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We need to talk about ostracism

Category Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The word ostracism may never have crossed your mind in the workplace, and indeed it isn’t a commonly used term. Just the fact that the lack of knowledge about what ostracism is and its implications – especially in the workplace – can be a reason why most women may not even realise it is happening or even the consequences it can have.

The etymology of the term ostracism comes from ancient Athens [1] to describe a process of banishing and excluding citizens from the city-state for 10 years. Nowadays the term has a similar meaning – to exclude someone – but usually suggests a historical context, which makes it even harder to detect in contemporary life. In our modern society, to ostracize someone represents every subtle act to undermine someone, shunning away the person and leading to exclusion.

As reported in a research article in Current Directions in Psychological Science [2], ostracism can lead to serious psychological barriers that follow three stages:

  1. The initial acts of being ignored or excluded
  2. Coping, and
  3. Resignation.

In the context of the workplace, ostracism leads to counterproductive work behaviour and impaired productivity due to a lack of motivation and engagement [3].

Unfortunately, in the field of engineering, ostracism is a frequently occurring practice that is – among other things – partially responsible for male dominance and low retention of women in the profession. A recent study, The Subtle Ostracism Faced by Women in Engineering: Psychological Effects of Learning in a Predominantly Male Field [4] shows that ostracism by male peers creates physical barriers, leading to negative experiences, and consequently limiting female student success. The work concluded that the majority of female students felt discouraged due to the lack of gender diversity, and that more equality is necessary to make engineering more inclusive.


  2. Williams, K.D. and Nida, S.A., 2011, Ostracism: Consequences and coping, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), pp. 71-75.
  3. Liu, H. and Xia, H., 2016, Workplace ostracism: A review and directions for future research, Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies, 4(3), pp.197-201, doi: 10.4236/jhrss.2016.43022.