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Career Pollution: What is it, how it affects you, and what you can do about it
November 21, 2022

By April M. Stewart, Special MWAF Contributor

Pollution – pol·​lu·​tion | \ pə-ˈlü-shən, noun: the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment; to contaminate (an environment) especially with man-made waste

Have you ever felt like there were bits of litter scattered along your career path?

Pesky little hurdles and potholes that were just enough of an obstacle to trip you up, catching you unawares.

You stumble a little, apologize to no one in particular (because that’s what we do), regain your composure, move on and don’t think much of it.

But it keeps happening.

And eventually these micro-obstacles (a.k.a. micro-aggressions and/or meta-messages*) insist on being noticed, often simply from the effects of accumulated injury, but sometimes because you suddenly start to wonder why you never noticed them before.

You were so intently focused on making your way down that path to the end goal that this detritus was typically in your easy-to-ignore peripheral vision; however, once brought into focus, you start to look around. Where is this litter coming from? Why does it keep falling on my path? Is it happening to others as well?

This, ladies, is what I refer to as “career pollution”.

Basically, it means all the cr*p that gets flung in your way – purposely or not – that discourages, deters, blocks, or undermines you from advancing in your career.

Like the definition of “pollution” above, these surreptitious and insidious career obstacles infuse your personal and professional environment with contaminating waste. (I could even go so far as to play on the word ‘man-made waste’ in the sense that for women, a great deal of these pollutive elements come from dismissive and/or derogatory patriarchal and sexist innuendos, biases, and social and organizational systems. But we’ll save that for another day.)

For example, the very common Idea Stealer, Interrupter or Ignorer: You suggest an idea or voice your opinion and it seems like no one heard. A few minutes later, when a man says the very same thing, it’s suddenly the best idea anyone has heard all day!

In my experience, this has happened so many times that I’ve lost count. I distinctively recall the last time it happened though, because it was the LAST time it happened. I called the man out and the look on his face was either dumfounded that I had done so or because he didn’t understand what he’d done.

To be fair, it’s probably a safe bet that most men don’t even know they’re doing it.

A 2012 study showed that men speak seventy-five percent of the time (compared to women), so it’s very likely that it’s just because he’s industriously filling audio space.

Furthermore, linguist Deborah Tannen, whose research specializes in the difference between men and women’s speech patterns, says that men typically don’t wait for other men to speak, they just jump right in. Because this is “culturally” acceptable form among men, it doesn’t occur to them that they should wait their turn or actively invite others to participate in the conversation as, say, a woman might.

Tannen also points to research that shows even as boys men “pay less attention to females their own age than to other males.”

But there’s a bigger issue here: the invalidation or negation of women’s input, a glossing over of their physical presence.

You literally feel invisible when it happens.

One way to combat this deflating phenomenon is the tactic of amplification. If a woman voices an idea, other women around the table need to repeat it, making sure to attribute it to the original speaker. You could even encourage her to elaborate so that the original idea becomes fully embedded in the minds of those present and credited to the woman who suggested it.

Another frequent career polluter is being told directly, passive-aggressively, or sarcastically-amusedly that you are being too loud/bossy/aggressive/abrasive/fill-in-the-blank with several other barbed adjectives.

The point is that these comments all imply that your mannerism is distasteful, unwelcome, unhelpful. The undertone is that you should be more “ladylike”, i.e., shut up and smile.

This is called “role incongruity”. Inconsistencies between stereotypical female and male characteristics (e.g., that men are more take-charge, women are more nurturing) lead to prejudice towards females in a traditionally male role. So, if a woman were to demonstrate leadership through dominant, directive and competitive behaviours, our biased brains can’t conciliate what we have been conditioned to think a woman is with what she’s exhibiting and thus, she is seen as lacking and incompetent.

Perhaps the biggest pollutants of all are the stereotypes and biases society just can’t seem to shake.

Many of them are unconscious, but we can train ourselves to overcome them simply by becoming aware of and acknowledging their disastrous effect (often in terms of the ever-important bottom line).

One interesting way for men to recognize their unconscious biases toward women is by implementing the Daughter Effect. It appears that men who have daughters gain a different perspective and often feel/act less biased toward women.

For example, a seven-year study (1997-2004) showed that legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives who had daughters voted significantly more liberal on several issues, particularly those related to women (e.g., reproductive rights).

So, if you’re a man, it seems that you start to see the world through very different glasses when the outcome of an action could affect your female progeny.

And sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies. Here are just a few examples of self-inflicted career pollution:

  • Women have a bad habit of self-silencing. I’ve unknowingly been guilty of this until I was made aware of the phenomenon and it’s now a work in progress. Essentially, it’s when you repress your emotions or opinions because you are hesitant to rock the boat and create potential conflict. It also stems from the fear of rejection. But you are doing yourself a huge disservice if, for example, you choose not to voice your thoughts at a board meeting (whether around the family table or as part of an organization) just because you don’t want your comment to become a “thing”. Your input is as valuable and legitimate as the next person’s and while there are certainly ideal ways to present a thought (and equally a lot of bad ways to do so) you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you want to be an equal part of the conversation.
  • Though there’s still debate around whether “imposter syndrome” is real, I think we can all agree that we’ve doubted ourselves or believed that we did not belong at the table, in the business, or on the stage. Like self-silencing, imposter syndrome is an internalized psychological phenomenon where your inner chatter creates rumination and self-doubt that culminates in a crisis of confidence. In their book The Confidence Code, authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay write “When the prefrontal cortex works too hard, as it often does in women [seen via brain scans], it’s like the parking brake is always on and you can get stuck on certain thoughts or behaviours.” The biggest hack I’ve learned studying psychology is that once you are aware of your biases or the little tricks your mind can play on you, you are less likely to act on them.  Google ‘imposter syndrome’ to learn about its triggers, symptoms, and cures so that you can proactively circumvent or disable them. “If we know how an ‘inner limit’ is constructed, we have a better chance of recalibrating it to be a useful component of our social brain,” says Gina Rippon, author of Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds.
  • We apologize too much and use language and speaking styles like upspeak that make us seem unsure. Joanne Lipman, author of That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together, wrote “We apologize all the time, even though we aren’t sorry…We make statements sound like questions, even when stating facts.” These mannerisms can “downplay our status and implicitly cede more power to the other person in the conversation – especially if it’s a man”, writes Lipman. Tannen says that it’s a matter of differing speech patterns: both genders are influenced from early days through family and society as to how they will act, interact and speak. For example, the word “sorry” is a cultural idiosyncrasy of women. We use it in a variety of situations, but to men it’s typically taken for true intent, that is, an apology. To a man it seems like we’re apologizing for some shortcoming or oversight when in fact we’re using it to signal empathy and understanding.

The above list of career polluters is by no means exhaustive.

But like our physical environment of planet Earth, the more we are aware, the more research we do, the more solutions we implement, and the more proactive measures we take, we can clean up our career environments and provide a healthier one for future generations.



*According to linguist Deborah Tannen’s seminal research on men and women’s differing styles of speaking (“genderlects”), “[M]etamessages frame a conversation…they let you know what position the speaker is assuming in the activity and what position you are being assigned.” I highly suggest her books ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation’, ‘Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work’, and ‘That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships’.


This blog was originally published on The Farmer’s Survival Guide for Women blog. Read more like it here.

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