would not consider professional or acceptable. There was a time when I would say that calling people out precisely for their mistakes and technical failures is a perfectly reasonable, even morally good thing to do for the health and success of the team and the business. But having been on the business end of that policy on more than one occasion, it is clear that younger-Me would have been an absolutely terrible boss.

Men and Women are Different

This is going to ruffle some feathers and trigger some righteous indignation, without a doubt. And when I say this, I mean it in the strictly statistical sense (I believe the means and variances are different, but the distributions still have considerable overlap). I think men relate to men differently than they relate to women for a whole host of reasons, from biology to culture to religion to country of origin. In particular, I think men are much more comfortable competing on a raw level and dealing with each other harshly. And I think they feel entitled to this behavior because so much of society signals that this kind of behavior is not just tolerated, but accepted. Imagine if Will Smith had walked onto stage and slapped Halle Berry. We would be having an entirely different national conversation right now. There would be virtually no debate about whether such a thing is acceptable or appropriate. And yet, there is debate. Because one man slapping another man in public for an obvious slight is right on the borderline of what we consider acceptable. And that results in the massive controversy we see playing out in the twittersphere. And if it had been a woman slapping another woman, we would be having yet a different kind of conversation, with different emotional baggage and moral significance attached.

All that is to say that "software bros" have a pretty broad tolerance for socially abusive behavior within their ingroup. And if there is even a parallel group for women in software, it almost certainly has a lower (even much lower) tolerance for that same behavior. I mean, we could say that the gamer community has no overlap with the professional software engineering community, but the statistics would make an utter hash of any such fantasy. And look at just how toxic typical gamer culture is. I would say this is one area where, socially speaking, we have somehow managed to devolve. I don't think gamers were nearly this bad 30 years ago. And yet, I think it is equally fair to say that 30 years ago, the gamer community was even less welcoming to women.

What I am getting at is that the "equality" of treating a female colleague like a male peer is "morally good" from the framework of "gender blindness". But it is predicated on the presumption that the values accepted by an all-male group are appropriate for a mixed group. And I think this is where the fault lies. Clearly, women who aren't invigorated by a public humiliation fail to accept this weeding-out of weakness that may be perfectly acceptable to an all-male group. But more importantly, all-male groups often accept a certain level of social toxicity because members do not want to be perceived as weak or less masculine. In fact, many members of such groups would prefer to have a more socially neutral, less toxic culture, but are unwilling to say so publicly for fear of social rejection. Especially in a highly competitive for-profit software business, there is nothing to be gained career-wise by calling out a toxic competitive culture for what it is and demanding something more pro-social.

Conclusion

Many people have already pointed this out, but what your female colleague should have told you is that your whole management style is needlessly aggressive, and you should rely on positive reinforcement to achieve your desired results rather than public punishment and humiliation. What I am suggesting is that your team didn't demand this change before, because as a group of men, there were strong sociological forces pushing against any such inclination.

There is still the question of whether you treated your female engineer unfairly. To answer that, you should consider the mistakes made by your other engineers and ask yourself whether you called them out as forcefully and as often. It's difficult to make such self-reflections in a truly accurate manner, because we are clouded by our own biases. There is the question of whether you can even remember the mistakes made by your other engineers, as you may have filed them away as less interesting at a much higher rate.

I think the ideal approach would have been to act cool when you found out that the engineer (let's call her Alice) didn't run her tests, but then call her into your office for a meeting. "So, Alice...everyone else on the team ran the tests against their code and nothing came up. How did your test results look?" ... "Oh, really? So you don't think it's important to run your tests? Ok. I'll play ball. Where do you think we should look for the problem next?" ... "Look, Alice. I know you have a lot of confidence in your code. I have a lot of confidence in your code. But if we circle back around in a week and find a problem in your code, there's not much I can say to my boss when he asks what the holdup is on the release. If you want me to go back to the team and ask for a new brainstorming session on next steps, I'm happy to do that. But if the problem turns out to be something you could have discovered already, then there's gonna be blowback that I am completely unequipped to block. I hope you understand me."

At some point, you got her to run her tests and find the problem. Great! Now you need to fix the problem going forward with another meeting. "So, I'm glad we found the root cause and fixed it! Great job on that! What do you think we did well, and where do you think we could improve?" If she takes responsibility for her actions, then you can just say: "Great! I'll be looking forward to the results of your test runs on the next release!" You need to manage expectations and set an unambiguous bar for quality that she understands. If she doesn't take responsibility, then just say something like: "Well, I gotta do a post-mortem with my boss on Friday. If Bob (most angry male peer of Alice) were writing this up, I have a pretty good idea of what he'd say." Look at her out of the side of your eye with a knowing frown. "But let's say you were in my shoes. How would you write this up?" If she still acts clueless or irresponsible, then you know you need to manage Alice out of your team, and possibly out of the company. But the point is that if you are willing to give her some cover to fix her mistake, she will be far more grateful to you than if you whip her in public in front of her peers. She'll likely be much more diligent in the future, especially knowing that she's already burned some political capital of her own and yours. And if she isn't, then you actually have a much stronger case for getting rid of her than just humiliating her in front of the team.

But taking a step above that, I'd say there were deeper problems. Why weren't all the tests run automatically? I know that unit testing and continuous integration weren't fully industry-standard back in the 90's, but if anyone were on the bleeding edge, I would hope that a top Fortune 500 tech company would be one of them. If the problem was that a release was held up because some tests weren't run, then the problem isn't a female engineer. It's a failed testing culture, which is a team-wide (or org-wide or company-wide) problem that should be addressed at a wider scope. And this is the problem with making failures personal: it takes away from the focus on the whole team improving processes to reduce mistakes. When you have a culture of identifying problems as a team, without assigning blame (i.e., an agile-style retrospective), then the whole team is better positioned to finding solutions and fixing the holes. You can still follow up in private with engineers that are consistently under-performing. But relying on those people to fix their own performance problems is a strictly inferior solution to asking the whole team to shore up any weaknesses.

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    I really like your comment re: “it is predicated on the presumption that the values accepted by an all-male group are appropriate for a mixed group”.
    – Erika
    Apr 9 at 14:47
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    She didn't screw up. The screw up could have been fixed quickly and caused little trouble. She was arrogant and deliberatly went against what her manager told her to do, and then double downed on it, wasting a lot of time and effort. I don't think berating is the way to go, but calling them out in public is appropriate.
    – Issel
    Apr 10 at 1:34
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    @Issel I've seen lots of male engineers get rewarded for being arrogant and deliberately going against what their managers tell them to do, even when it sometimes results in losses. The way people are judged has as much to do with who they are as to what they did. Apr 10 at 6:25
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    @Lodinn absolutely. I'm merely suggesting that if Issel were a manager, they could easily be the kind that sets a strict bar for female engineers and a relaxed one for males, without even realizing it. As for gamers, you are obviously too young to have played in Starcraft/Warcraft/Age of Empires LAN parties. I assure you that the gaming community was alive and well, even if that predates professional eSports. Apr 10 at 7:28
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    @LawnmowerMan they don't get rewarded, the managers are trying to find any reason to get that person onto some other project. Promoting someone so they are someone elses problem is a common tactic, even on here, someone was complaining this happens often in the military just just so that some CO doesn't have to deal with some royal fuck up. All in all, bad management all around in either case.
    – Issel
    Apr 10 at 9:49
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took me apart for a chat and told me: "you shouldn't have done that to her, you have no idea how difficult it is to be a woman in this industry". To which I replied that I always treated her the same way as everyone else and we went in circles.

You didn't do anything wrong. She didn't have a fit and quit crying, she went and fixed the problem. Many men these days would have done a snowflake impression.

The 90's were a very very different time, and a different generation.

Since we built products that, back in those days, couldn't be updated, being very rigorous was very important.

Even the tech industries were wildly different in practice.

I feel like it was a lose - lose situation.

No it wasn't, the problem was identified and rectified. That's a win. That's what you both were being paid for. She has probably long forgotten the incident if it ever worried her much, because it didn't persist or have repercussions to her career. It was just a scary moment, we've all had those. I'm sure people were already aware of your 'style'.

The only thing I might have done different if I had scolded her (unlikely, but possible) is to apologise to her briefly for allowing my frustration to show. But even that would be for my benefit (peace of mind) as I do not like leaving things on a negative. I'd also have given recognition when she fixed the problem.

In general though, you should not allow yourself to become frustrated, work is just problems to solve. Time is paid for. Another problem is just another problem.

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    Mental toughness, +1
    – Anthony
    Apr 9 at 15:24
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    Agreed that a public apology and recognition of new successes was justified after the public beratement. Preferably followed with a group discussion on how to prevent these mistakes making it so far down the pipeline again, like with mandatory tests to be able to push.
    – Drake P
    Apr 9 at 15:36
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    I hope she didn't forget. There was a very valuable lesson there for her, namely, you really shouldn't let hubris decide the best way to do your job. +1
    – 134121
    Apr 9 at 20:36
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    "I'd also have given recognition when she fixed the problem." I like that. A chance for her to recover some lost rep points.
    – 134121
    Apr 9 at 21:18
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    @Kilisi The first part of my comment involves me pointing out that your answer contradicts itself, so unless reality could contradict itself in the 90s, how is that not "from a 90s perspective"? And the second part of my comment is specifically addressing (and quoting) where you said "these days" - if that's referring to the 90s, then we'd clearly have some very different ideas of how words work. But anyway, if I try to apply your reasoning to something else, the conclusion is that slavery was perfectly moral because "people had a different attitude ... back then"? I mean, I disagree, but okay
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 10 at 3:44
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There are two things to distinguish here: whether your ideal treatment would be the same regardless of the gender of the employee, and whether your actual treatment was particularly harmful given that the employee was a woman in a male-dominated field.

As other answers have said, and as you have also said in your edit, the right thing to do would have been to talk with this employee in private, so that she would recognize the problems with her past work and so that this sort of thing would not happen in the future. This is what you should have done, regardless of the gender of the employee.

However, that's not what you did. Publicly berating the employee would have been harmful whether it was a man or a woman, but while it was not the right move either way, it was more harmful in this instance, precisely because of what your friend said: because she was a woman in a male-dominated field. In that context, the negative effects of being on a team after a public calling-out like that would be amplified because of her gender.

In short, while the best response would have been the same for an employee of any gender, there is an unequal negative effect for a suboptimal response. (This can apply, by the way, not only to gender but also to race, age, and a host of other axes of discrimination.)

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    I'm not sure the lashing caused any more harm than her actual offense. I'm having trouble seeing coworker reaction and feelings about her be different either way. But I can imagine harm to himself as manager if he went out of his way to protect her.
    – 134121
    Apr 10 at 9:02
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I berated her about it and explained how this wasted time from everyone in the room.

In a professional environment:

  • It's rarely, if ever, appropriate to berate someone.

  • You should be a bit (but not that much) more diplomatic than to just bluntly say someone "wasted everyone's time".

  • You should discuss the matter with them in private.

If you think verbally abusing and humiliating employees is the best way to get results, then I can only hope that none of your subordinates remain your subordinates for very long.

It should not be that difficult to convey the severity of someone's mistake in a calm and respectful way, and doing so would have far better results in the long term in terms of avoiding mistakes and creating an environment that most people actually enjoy working in.

I didn't mention gender above because gender is largely irrelevant here. Men may be less likely to complain about such behaviour because they're "supposed to" just be able to shrug it off, but I can guarantee that there are plenty of men would be quite negatively affected if treated as above.

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    One instance of a public shame does not a pattern make. You concede at the top it might, though rarely, be appropriate. With the information we have from the OP, the question is whether he should have not only because she's female. You've not answered that question.
    – 134121
    Apr 9 at 20:33
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    @134121 The question only really makes sense if you think the behaviour would've been okay if the person in question were male. My answer is that it's not, and I more explicitly answered the question by saying gender is largely irrelevant here. All I really "conceded" is that there's a "probably" in "it's never appropriate". It certainly doesn't seem to be appropriate given the scenario described in the question.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 9 at 22:52
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    "Wasted a week of people's time because she was utterly incompetent at a basic aspect of her job" seems like the exact time it's appropriate to berate someone. But you've ignored the gender issue, when the very core of the question is in the statement OP was given that very heavily implies the woman giving the statement was primarily concerned that the beratement was done to a female, not that it happened.
    – MichaelS
    Apr 11 at 4:02
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    @MichaelS Employees are not children and a boss is not a parent (and even if they were, berating most probably still wouldn't be appropriate). Adults (and most children) should be capable of understanding the severity of a situation and their mistake without being verbally abused. And my answer is that the behaviour is unacceptable regardless of gender. I'm not going to entertain the belief that it would be acceptable if it were a man (nor attempt to explain what was going on in the head of the person who told OP gender matters here), because the behaviour is unacceptable regardless of gender.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 11 at 4:20
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    @MichaelS It would make sense that you don't consider berating someone to be verbal abuse, because that would rather undermine your point. Just because it's not as severe as some other forms of verbal abuse, doesn't mean it's not in the same category. I'm not going to say the person trying to reduce verbal abuse was wrong to do so, even if parts of what she said might not have been strictly accurate. Not to mention that I don't even know exactly what she said, and the question is about the appropriateness of the behaviour she commented on, not about her comment itself.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 11 at 20:38
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But the question hinges on the Male vs. Female issue since the criticism was in essence that it was harder on her, as a Woman, than if I had issued the same criticism to a Man.

Do you really respond to all questions like this? When you don't agree with a statement, try to look for the kernel of truth of what they were saying. Look for the underlying concern.

You were angry. You were frustrated. This developer was behaving like an idiot (and this isn't isolated to women, I know men developers with huge egos who would have done the very same thing she did). And it's quite difficult to work for someone who effectively lies to you. When you have 50+ people working for you, it's not like you have the time to micromanage a single developer and double-check every test they write.

So when I say "Look for the kernel of truth". I mean. Try to figure out what this second person meant. Be inquisitive. Ask what she would have done differently. Ask her what should happen if this developer does this again. You don't have to agree with everything she says. Nor do you need to promise anything, but you can always ask (at least, you could have done this 20 years ago. Now, it may be a little too late).

Due to how the situation unfolded and everyone wanting to know the guilty party on the spot, there wasn't really an opportunity to take that discussion offline.

And that's another great question. How would your friend have handled this knowing that everyone wanted to know where the bug was coming from and who was the person responsible? Most likely, your friend probably didn't have the right answer either.

But frankly, nobody is perfect. Nobody has all the right answer all the time. Perhaps, by the time that meeting was held, the point of no return had already been reached.

In which case, maybe next time, you can try to preempt such a meeting with another approach. Maybe you create a buddy system. Your buddy checks your code and your tests, and you check their code and their tests. And just to be clear, I don't know if this would have been a good solution either. I just think it's worth discussing the concerns of others, even if you're not fully on board with everything they say. It doesn't commit you to anything.

And no, treating women developers differently just because they're women is not a good idea either. People know when they're being treated differently, and they'll talk. You don't want to be known as the male manager who treats women subordinates differently. That's not good for your reputation. And that's certainly not good for any woman receiving that different treatment either. And if you choose to adjust your management style, you need to adjust it for everyone, not just for the women in your office.

5

I had a bad boss like yourself that prided himself in speaking his mind, openly berating people of their mistakes and ideas if they didnt align with his. He admitted that he's been doing that for a long time (he's in his mid 50s now) and he wont change. I am talking about professional office career manager. So what gave in? He hired 4 us at the beginning of the year and all 4 of us quit within 12 months.

Its not a matter of if you should have treated a woman differently than a man, you should have treated EVERYONE with respect irrespective of gender. From reading your post I can tell you're the kind of boss people avoid.

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  • 3
    As I wrote several times here: the question is about man vs. woman. I know the treatment was wrong, that was exactly 24 years ago and I didn’t have the same experience dealing with people. I know it and there is nothing to learn from it. The man vs woman situation on the other hand is something that can still happen today as it’s true they have generally a harder time in the industry. Pointing out I didn’t know as much when I was 26 while I’m 50 now doesn’t help anything.
    – Thomas
    Apr 9 at 11:21
  • 2
    @Thomas it was your management style and not a man Vs woman thing. I know what you asked but it wasnt. Men and women feel the same amount of pain when they get a dressing down in public. Men are told to take it like a "man" while woman take it more personally. Ask any married man or if you were married you would know this.
    – Sam B
    Apr 9 at 11:45
  • 3
    The original criticism I got wasn’t about being harsh in general; The whole room was boiling in anger at the time and the 90s were a lot more harsh than the office life is today, especially in the dot com boom era where sleep deprivation, 7 days work weeks, open anger and hostilities, sleeping on office couches, etc were the norm. So that part wasn’t criticized, in fact everyone was certainly disappointed she wasn’t fired on the spot. It was wrong by today’s standard but I’m the original context no one cared. But did she deserve anything different solely for being a Woman?
    – Thomas
    Apr 9 at 12:00
  • 3
    @Sam, treat everyone with respect and to same level irrespective of gender. +1 and I wish I could upvote more than once for just that
    – Anthony
    Apr 9 at 14:56
  • 5
    @Anthony but that’s precisely what the female friend asked for: a different treatment, which is the root of the question
    – Thomas
    Apr 9 at 16:17
4

"you shouldn't have done that to her, you have no idea how difficult it is to be a woman in this industry"

Nothing in this advice is about giving special treatment to someone because they are a woman. For clarity, let's try on some other hypothetical advices with similar structure:

"You shouldn't have done that to him, you have no idea how difficult it is to have PTSD"

"You shouldn't treat so-and-so that way, you have no idea how difficult it is to take your spouse to chemo every week"

Who was your friend advising you to treat differently? Everyone. Why? Because you are unaware of their personal tribulations.

You have resisted the take-away here by reframing it to mean something absurd.

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  • 4
    You compared "female in our industry" to someone with ptsd and another with a dying spouse. They don't seem like the same categories. "Female in our industry" is pretty generic, while any person with ptsd or a dying wife has specific baggage. Unless the female friend shared knowledge of specific baggage like that, it's really unfounded to suggest she's not coping well to the job.
    – 134121
    Apr 9 at 21:33
  • 4
    Your two examples are temporary situations for which allowances should made. But because of this, I don't think they really support your argument.
    – Kingsley
    Apr 10 at 4:12
  • Sure, I won't defend the specific examples; they simply demonstrate that the actual advice does not have the specialized interpretation it was received with. Rather, it has the generalized interpretation "Don't be a a-hole to anyone; just assume that they have personal reasons to be treated kindly".
    – spazmodius
    Apr 11 at 14:06
  • I meant to compare the interpretation "You shouldn't treat this female in our industry that way (but you may treat others that way)" to "You shouldn't treat this female in our industry that way (or anyone, for that matter)". OP has no justification for the former interpretation.
    – spazmodius
    Apr 11 at 15:02
4

What happened: Someone made a pretty big mistake, you criticised them for the mistake, it happened that the person was a woman, and you were told you should have handled this differently because she was a woman.

There are two aspects to this: You might have acted differently (worse) because she was a woman. You were not actually accused of that. In any case, you shouldn’t treat anyone better or worse because of who they are. You can only observe yourself.

But sometimes you actually should treat people differently. The same thing said to a confident person or a person with low confidence is not the same. The same behaviour that a 6’5” man laughs off could be seen as very threatening by a 5’2” person (male or female). You could make a bad joke that I just see as a bad joke and someone else would be very upset. And obviously that could be along of make/female lines.

4

If the penalty for making a mistake in production was a fine of $100, is that fair treatment because everyone is fined the same amount, or is it unfair because well-paid team leads would be fined about 1 hour's salary while an intern who was on minimum wage would lose well over a day's wages?

In the 90s, women in software were "paid less" in terms of credit and respect - doing the same job got them less approval, doing a worse job got them much more denigration so although the "loss of face" inflicted in the meeting was the same OP would've given to a male colleague, the resulting harm was greater and that's what the female friend was trying to point out.

However, OP asks "my question ends up being: how should have this been handled?" While the suggestions for having made the discussion private are all good, the female should have been treated like a male colleague, which is what OP did at the time. But having had the disparity pointed out, OP should thereafter have tried to support the female programmer, in particular making sure they were not passed over for promotion or belittled for the mistake any more than a male colleague would have been.

1
  • 1
    I like the analogy with the fine because this perfectly illustrates the issue
    – Thomas
    Apr 11 at 11:15
3

Let's start out with the obvious conflict between people's thinking and their words. You're not actually expected to treat people equally, but you are expected to treat them fairly. Often treating someone fairly does mean they're getting equal treatment, but fair is a complicated concept and does hinge greatly on the context and the people involved. Where this comes up every day for a manager is the difference in how you treat the person who keeps screwing up and the person who's only screwed up once. Then of course there's the severity of the problem, the specific personality traits of the person, and most importantly there's the outcome you want to get out of it.

Now that said, I think you did the right thing. It wasn't her initial mistake that led to your outburst. You were upset because she hid the problem from the rest of you merely out of hubris. She was thinking "how could I be the one who made the problem?" Then she chose inaction in the face of a critical issue. I believe a public shaming is almost never appropriate, but serving up a slice of humble pie is the quintessential reason you should.

The heart of your question is whether her being female mattered in this instance. No, certainly not. As I said, hubris is easily resolved with a public shaming. I would be very interested to hear about her performance and changes in behavior after that event.

Circling back to fair versus equal treatment, very often being female does matter. The clear things are anything involving heavy physical labor. If in the office there's a sudden need to lift 50 pound boxes, it's not really appropriate to recruit the female office staff. Chivalry is not dead, and it shouldn't be. When dealing with the nuance of communication, when you don't know enough about a person it's a good idea to lean on generalizations at least a little bit until you learn more. Generally, women prefer a gentle tone when talking to them. There simply aren't many women that respond well to the harsh ways men tend to talk to each other. Being more gentle in your words with women may not be equal, but it is fair. It's fair in the sense that you as a manager strive to understand the needs of each employee so as to best motivate them to their highest performance capacity. You learn as a manager that some people respond well to a certain tone and others not so well. And when you don't know them to well, it's perfectly fair to lean on common assumptions that are generally true. I understand that these assumptions can be heavily contested, but we're talking about personal interactions with individuals, not anything bigger than simply talking. Just try not to put your foot in your mouth.

3

But the question hinges on the Male vs. Female issue since the criticism was in essence that it was harder on her, as a Woman, than if I had issued the same criticism to a Man.

No, the criticism was that it is harder on her as a woman in the tech industry in the 90s. Your refusal to accept that qualification is the reason for your self-inflicted dilemma.

Your female friend wasn't criticising you for chewing out your female coworker; she was chastising you for being unwilling or unable to empathise with the experience of women in the tech industry in the 90s. To understand what such a public dressing-down could mean to the career of a woman, versus that of a man, in tech - to name only one thing. She did a poor job of explaining her viewpoint, but maybe that was because she simply didn't understand that you needed this explained... or maybe it was because she was so disappointed that you did.

Ultimately, you've attempted to approach this issue with logic, and it isn't about logic; it's about good old soft-skills empathy.

4
  • As a male in a female dominated industry I got no such sympathy from 2014 - 2020 either
    – Neil Meyer
    Apr 11 at 20:26
  • ... and your point is?
    – Ian Kemp
    Apr 12 at 8:29
  • @IanKemp, I believe Neil is saying that special accomodations or sympathy based solely on gender are harmful. He answered a previous question of mine about accomodating a muslim colleague and also stated that gender issues are a nonissue. I agree
    – Anthony
    Apr 12 at 15:24
  • But my answer isn't solely about gender. It's about gender in the context of a specific profession at a specific time period. That context is exactly what the asker, and Neil, and you are ignoring.
    – Ian Kemp
    Apr 14 at 14:56
2

You seem to be convinced that your words at the time were well-intentioned and at least fair. You also seem to believe that the criticism of your female friend had some merit, otherwise you wouldn't remember it all those years later. I can think of 2 possible explanations:

  1. The women involved experienced misogyny from male superiors before, and your behaviour fit the mould. That may have caused them to see your straight-shooter criticism as patronizing and dismissive.

  2. Your workplace had a very masculine culture and style of conversations that women had to adopt to fit in. Perhaps they were used to a different style of interaction, i.e. by associating mostly with women in school and university. Perhaps they were unfamiliar and overwhelmed with a direct confrontation like that.

I don't really have any fixes for that. You could be well-intentioned and well-adapted and still run into one of those. Treating all women with silk gloves is also not a solution you favour, and I understand that.

All I could suggest is, for the long-term, fostering a workplace with cultural diversity that makes people more considerate of different ways of interaction.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Apr 10 at 8:17
1

@Thomas please read the full answer, as it will handle the question in several ways.

The question is, as far as I understand, the following:

So, my question ends up being: how should have this been handled?

  • On one end, treating her like everyone else brings me some light scolding since I should have been sensitive that it's hard to be a woman in that team while
  • On the other end if I had treated her differently because she's a woman, I believe it would have set a wrong precedent and possibly demean her in the team as well.

Let's look at your 2 options. Your first suggestion is to treat her like everyone else and scold her. That makes you a buthole for scolding people. The second option is to treat her different, and not scold her. That makes you a buthole for scolding people.

You shouldn't scold anyone, and absolutely not in public. Not a man nor a woman. No matter what color their skin has, or their eyes. No matter how tall they are or how many legs they have.

Instead you should treat people as humans and individuals. In this particular case the first thing to do is probably to end the meeting, and ask her to run the tests. You shouldn't confront her while you're in the heat of the moment. And at that moment the important part is to get the error found and fixed, a retrospective to what happened and why can wait.

You said she was sure the problem wasn't with her code. My guess is that she was a newish developer. When I was newish I was sure loads of problems were in the frameworks or even in the programming language itself. With time I've learned that's not the case, it's more likely I messed up. I've seen other newer developers doing the same. Let's assume that's about what she thought.

In the retrospective of what caused the issue you should listen, and steer her towards how she should act, and why. She already knows she made a mistake, and don't need to get that repeated. You should do this in a style that's best for the person you're currently working with.

Due to how the situation unfolded and everyone wanting to know the guilty party on the spot, there wasn't really an opportunity to take that discussion offline.

That's where a leader have to be strong, and ignore that people want to "hang the guilty".

I don't think it crossed my mind at the time either since we were all in the heat of the moment after a week of long hours and frustrations.

That's 100% on you. Don't blame this on the circumstances, as a leader you should have thought of it. You are a human, and it's human to make mistakes. But don't try to use that as a reason for what you did.


The above is my answer to the question. But I guess that you will ignore it, since you clearly stated that you want answers related to gender. And that you already know you did things wrong. But the thing is that you might know it, but you don't understand it. If you did, you would also understand that the question is flawed. Thinking about it another way you kind of ask:

I know I was a buthole 20 years ago, and I think it was ok to be one towards men. Was it wrong to also be a buthole towards women?

I hope you understand that the answer is that it's not ok to be a buthole towards anyone. By fixating on it the way you have done you miss the big picture.


So should you treat men and women differently? What about different skin colors, or height? No, you shouldn't, you should treat everyone as a humans and individuals. If that means something special is needed it should be towards the individual, not because the gender etc.

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  • 2
    in that context, what she went through was nothing special. I remember being in a meeting at the most famous game company where one of the guy that wrote one the most successful arcade games in the early day looked at the new guy that gave a bad idea, slammed the table and screamed at him 'wtf are you talking about? get out!' that was followed by summoning HR to come to be told to get rid of him right away. The new guy had just said he wanted to make the tool he was hired to do in another language than C...
    – Thomas
    Apr 10 at 19:20
  • 3
    @Thomas just because other people do a thing doesn't make you less of a buthole for doing the same thing. Blaming others to avoid taking responsibility isn't the kind of boss I'd like to have. And you're continuing to avoid the problem. You say that "no one had any issue with the scolding at all." If that's the case, how come you're asking about it? Didn't all of this start because someone did have a problem with it, and brought it up with you? Doesn't this show that someone had an issue with it?
    – Polygorial
    Apr 10 at 20:42
  • 1
    I won't continue this thread. I thought there were a bit of hope that you would understand. But your answers showed clearly that you don't want to consider the possibility you might have been wrong.
    – Polygorial
    Apr 10 at 20:48
  • 1
    I think you're missing my point: the issue the friend had wasn't about scolding. It was about scolding a female, very specifically. I know scoldings are bad, I know it's not the right way to treat something and I know today it would become an HR matter instantly and I know that anyone born after 1980 has never worked in a context like that and will just not get that this isn't where the problem was.
    – Thomas
    Apr 10 at 21:02
  • 1
    The friend in question had no problem people were fired left and right, and that people were constantly fighting and abusing one another. When the potential financial upside is huge, when you can instantly retire if your product is successful, people will happily work in hell. What she had issues with is that she thought a female wouldn't be able to recover from this since they already have massive difficulties to be there in the first place. She never complained about people suffering daily, these were reckless races for profit, not "jobs" with proper environments.
    – Thomas
    Apr 10 at 21:06
0

I am in the United States and have been working here the vast majority of my life. Given you said North America, I will assume culture to be either Canada or United States.

I agree with you that you men and women should be treated the same in terms of accountability and having the same expectations / policies applied to them.

On the other end if I had treated her differently because she's a woman, I believe it would have set a wrong precedent and possibly demean her in the team as well.

Correct, and I agree with you completely. Applying lower standards to women, assuming your expectations of your male team members are appropriate, only signals to the women on your team that they are not as valuable or somehow need special protection, solely because she are a woman.

Yes,women are somewhat underrepresented in some industries (such as cybersecurity where I currently work in). Yes, one's gender should not dictate the career opportunities one is able to enter (outside of a narrow number of roles in which gender is a legitimate distinction) However, the above does not translate to that female colleagues should have their work mistakes overlooked or you ensuring accountability on her part is somehow wrong.

However, I would agree that your tone and demeanor when approaching this female team member was not helpful. Public criticism could have been embarrassing for her, and more likely a harsh tone (i.e: berated) could have put her on the spot. I believe the criticism you received was not because what you did, but how you went about doing so.

As it seems from your comments that you are fixated on thinking somehow your actions are worse for no other reason that the receiver of the message is a woman, I just want to state clearly that the person who brought up the issue that the team member who caused the problem is female, is absolutely in the wrong. She seems to be asking that you treat the problematic team member with special and unfair treatment, solely due to she being a woman.

Dont do it. With exception of a very limited types of work, gender is not relevant to work communication (as are race, nationality, religion etc). You should not let this keep bothering you, as it was the other person who was out of bounds here.

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    I think hubris maybe should be solved with embarrassment. I remember learning greatly on several occasions from someone willing to shame me in public. I was a slow learner. Hopefully she figured it out after this one experience.
    – 134121
    Apr 9 at 21:55
  • 2
    -1, you seem to be hinging your whole answer on the supposition that the person who brought up this issue is wrong for raising the concern. You've focused wholly upon that the querent treated their employees equally, but you haven't acknowledged equity at all. This is likely a poor management style as if you do not acknowledge the uniqueness of your employees, then you are going to be less able to support them. Apr 11 at 14:56

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