The researchers at the School of Law were allocated a big new room with generous-sized tables, proper bookshelves, and even a brand new telephone for external and internal calls.
One afternoon when the room was too hot and I was falling asleep at my desk I decided to walk around the room to find the energy to keep me going.
In my wanderings I approached the table with the new telephone and noticed a manual sitting next to it. I read “Instrucciones de Uso.”
As bored as I was, I started reading it.
It wasn’t long before a sentence hit me like a thunderclap. In the section on internal calls I read, in bold letters, ‘When the boss wants to talk to his secretary’.
I could feel my heart pumping hard in my head. A wave of indignation shook me.
I took the user’s manual and showed it to one of my male colleagues. He laughed. “You’re too picky,” he said.
didn’t think I was too picky at all. This language was clearly sexist.
When I approached a couple of female researchers they didn’t think it was funny at all. That afternoon we wrote a letter to Human Resources complaining about what we saw as discriminatory gender stereotyping at work.
For a week this story circulated from department to department during meetings and coffee breaks. Different female researchers and lecturers approached us to tell us how they were experiencing gender discrimination at work. We heard how female colleagues were treated with disdain and overlooked, how they were not promoted, how they were excluded from decision-making bodies.
After we’d handed our letter to Human Resources we didn’t hear anything from them for a while, until one day I noticed that the telephone user manual had disappeared from the table. A couple of days later a new one appeared next to the phone. I opened it and saw that the sentence had been amended. That was all.
I use this story when I want to make the point that organisations need to own their own stories. If they don’t, someone else will.
Behind the user manual’s discriminatory language was a story: the story of many female researchers and lecturers who felt overlooked by the system. Amending the user manual was the first step – the second step would have been to own the story and do something about it.
The University could have decided to apologise or make a decision on gender-neutral policy for internal and external communications and make sure it was implemented. Nothing of the sort happened.
By replacing the user’s manual without a word they reinforced the idea that female lectures and researchers must fight their corner if they wanted to be included and taken into account.
When something goes wrong in our company or organization, we have the opportunity to tell a different story to build the culture that we all want to be part of.
Leaders need to keep an ear to the ground to identify what stories are being told, and to respond with ways of replacing stories that don’t represent who they are. The only way to counter a story is to find another one, and there’s only one rule for doing this: it needs to be a story that people feel proud to tell.