Monday, August 1, 2016

The Value of the Organizational Ombuds in Gender-Related Issues in the Workplace

[This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Independent Voice, a publication of the International Ombudsman Association.)

By Mallory J. Stevens

An organizational ombuds office can be an indispensable, valuable resource and important alternative to formal channels in the sensitive and often very complex issues related to gender.[1] These issues can affect not only employees (both female and male), but the organization and various other stakeholders as well.

Gender-related issues in the workplace – be they sexual or discriminatory in nature, overt or subtle, isolated instances or recurrent – are invariably quite sensitive and fundamentally more complex than they ostensibly may appear. An organizational ombuds, highly skilled in the interest-based approach to dispute resolution and a “process of discovery,”[2] provides an invaluable alternative to rights-based channels, particularly with respect to gender-related matters.

Howard Gadlin defines sexual harassment as “unwanted attention of a sexual nature, often with an underlying element of threat or coercion”; the “hostile environment” created is considered the most classic type of this harassment.[3] As the results of one meta-analytic study show, workplace sexual harassment can adversely affect psychological well-being, physical health and job performance[4] and can even result in post-traumatic stress syndrome.[5] Generally, victims are reluctant to formally report offensive conduct[6] and those who observe such conduct frequently say and do nothing.[7] As evidenced by lawsuits alone, sexual harassment can have significant ramifications for organizations.[8] So too can gender discrimination, which often manifests itself through exclusion, denial of “voice,” sabotage and wage inequities. This article presents three scenarios that describe gender-related issues and conflicts in the workplace and suggestions for how ombuds might work with individuals facing such situations.

Scenario 1: It’s not always sexual

Let us imagine Evelyn, a corporate executive who sees herself as the “token” woman in committee meetings, excluded from discussions and/or “talked over” by her male colleagues. Even an ordinarily confident woman may be trepidatious about directly confronting her offending colleagues for fear of being labeled as overly-sensitive, a troublemaker, childish, unprofessional, not a team player, too emotional, a whiner or not tough enough to hold her own with “the boys.” Evelyn’s concerns about her image in the organization have rendered her uncomfortable or even ambivalent about pursuing formal grievance channels. She may be confused as to how to proceed and may even begin to doubt her own professional capacity, personal merits and worth to the organization. This engenders feelings of frustration, anger and humiliation and leaves her feeling disregarded, unlikable, unworthy, depressed, resentful and unmotivated, particularly since, as she reports, she routinely experiences these offending behaviors from certain male colleagues.

Evelyn may be experiencing what appear to be among the more subtle forms of gender discrimination, what Mary Rowe refers to as “microinequities.”[9] Speaking to harassment in general, Rowe states that prejudice against people who are different is largely carried out in ways “small in nature, but not trivial in effect”; they are particularly potent when the cumulative effects are considered.[10] These behaviors are not necessarily overt. They may be fleeting and difficult to substantiate and, in fact, may be unintentionally or unconsciously perpetrated.[11]

An ombuds can help develop insight An ombuds could listen actively to Evelyn’s depiction of the problem, identifying her needs and interests – past, present and future.[12] The ombuds could ascertain and analyze root causes and help guide Evelyn to a deeper understanding of the characteristics of her dealings with others and her effect on others.”[13] As a neutral party, the ombuds also would try to capture a clearer sense of whether the alleged affronts were real or perceived (or somewhere in-between), encourage Evelyn to describe her history working with these male colleagues, identify any additional stakeholders, and determine whether any other factors may contribute to Evelyn’s sense of mistreatment. Such information could help Evelyn develop a more thorough understanding of what has occurred and might also serve to expand the list of possible options she could take to address her concerns. Evelyn might ultimately choose to have the ombuds coach her in how to address her colleagues’ behavior in a direct manner (executed in person or in writing) or perhaps give the ombuds permission to speak to one of the respondents (preserving the complainant’s identity).

It is also possible the perceived offenses have been unintentional and more a function of differing conversational styles. In that event, a more generic option could be for the ombuds to suggest that staff receive training in effective communication skills. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Deborah Tannen writes that sometimes interrupting a speaker can be inadvertent, while having the impact of domination and control.[14] She recounts a story in which certain individuals in a group were accused by the other speakers of interrupting and dominating the conversation; the former denied any such intention, wondering rather “why the others had been so reticent.” Tannen differentiates between “high considerateness” and “high involvement” styles of conversation; those exhibiting the former style try not to impose themselves and anticipate more silence between speakers as they take their turns speaking, while those with the latter hold animated participation as more important and jump in to fill the uncomfortable voids in the conversation.[15]

Perhaps Evelyn is excessively careful about her behavior in meetings (giving precedence to form over content), not wishing to appear too aggressive or “unfeminine.” According to research, women seem to feel obliged to decide “between being perceived as likable because they behave in stereotypically feminine ways (being caring, cooperative, and nurturing) or being perceived as competent because they behave in stereotypically masculine ways (being self-confident, independent, and assertive).”[16] While psychological counseling is outside the purview of ombuds’ responsibilities, an ombuds might enable Evelyn to enrich her perspective of the situation at hand. With respect to other stakeholders, such as the men involved and the organization itself, they might benefit from resolution of the issue by virtue of potential contributions that Evelyn theretofore might not have the opportunity or comfort level to make.

Scenario 2: Culture-shock

Concurrent with increased globalization, workforces have become more diversified than ever.[17] Such an amalgamation of worldviews, cultural norms and customs can be a veritable breeding ground for misunderstanding and conflict, especially where gender is concerned.

Let’s envision Ricardo, a 45-year old banker who has emigrated from South America to work for a financial institution in New York City. His supervisor, Susan, also 45 but born and raised in the United States, is quite senior in the organization and known for her demanding style. Ricardo historically has worked in substantially male-dominated organizations, wherein his relationships with female subordinates were always friendly; his customary compliments on a new hairstyle or dress always seemed appreciated. Susan, on the other hand, is “less than enchanted” when Ricardo acknowledges her strikingly blue eyes; in fact, she sternly reproaches him (in front of three colleagues, two of them women) for being “sexist and macho” (privately summoning up the stereotype of the “Latin lover”) and admonishes him that if it happens again she will report him for sexual harassment.

Although he apologizes, insisting he meant no disrespect, Ricardo is nonplussed and mortified; he has never experienced such a reaction from a woman, not to mention such a reprimand and threat, and can’t decide whether he feels more emasculated or angry. The whole incident has touched upon his sense of self, his very identity as an accomplished, well-liked and respected professional. Furthermore, Susan’s attitude has turned decidedly aloof, and he is aware she is excluding him from some business discussions. Terribly distraught, it’s difficult for him to ponder his options. Will he be opening a Pandora’s Box by going to Human Resources (HR), Compliance or another executive? Will such a conversation get back to Susan and possibly others? Will he still have his job? His dignity? By now, Ricardo is beginning to feel himself a victim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination perpetrated by Susan.

A skilled ombuds would understand that a good part of the gender-harassment issues here are rooted in differences in cultural norms and worldviews. These could encompass everything from communication styles, Ricardo’s feelings about reporting to a woman, power asymmetry and Susan’s management style and personality. Does Susan have a reputation for being retributive and unapproachable in the context of disputes? Might Susan have something else going on in her life (chronic back pain, impending divorce, a sick child) that provoked such a strong response? Is Ricardo’s rendition of the incident and its aftermath accurate? How can Ricardo best find solace and rediscover enjoyment in his work? Inasmuch as an ombuds also functions as a coach, Ricardo might be helped to comprehend the dispute with Susan from her vantage point, taking into consideration cultural and other differences.[18]

Working with Ricardo to jointly develop a range of possible options, Ricardo might decide to go to HR or Compliance; approach Susan personally or in writing, with coaching from the ombuds; extend a more effective apology; or authorize the ombuds to mediate, facilitate a conversation or use shuttle diplomacy. Alternatively, he might do nothing and see if, in time, he could repair his relationship with Susan; request a transfer to another department or office; or leave the organization. If the ombuds felt it were warranted, s/he might even offer to refer Ricardo to a psychological counselor who could help him work through his emotional distress.

The possible benefits of Ricardo’s visiting an ombuds office could extend well beyond Ricardo. Colleagues could benefit by not having to endure the tension and ill will that may have pervaded their department. Susan could profit from a more motivated and productive team member. The bank itself could reap the benefits of more productive and happier employees, and the shareholders could stand to reap the benefit of increased profits. As an agent of change, the ombuds could also be a catalyst for minimizing the recurrence of similar problems, even on a systemic level.[19] One way might be to coordinate with HR or Compliance for organization-wide, “refresher” training in anti-sexual harassment, diversity issues and maybe even effective communication skills.

Scenario 3: Wage disparity

According to a study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in April 2010, “[w]omen’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women.”[20] Furthermore, the disparity in wages is manifest in both the highest and lowest salaried positions for women.[21] For example, in the three highest paying jobs for women in the United States, i.e., CEOs, pharmacists and lawyers, women make only about 75% of what their male counterparts earn. The overall wage gap with respect to all lines of work remains at 77%.[22]

Rebecca is a manager in a major manufacturing firm. Along with her colleagues, Evan and Jim, she’s been with the company for eight years. The men are married with one child each, while Rebecca is a single mother of two. All three have MBAs. Notwithstanding Rebecca’s excellent performance review, her boss has informed her that economic circumstances will preclude her from receiving a salary increase beyond the new 3% cap. Given her tenuous financial situation, Rebecca is distraught; however, the fear of appearing too demanding, pushy or unlikable renders her silent.[23] To add insult to injury, she’s just learned that Evan and Jim earn 23% more than she!

While cognizant there are statutes in effect that govern such gender discrimination, Rebecca has no idea what they are, how effective they may be or whether she may have a legal case against her firm. In sum, she is confused and anxious and knows not where to turn. Furthermore, she has no confidence in her ability to successfully negotiate with her boss[24] and is afraid that if she goes to HR to ask questions about her rights and alternatives, her boss will find out and retaliate against her.

An ombuds could research Rebecca’s questions regarding current legislation, furnish information regarding any relevant statutes of limitations and explore possible options. Rights-based options could take the form of an on-the-record complaint to HR or Compliance or ultimately engaging an attorney. Rebecca might also choose to have the ombuds coach her in negotiating skills so as to approach her boss with a greater sense of confidence and empowerment.[25] She might even opt to bide her time while seeking new employment elsewhere.

Need for informal and formal options to address gender-related matters in the workplace

While a few activities of an ombuds office may overlap with those of HR, Compliance and other offices (e.g., furnishing information on policy and legal statutes of limitations[26] and arranging certain training), there are critical differences that render the ombuds office a crucial resource for complaints and concerns; this is particularly true where gender-related issues are concerned. Besides the special conflict resolution skills and training of the ombuds, including an interest-based approach, the office is differentiated by the four sacrosanct principles to which it adheres: independence, confidentiality, impartiality/neutrality and informality. For an individual with gender-related issues, whether real or perceived, this quartet of principles can help make the difference between resolving physically, emotionally and professionally distressing matters, and perpetuating and exacerbating the harm.

More than individuals at stake

Resolving problems before they have a chance to escalate is far more healthy for an organization than if they go undetected, fester and explode into serious situations with a myriad of negative consequences; expensive lawsuits, stressed management, stressed employees, low morale, diminished creativity and productivity, tainted reputation, reduced earnings and “displeased” regulators who levy hefty fines are but some of the potential ramifications. For example, in Rebecca’s scenario, if an ombuds were to identify a trend whereby a number of other women in the organization had been complaining about a gender wage disparity, the ombuds could recommend the organization revisit its pay scale. If an organization’s management is unaware of rampant discontent – not to mention the serious potential for litigation and censure by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar body in other countries – the consequences can be severe and widespread.

And, not in the least, happier, healthier and more tranquil employees are more productive, more dedicated and more loyal employees. The tangible and intangible benefits of an ombuds in the workplace – the office’s effectiveness and value to the individual, the organization and a variety of other stakeholders – are indisputable and indispensable.


[1] All the resources and benefits of an ombuds office discussed herein are true for all types of complaints and concerns that employees may have; however, the focus of this article is the importance and effectiveness of the office as specifically related to gender issues.
[2] Gadlin, H., & Sturm, S. P. (2007). Conflict resolution and system change. Journal of dispute resolution, 2007(1); Columbia public law research paper no. 07-147 (pp. 1-60).
[3] Gadlin, H. (1991). Careful maneuvers: Mediating sexual harassment. Negotiation journal, 7(2). (pp. 139-153); direct quote, p. 140.
[4] Chan, D. K-S., Chow, S. Y, Lam, C. B. & Cheung, S. F. (2008). Examining the job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of women quarterly, 32(2008). (pp. 362-376).The authors posit that age may mitigate the impact of harassment, since older adults are generally better equipped emotionally to cope; on the other hand, older adults might be more concerned about job and financial security.
[5] Schneider, K. T., Swan, S., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1997). Job-related and psychological effects of sexual harassment in the workplace: Empirical evidence from two organizations. Journal of applied psychology, 82(3). (pp. 401-415).
[6] Gutek, B.A., & Done, R. S. (2000). Sexual harassment. In R. K. Unger (Ed.), Handbook of the psychology of women and gender. (pp. 367-387). New York: Wiley.
[7] Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2001). Bystander intervention in sexual harassment. [Paper presented at the National Academy of Management Meetings, Washington, D.C.].
[8] Schneider et al. 1997 op. cit.
[9] Rowe, M. P. (1990). Barriers to equality: The power of subtle discrimination to maintain unequal opportunity. Employee responsibilities and rights journal, 3(2). (pp. 153-163); direct quote, p. 153.
[10] Ibid., p. 153.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Wagner, M. L. (2002). Ombuds office: Dealing with really stressful or unstable workplace situations. Available at
[13] Wagner, M. L. (2000). The organizational ombudsman as change agent. Negotiation journal, 16(1). (pp. 99-114);
[14] Tannen, D. (1991). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine Books.
[15] Ibid., p. 196.
[16] Tinsley, C. H., Cheldelin, S. I., Kupfer Schneider, A., & Amanatullah, E. T. (2009). Women at the bargaining table: Pitfalls and Prospects. Negotiation journal, 25(2). (pp. 233-248); direct quote, pp. 235-236. Also, Bowles, H. R., Babcock, L., & Lai, L. (2007). Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 103(1). (pp. 84-103).
[17] Howard, C. L. (2010). The organizational ombudsman: Origins, roles, and operations: A legal guide. Chicago: ABA Publishing.
[18] Wagner 2000 op. cit.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Institute for Women’s Policy Research (2010, April 20). Fact Sheet: The gender wage gap by occupation. [A. Hegewisch & H. Liepmann, Preparers]. (IWPR #C350a, updated April 2010; pp. 1-9); direct quote, p. 1. Retrieved 20 April, 2010, from The study was based on recent data produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
[21] Ibid., p. 3.
[22] Censky, A. (2010, April 20). Women in top-paying jobs still make less than men. Retrieved 20 April, 2010, from women/index.htm.
[23] Bowles et al. 2007 op. cit. The authors posit women are reluctant to initiate negotiations, in particular with male supervisors, for fear of appearing demanding and perceived as not nice. Among their other findings is that how nice or demanding one is perceived to be can explain opposition to females in negotiation.
[24] Gadlin 1991 op. cit. Also, there are numerous studies that find gender differences in negotiating effectiveness. For example, women generally have lower confidence in their negotiating abilities (See Stevens, K., Bavetta, A., & Gist, M. (1993). Gender differences in acquisition of salary negotiation skills: The role of goals, self-efficacy, and perceived control. Journal of applied psychology, 78(5). (pp. 723-735); Bowles et al. 2007 op. cit.). Their lower expectations tend to be reflected in their behavior during negotiation and, ultimately, in the results (See Kolb, D. M. (2009). Too bad for the women or does it have to be? Gender and negotiation research over the past twenty-five years. Negotiation journal, 25(4). (pp. 515-531).
[25] Wagner 2000 op. cit.
[26] Neither the ombuds, HR nor Compliance provides legal advice.