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Career Q&A: How to deal with Cliff Clavins of the office

Q: I am a software developer who participates in various industry events and online chats. As a woman, I'm assumed not to know much, and thus many men give me know-it-all lectures a la Cliff Clavin from Cheers, plus suggestions to go elsewhere. I'd like to say, "I have a Ph.D. in engineering, thank you very much" but usually end up saying only the last part, which sounds as though I find their comments useful. I occasionally mention that I teach programming at a local university, but it doesn't seem to register.

How can I better deal with know-it-alls and harassers who believe women don't belong in these forums?

A: Historically, minority pioneers in every profession have had to do everything twice, backward, in high heels, to prove they could do the job despite their reproductive organs, melanin levels or accent. Even the tech industry, romanticized as a haven for geeky outsiders with world-changing ideas, has come under fire for its insular "brogrammer" culture — and female techies who speak out often find themselves (further) targeted, professionally and personally.

So, yes, it's unfair that you have to keep presenting your bona fides just to join the conversation, if your male colleagues are not asked to do the same. Some of what needs to change is beyond your control. For example:

• Cliff Clavins becoming aware of their biases ("Do I ever talk to guys like this?") and privilege ("When's the last time I had to deflect unwanted come-ons or hostility while trying to talk shop?").

• Communities actively welcoming — not "tolerating" — diverse voices while setting and enforcing guidelines for a respectful environment.

Some of this is happening, albeit sporadically. In the meantime, you can:

• Stop giving thanks (or apologies) for nothing. Find your version of, "Oh, I actually know (complex topic). What do you know about (other topic)?"

• Seek supportive communities, such as Systers ( or IEEE Women in Engineering (, that allow you to be yourself while you . . .

• Keep showing up. The longer you do, the more people will see programming as something both men and women do?

Third-party apology will not work

Q: I need help ending a grudge held against me by a former co-worker. Nearly 10 years ago, we both worked in a toxic office. Her contract wasn't renewed, and I later heard through the grapevine that she blamed me because of something I had naively said when our manager was bad-mouthing her. I don't remember what I supposedly said, but I doubt it was the reason she was let go.

I didn't realize I'd made an enemy until I tried to greet her at an event four years ago and she replied, "Go away; I'm still mad at you."

We work in a small industry for a certain cause, and she is a leader in a professional association I belong to. We have many contacts in common and could promote each other's work, but I have wondered if she's sandbagged some of my outreach efforts to others.

I have told a mutual acquaintance that I want to apologize. I wonder if I should ask to speak with her at the next association event and see if we can get back to normal.

I could also try extending a public "olive branch" by promoting and praising her work on social media. We don't have to be friends, but I would like to know we're not enemies.

A: It doesn't sound as though this person can be won over by third-party apologies, being cornered at public events, or social media sycophancy. To get her to drop her dukes, you're going to have to be honest and make yourself vulnerable.

Call her and ask to meet in person so you can apologize and clear the air. If she agrees to meet, tell her the following in person — or, if she refuses or hangs up on you, send the following via email or certified letter before you back away:

• You realize she's angry with you;

• You believe it's because she thinks you caused her to lose her contract at ToxiCorp;

• If that is the case, you never intended to do so;

• If she's mad about something else, you would like to know so you can make amends;

• You want to know what she would accept as a good-faith sign of your remorse so you can both move forward in support of your shared cause.

She may reasonably wonder why you're just now making the effort, four years after she first shot you down, now that she's in a leadership position — which is why you shouldn't mention "promoting each other's work" just yet.

Ideally, however, she'll hear you out and at least accede to a chilly detente. Even if she never warms up to you, she may thaw enough to stop actively hampering your networking efforts.

Career Q&A: How to deal with Cliff Clavins of the office 06/28/14 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2014 3:15pm]
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