When news broke that 47-year-old Gabrielle Union’s contract was not being renewed as a judge on Season 15 of America’s Got Talent (read: she was fired) it sparked online outrage, making major waves on social media and beyond, from major headlines to hot topic tables on daytime television across North America.
Union’s experience seemed to hit a particular nerve all too familiar for many women — enduring a toxic workplace culture.
Many fellow actors and celebrities also spoke out in support of Union, from Ellen Pompeo, Ariana Grande and Eva Longoria, along with those currently or previously employed by NBC, including Jameela Jalil, Tamron Hall and Debra Messing.
Reading about Union’s experience on AGT, while I was sickened, I was sadly not surprised. The toxic work culture and Union’s subsequent dismissal as a result of speaking out, play into a workplace dynamic we see not only in Hollywood but normalized in many corporate cultures.
It is something I, too, personally experienced earlier in my career when vocalizing my “unpopular opinions” that were outside the boys’ club groupthink. It is not uncommon in male-dominated fields, where women are reprimanded or outright silenced for expressing their views while men are praised for their assertiveness.
On the one hand, women are told things like, be “less emotional” or “show more gravitas” — I have been “coached” with both phrases. On the other hand, when we do vocalize our concerns or question practices, we are ostracized, labelled as “difficult” employees for challenging the status quo.
Career and Recruitment Consultant Jen Narayan is familiar with such scenarios.
“I’ve had a few women clients, especially in sales environments, who have shared in confidence how they felt that their opinion didn’t matter and that they would have to act extra assertive just to be heard.”
She says this leads to a cyclical problem where these women are labelled as too abrupt or bossy. She adds that she has also worked with several women who loved their work environment, so this isn’t something that happens to everyone at all times.
“However, I think at some point in every woman’s career they have struggled to be effective colleagues or managers, straddling the fine line of trying to be assertive without being labelled a bully and worry much more about being likeable than their male counterparts,” Narayan says.
With Union, there is also a clear racial layer to what she endured which cannot be underestimated.
Union was allegedly told that her hairstyles were “too black” for the show’s audience. There is a reason that there is a slew of new laws spanning several states to ban discrimination against “ethnic hairstyles.” The right to wear one’s hair naturally wouldn’t have to be written into law if it weren’t a real issue of discrimination against Black women. But the onus falls on all of us — not just Black women — to put an end to this type of discrimination.
We need to do a better job of listening and consequently speaking up more loudly on the racism that Black women face in the workplace. The fact that I am a woman of colour does not mean I can speak to the experiences of all women of colour. I think we would all be better served and be better allies to Black women if we engaged in truly listening to their unique experiences and challenges, as they are distinct and need to be heard, respected and understood.
I read a quote from consultant Tim McClure on toxic culture which really resonated with how I personally felt at a point in my career: “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.”
Toxic cultures can result in really good employees, great employees and even the best employees leaving. That shouldn’t be the case. So, how do women tackle such issues? Do we speak up? When do we speak? Whom do we speak to?
While the seemingly simple answer would be that women should speak up or else conditions in a toxic workplace will never improve, the reality is that these are complex matters that need careful consideration before taking action.
Human resources leader and career coach Judy Chong advises that before taking action, women should discuss their situations with someone who is both knowledgeable and removed from the company.
“Friends and family are fine to vent to, but if they don’t have expertise in these matters, they could guide you incorrectly,” she says.
If you file a formal complaint, she continues, you need detailed notes that document what happened, including the date, time, location and what was said or done by each party.
“It is important to note if the offender was advised that their behaviour is unwarranted or unacceptable and they were requested to stop it. If you are aware of others that have been subjected to similar behaviour, it may be beneficial to collectively report as there is power in numbers.”
Speaking up is never easy. As seen with Union, it can even lead to termination.
However, the hope is that the more we do speak up, and most importantly, the more we listen and are open to change, the greater the possibility for thriving work environments in which we can all feel safe, welcome and reach our full potential.