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Women at Work #2

Women, men and status at work #2

Note: You will need to refer back to #1 in the second part of this paper!

I worked as a professional role-player/improvising-actor taking improvisation-scenarios into organizations. One way we worked was to prepare in advance by creating characters and then improvise a scene that was significant for that audience. We stopped at a moment of high drama and then stayed in role in dialogue with the audience. From the helpful suggestions that came up in the discussion, we would wind back and replay the scene, now with the characters equipped with new perspectives and positive ways to act.

One example was when we improvised a scene about domestic violence in front of a group of men in prison (for violent crimes). In the first scenario, the husband came home late in a foul mood and complained that his dinner was overcooked. He was angry with the children for using the whole table with their homework. He became more angry when his wife was angry with him for coming in late (so she missed her evening class) and because he smelled of drink. The scene was cut at the moment he was about to throw her grandmother’s precious vase at his wife’s head.

After the discussion, which brought up a lot of pain and a mixed bag of feelings and suggestions, we acted the situation again. I played one of the children; this time I did not end up cowering in the corner. What had been revealed in the discussion about the background to the situation was that the husband had been late and had been drinking heavily after being laid off at work. He had not felt able to come home straight from work because it was going to be so awful telling his wife. It had been easier to transmute his difficult emotions (about being laid off) into anger at someone else, his wife.

What changed the scenario (when we replayed it after the discussion) was that the husband used the audience’s idea, that he could be courageous and tell his wife! This time, he came home straight after work, ate his dinner at the usual time and thanked his wife, told her tactfully (without worrying the children) that they needed to talk about something very important and asked her to come home straight after her evening class.


  • He worked on his problem by finding a kind of strength – in this case courage – in himself
  • He didn’t burden others in inappropriate ways
  • He was respectful towards his wife and children
  • He respected his wife’s life by working around her prior engagement, her evening class
  • He kept his dignity
  • He didn’t dump his negative emotions on others

I have told you all this to lead into a discussion about the benefits of replaying situations, as in the first scenario above. What happens if we re-run a real work-situation for a better outcome? In each of the three situations below (see part one),  consider what other suggestions you might have made had you been in the ‘audience’. This process helps to ‘detach’ or ‘psychologically dissociate’ from the emotion in the event too!

Three Scenarios (please refer to part #1)

1.    The boss, the messy desk and the missing document

I did not do too badly, because I did keep my dignity, but how might I have acted differently for a better outcome, in my lower status role?

Had I been his mentor perhaps I could have initiated a conversation about systems. How was he processing documents from the moment they arrived (or were created) and how things were stored. We could have talked through ways to make it easier to retrieve different kinds of documents.
Had I been in the hypothetical audience watching this I might have suggested finding a tactful way of asking him how he would like things arranged so that I could retrieve information for him easily in future. I would have suggested asking this in a way that didn’t ruffle his feathers. Making the suggestion by asking a question in a gentle way might have worked – and would have been equally good practice for a mentor or a receptionist. The difference for the receptionist is that from her role she could not tell her boss what to do, just ask him what he wanted her to do (to prevent a repeat of the issue). Hence she could still shift him from his ‘blame-game’ into helpful systems-thinking.

2.    The receptionist who was not heard when she made intelligent suggestions

This situation continued for a while. Things changed because perceptions of me changed in a roundabout way. I never took effective, direct-action. What might have created positive change more quickly?

If I had been in the audience watching a typical scene in the tea-room, such as the first time the receptionist made a suggestion to a fellow staff member about ways to work with a teenage boy who was behaving badly towards his parents, what might I have spotted? The fact is that the staff member was not listening to the receptionist, so there was no point in offering any suggestions until she created a listening environment.

My suggestion would have been that she create a listening environment before wasting her tea-break trying to be helpful (to someone who was not listening)! She could have done this by asking a question in such a way that it opened things up. For example, if she had asked him: ‘Would you like me to make a suggestion?’ it would have been churlish or even rude not to have said ‘yes please’ and then not to have listened.

Another question, which could have given her space to share relevant prior experience, might have been: “Do you think I might be able to offer something helpful?” Questions like this change the game and can shift conversations out of prefabricated ‘boxes’ of status-related perception.

3.   The male fellow staff member who chatted to the female receptionist to get her to do his work for him.

Had I been in the audience watching that scene, I would probably have found it quite amusing on one level – the amusement of recognition. But, as a woman in a role (without the protection of an elevated status), it was not funny. Had she agreed to do the work, she would have had to push it in before the other tasks (that she should have been doing).
Had she not agreed… she might have felt guilty about not being friendly and helpful. There is something nice about being asked to ‘help out’ and in a friendly chatty situation it might not be easy to refuse.

What might have helped her stay on-task with her own work in a chatty situation? My suggestion, had I been in the audience, would have been to stick with systems thinking. This was a work situation, not a situation with neighbours, friends or family. Perhaps she could have asked him who usually did those tasks for him and/or acknowledged the pressure he was experiencing or simply raised her eyebrows and even laughed!

What she didn’t need to do was to defend herself, make excuses or give any reason at all for saying “no”. Since they were on friendly terms, she could have been playful in how she said no with a friendly smile – ‘sorry buddy, not in my job description.’ ‘Good try, but you missed.’ Using systems thinking could have helped her to not be drawn into saying “yes” just because he was perched on the edge of her desk being chatty.

To sum up, here are my three retrospective suggestions:

  • Ask a tactful question about how things could work differently in future.
  • Create a listening environment before sharing information.
  • By all means be friendly, but stick to systems thinking to prevent people from taking advantage of your good nature.

Those are my three suggestions. By reading this you have been in the ‘audience’ too. What else might you suggest?

Judy Barber.