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I am a recently graduated engineer and have just joined a small software company in India. Our company is divided into project teams that are further divided into groups of three people.

My first project is starting soon and I've been assigned to a group with two women. Unfortunately I'm come from a traditional background, am rather shy and was in a male-dominated college track which means that I only rarely interacted with women. While some might think this is a stupid question, I'm feeling very nervous about working together in this group.

How should I build and maintain a professional relationship with my female coworkers?

  • 45
    You should speak and interact with them just as you should with male colleagues. Do not prejudge. If you ever get a situation in which a colleague is not doing their fair share of the work, deal with it the same way regardless of whether it is a man or a woman. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 23 '16 at 13:57
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    @PatriciaShanahan That's easy for most westerners to think and say, but for a young man, in certain parts of the world, he may not have EVER done it (spoken to a woman (other than mother), and not as an equal). – CGCampbell Apr 23 '16 at 13:59
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    @CGCampbell But he has worked with men before, at least as a student. I am suggesting modeling his treatment of female coworkers on that. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 23 '16 at 14:02
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    @ramdas1989: thanks for sharing your question. To many westerners accustomed to a society without rigid gender roles, this question may be outside of our cultural experience and may raise hackles. I think it's valuable that this forum provides a place where he can ask for advice on how to interact in a space where he lacks experience. – MealyPotatoes Apr 23 '16 at 17:34
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    You should start by asking them the same thing you just asked here - "I am new to this situation, what do you think is appropriate behavior". This might still be awkward, but being perceived as awkward is still much better than (erroneously) being perceived as a misogynist . – Eike Pierstorff Apr 23 '16 at 18:09
109

I disagree with all the answers saying to treat them just like male colleagues.

Treat them with the respect that is inherent in your cultural values. I work with many women. I don't treat them the same as male colleagues. I am much more careful with my language around them, and I make a conscious effort not to argue in the same way or act threatening. In general, I'm much more polite and careful around them than if it's just males. An example is that I will put on a shirt if there are women around, while due to the heat here, it's not uncommon for us guys to have our lunch outside without shirts on.

So act like a gentleman in whatever fashion that is in your culture (if in doubt what that is, ask your mother). In saying that, that is in your personal interactions with them, don't let their being women interfere with your professional duties. Work is work.

  • 57
    I have been mentoring young (male) trainees/interns, and on several occasions, when discussing work-related things in the evening, invited them to dinner to continue the discussion there, and even paid for their meal (heck, my hourly rate is 10 times theirs). I would never do this if the trainee was a young female, just to prevent any misunderstandings. So much to "treat them equally". – Guntram Blohm Apr 24 '16 at 9:41
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    @GuntramBlohm: I understand that you mean well, but by taking that approach, you're contributing to the old boy network. It's not fair to limit your mentorship of one trainee just because she's a woman. – ruakh Apr 24 '16 at 20:57
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    @GuntramBlohm So invite somebody else along to dinner, too. That way, there's no chance of it being misunderstood as a date. – David Richerby Apr 24 '16 at 22:13
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    @Stu in that case, I am unashamedly sexist and my culture, upbringing and religion have taught me to treat women in a different and kinder manner than men. Holding doors open, watching my language, carrying heavy objects even for women I do not know is second nature for me. Sue me. – Kilisi Apr 26 '16 at 21:49
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    @Stu Why would you make a personal remark like that? Your moral system being different to mine does not make you a better person. I'm not only NOT going to change my ways, but I'm making sure my sons behave in the same manner... feel free to downvote my answer and move along. – Kilisi Apr 26 '16 at 22:18
65

Just try to be "normal" as you are with your male friends or neighbors etc. DO not try to shy away. Speak with them casually , informally as friends. In about 2-3 weeks you will start feeling comfortable with them. in about 3-4 months , you will forget about all your shyness. Relax and do not put any pressure on yourself.

  • This is the only acceptable answer. People can handwave away "cultural differences" all they like; if no-one changes, nothing will ever change. – Stu May 5 '16 at 17:37
51

As a fellow Indian, I'll offer this:

Education here works in the way that till you're in middle school(fifth grade), boys and girls are made to sit on common benches, and interaction between them is normal, as is between people of the same sex(why are people shy of using this word? It's more appropriate than gender here in meaning).

Then from middle school onward, they're made to sit separately, and even their social circles separate to the point that in high school, being near a boy/girl is seen from your peers as suspicious/ridiculous (we're just kids, I get it).

Then, all of a sudden, in college and workplaces it's expected that they should be working as a team. This'll be hard - they've had to be socially separate for the last eight years! Naturally it's hard. Also, there's the angle of changing viewpoints as you get older - Here's a quote for you(interesting thread - give it a read):

http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-2565381/hell-wrong.html

MU_Engineer
you are about the age where they start becoming interesting instead of cootie-infested and icky

That's even more reason to be shy.

But I say, step out of your comfort zone. Approach and talk to them as you will with any other colleague of yours. Of course, there are some unwritten rules of etiquette with women, and follow them, they're important - but still it isn't as hard as it appears.

Another thing I'd like to say that in our culture some people are of the belief that males have been and will be inherently superior to females. Don't hold this belief. If you have any female seniors or superiors, treat them with the respect they're due. It might feel awkward at first(it did to me), but you'll get used to it eventually. And with time you'll form a relationship with everyone in the office and learn to work as a team, and that'll be a wonderful feeling when that happens.

Till then - best of luck, and congratulations on your new job!

22

Why does them being a woman have any bearing on how you interact with them in a professional workplace? To have a professional relationship, you should interact with them in the same manner as you do with men in a professional setting - with respect. Colleagues, irrespective of male or female, appreciate and expect professionalism, respect, and recognition for the merit of work well done.

A colleague's gender is irrelevant to how one should conduct oneself in a workplace, and no special preference should be shown in one's professional conduct solely due to the colleague being female. To show special deference, or to apply different standards of conduct when interacting with women can even be perceived as insulting. She is no different from any other colleague, other than she is a woman.

Some of the comments below say this might be dangerous or ill -advised because of one's behavior with men. If you treat men "roughly" because its accepted within your culture, then no you should not extend this treatment to women. As mentioned by @ Matthew Read in a comment, rather than look for the lowest common denominator and adapt to the "culture", be the change you want to see and treat all with respect.

In the end, I will borrow a quote from @ Patricia Shanahan and say this "You should speak and interact with them just like male colleagues."

  • 51
    Men are humans too, and men are more vulnerable around women for all sorts of reasons. I think your answer could have more empathy for the questioner's psychology. – Lepidopterist Apr 23 '16 at 16:37
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    Also, depending on how the OP treats men it may be very bad advice to treat women the same. There are all sort of social complexities here that you elide in your rhetorical answer. – Lepidopterist Apr 23 '16 at 16:45
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    @Anthony I guess you come from a very specific work culture, because in most work cultures all male teams operate VERY differently than mixed or all female environments. Men "sh*t test" each other in a way that women tend not to and are decidedly low on empathy with each other. This is considered respectful and productive by many cultures. Telling men to treat women just like men may be the morally correct advice, but practically it can get men in a lot of trouble. Your answer is idealistic and doesn't reflect the real world complexities. – Lepidopterist Apr 23 '16 at 18:38
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    I totally agree with the core message here, but it feels like you're ignoring half of OP's question in the name of political correctness :\ – Mathias R. Jessen Apr 23 '16 at 18:40
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    This answer basically says that all the males who hide on one side of the gymnasium at the school dance are sexist. The overwhelming majority of human beings are heterosexual. This means you're emotionally and physically attracted to the opposite sex. Human beings are naturally uncomfortable when experiencing these emotions, especially with a stranger. What the OP is experiencing here is called humanity, people should try it out sometime instead of trying to turn everything into an equality cause. – user41761 Apr 24 '16 at 0:06
13

TL;DR

You're a human being. Human beings feel naturally uncomfortable when experiencing physical and or emotional attraction to another, and you're not wrong in asking this question or feeling the way you do. Keep it professional, respect the equality you share, and respect the differences between your genders.

Long Version - Make sure to keep hydrated.

As a complimentary answer, there's something that you need to take into consideration when reading the answers here. From the looks of it, these answers are coming from a "Western" cultural perspective. You need to understand that in this cultural/world view, even the language that you use to ask this question is cause for many from this sphere to get really upset. Heck, they might even go so far as to create a new trending hashtag on twitter (oh my goodness watch out, here comes #YoureNotAllowedToBeShy).

We're bored, or something of this nature in "the west". My theory is that since we stopped striving to increase in knowledge and pursuit of discovery, and turned to pointless consumerism and 60 hour work weeks to support the consumerism machine, we have nothing better to do than find a "cause" to take up. In this case, you're kicking at the nest of those who have taken up the cause of gender equality.

Equality is great, equal wages are great, all these things are great and there was a time when this cause was a good one. In this day and age however, this cause has turned radical. Case in point is people like my wife, who are stay at home mothers, are described on popular media with a vulgar tone and being told that women like her can "go make a sandwich, b***ch" by television hosts like Ana Kasparian (Young Turks). Gender equality in the west has actually turned into the same sexism that it started out to prevent.

Anyway, it's offensive to suggest that you'd feel different or uncomfortable being a heterosexual male working closely with a female simply because of this very volatile cultural phenomenon that's taking place. So, you're going to get answers that basically tell you to treat them like a man and more than that, a man that has authority over you. I agree with Learner_101's answer, but would suggest that you don't go completely informal.

Respect your culture, where there is a clear difference between a man and a woman. Obviously women are equal in the fact that they deserve every bit of opportunity and respect that you do, but they are in fact different. Respect that part of your culture, treat them with the kind of delicacy and respect that a gentleman would. Again, because of this psychotic western issue, I have to explicitly clarify that "delicacy" does not mean treat them as if they are weak. I mean this in the sense that you honor and respect the things that are different about them, differences that they most certainly are proud to identify themselves by.

Be calm, be yourself, be professional. Definitely don't act casual as if they are "men", and let me explain. When men are casual around other men, especially in a work environment, we're usually obnoxious and rough with our verbal and body language. I'd argue that, especially in your culture, women are not this way. Again, a difference between men and women that is perfectly fine! So, consider this, conduct yourself in a way that is respectful of the differences between you, while also embracing and respecting the equality you both share.

As for the other answers and comments here that are telling you that there's basically something wrong with you or that your feelings are sexist, well now you know why I wrote this long answer. They're dead wrong, the majority of human beings are heterosexual and when these human beings are around members of the opposite sex, they're generally going to feel some degree of attraction, and feeling uncomfortable when experiencing these feelings is also as old and normal as humanity itself. That is absolutely not wrong. These people need to give being human a try, then they'll change their perspective.

Thank you for asking this question and navigating the minefield that is the western idea of morality and social justice.

  • 5
    I see why it took so long, good solid answer – Kilisi Apr 24 '16 at 7:09
  • I'm not bored, nor do I treat other men in any way that is obnoxious or rough, and I would be called in front of HR to explain myself if I did. I'm actually pretty sad that this answer has so many votes. Sad and concerned that enough people seem to think these points are valid. I don't see anything in any of the other answers calling the asker sexist or saying that there is anything wrong with him. There's nothing at all wrong about having any kind of feelings. What distinguishes a mature adult from an infant is how we choose to act on those feelings. – Todd Wilcox Feb 28 '18 at 9:09
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Some of the comments suggest that treating your female coworkers the same way you would normally treat male coworkers might not be a great idea, assuming there are less-kind treatments that are acceptable in your society between men, but not from men to women.

The fact that you are concerned with treating your coworkers properly is a good thing. I suggest that you think of your question as not only about your female coworkers, but about all of your coworkers. They should all be treated with the same respect and professionalism. In addition, it will be much easier to train yourself to treat all of your coworkers well if you treat them all the same way.

You may be thinking, "Todd, surely I should treat my boss with the utmost respect, care, and professionalism!" I agree with that, you should treat your boss that well. So I'm suggesting that you treat all your coworkers as well as you treat your boss(es).

Anything that you wouldn't say or do to your boss, don't say or do to any coworkers, male or female.

As an aside, you may very well find that learning to be on a team with two women will be a valuable personal growth experience for you. Not only will you learn how to work with people with whom you might not easily feel comfortable around (which is something we all have to do, regardless of gender), if your society does have an emphasis on traditional gender roles, then it's likely you will find your female teammates have fresh perspectives that male colleagues would not have. This is an excellent opportunity for you to grow and foster in yourself a unique perspective, that will make you a better employee and coworker and even a better person overall.

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    You are completely ignoring workplace culture. If you tell this to a marine, he will laugh at you. You will not survive as a marine if you do not challenge your fellow marines and give each other a hared time in order to make yourselves better and work more cohesively as a unit. Maybe you don't understand this group dynamic, but it is pervasive and has many advantages. Your answer presumes that everyone should aspire to create your preferred work culture. OP is coming from a specific culture and entering a new specific culture. The question is how he should navigate this specific situation. – Lepidopterist Apr 23 '16 at 22:20
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    @Lepidopterist Since he's an engineer and not a marine, I fail to see how the analogy is relevant. As you write, this is about his specific situation. The point of my answer is not that everyone should always treat all their coworkers as if they were their boss, the point of my answer is to help this particular person come up with a workable strategy for dealing with his particular coworkers. Are you perhaps in a different way making similar assumptions as I am making? The asker hasn't said anything about how he would normally treat male colleagues or how they would expect to be treated. – Todd Wilcox Apr 23 '16 at 22:24
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    It was just an analogy. I have a math/engineering background and I know that many startups also have a rough culture and it's just the way it is. I'm not certain about the advice to treat people as well as you do your boss. That has a lot to do with the culture around how the boss is treated, which unfortunately is not always reasonable or fair. It is not always smart to give such deference to people who may be competing against you in some sense. Whether you like it or not, politics and group dynamics exists even in engineering. – Lepidopterist Apr 23 '16 at 22:44
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    I agree with this answer. It's far better to aspire to treat everyone well than to find the lowest common denominator and act like them because "it's culture". – Matthew Read Apr 23 '16 at 23:49
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    Interestingly, Google just announced that the best predictor of productivity on teams was having a space where everyone felt safe expressing their opinion. – Amy Blankenship Apr 24 '16 at 21:18
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In my college days ,we had group of only boys and I rarely speak/ interact with girls.

Personally I am very skeptical of gender-separated education for exactly this reason: It insufficiently prepares people for interactions with the other gender which will be necessary during their work-life.

How should speak / interact with them?

Just like you would with a male in the same professional context.

Will I get trepanned by these project partners to do the whole group work alone?

The risk of one person doing all the work while the others lay back and get all the reward exists in any team. But that has nothing to do with gender. Remember that they need to prove themselves just as much as you do (in fact even more as they are fighting against gender bias) and can not afford to stand out as lazy either. Also, they likely went through the same education you went through, so do not assume that their skills are any better or worse than your own until you see evidence to the contrary.

How should I maintain professional relationship with the opposite gender ( female) project partners?

Just like with any male partners. Do not flirt, do not be condescending. When you want to praise or criticize their work, be honest but do not attribute their skill to their gender.

4

Many things have been said here. I'll just give some other perspective.

Imagine how these women have felt when working for the first time working with men. If you can relate to that, it may be less difficult to handle this situation.

Maybe there are other people in your company with the same background. Ask them how they handled it.

Another suggestion, but another "western" one, and maybe totally inappropriate in India: tell these women that you find it difficult to work with them. And make sure that you let them know that it's not because of them being women, but because of your background. So make clear that you're willing to do this, that it's not their fault, and you may make mistakes, but you're prepared to work on it.

You let them know that you find it difficult, and they will give you some room. That's the normal way.

  • I agree, openness is the best policy! These women will likely intuit your discomfort, and everything will be better if it's out in the open. – JK39 Apr 25 '16 at 9:05

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