Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, a new book by Washington and Lee University professor Ellen Mayock, is focused on academia but offers understanding of and solutions to gender-based discrimination in all types of organizations. Mayock’s core concept of “shrapnel” is especially intriguing. She explains that “shrapnel” describes the regular insults and slights that build up over time and inflict real damage. While the meaning of the term “shrapnel” is similar in this context to the term “microaggressions,” frequently used in dialogues about the impact of racism, I find shrapnel to be more accurate in describing the potential seriousness of the injuries inflicted by subtle discrimination. Whether it refers to gender or race or is used to describe other group-level discrimination, it is an equally useful concept.
In the context of gender, Mayock explains that discrimination occurs when gender-based norms in society that “follow a patriarchal flow are replicated in the workplace.” According to Mayock, this can take the form of men feeling marginalized for showing emotion at work or taking family leave, of women struggling to be heard and get credit for their good ideas, and of trans women and men being ostracized and insulted.
Mayock offers strategies like training sessions aimed at understanding gender and intersectional dynamics and the importance of sending consistent institutional messages about rectifying gender-based discrimination. It is not enough to write into an organizational value statement that discrimination is not tolerated.
One example of an organization sending a strong institutional message about gender-based discrimination occurred recently when the first female president of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, canceled the entire season of the winning men’s soccer team. Foust acted in response to the male team’s longstanding practice of keeping numbered ratings of the body parts of members of the female soccer team on a spreadsheet. The president sent a strong message that sexual objectification of women, which conditions and reinforces “rape culture” in our society, will not be tolerated at Harvard. It seems to have taken a female university president to send this strong message at a major university.
I highly recommend Mayock’s book to anyone who wants to understand and stop gender shrapnel in his or her organization. What instances of gender shrapnel have you witnessed or experienced at your workplace? How was it addressed?
Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’
Originally published at annelitwin.com on December 5, 2016.