The #metoo and #timeisup movements have struck a chord and are gaining momentum. It has gotten a lot of us thinking and talking about women’s parity and gender inclusion.
But is talk enough?
It is a great first step, but there is more that we can do. Because talk just isn’t enough! Today is International Women’s Day (#IWD2018) and it is time for leaders to make gender inclusion a sustainable reality within their organizations (if you aren’t already).
I know the conversations have been difficult. People have strong feelings and there may be some men (and others) within your organization who are feeling uncertain (or even angry) about gender inclusion. Conversations I’ve had and read about include questions like:
What do women really want?
Does that mean I can’t be friendly anymore?
Does this mean we aren’t recruiting and promoting the best anymore?
These aren’t bad questions, and the answers are simple but complex.
So what women really want is to go to work and feel safe, supported, and empowered. It is imperative that leaders create safe and gender inclusive work environments where people do not experience unwanted sexual attention, sexual harassment, gender privilege or bias, and male toxicity.
Quick story: A few years ago, I was working with an incredibly bright and accomplished group of engineers. Despite their obvious talent, they struggled to get along, and well, behave. There were a lot of complaints about offensive and exclusionary language being used, and the women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ staff felt insecure and unsafe. This isn’t new, I see this type of thing ALL OF THE TIME! But on my very first day working with the team, one of the male staff announced that he was willing to be a participate in my training as long as there were “no alpha female” attitudes. The room went silent.
It wasn’t his words that struck me the most; it was the fact that he felt safe and secure in saying them IN FRONT OF his female superiors (and me).
So if you were wondering what I meant when I said safe and secure, I’m not just talking about physical safety (but hell yeah, everyone wants and expects that), but the safety to work in an environment that does not objectify, ostracize, criticize, judge, or reject our identities. Work environments have to be accepting and inclusive, from the foundational policies and procedures to the culture and language used within an organization, in order for the people within them to feel safe and secure.
And yes, you can continue to be friendly, but it has to appropriate and sensitive to difference. Too many people, not only women, find themselves in unhealthy, toxic, and unsafe workspaces. As a result, they are unable to engage in their work and perform to their highest capabilities.
Yes, I said sensitive. But it doesn’t mean that you have to treat people like fragile flowers or snowflakes. In fact, the ACTUAL DEFINITION in this context is:
The capacity to generate increasingly more complex perceptions and experience of differences.
If you think about a radar, for example, its job is to gather information that is not visible to the naked eye. When a radar is more sensitive it is able to gather more information, and when you have more information you can make better decisions.
So being sensitive to difference isn’t about others being more fragile, it is about you having more information, being more aware, and making well informed decisions. This level of awareness is essential for creating an inclusive work environment that is not only safe, but also supportive and empowering.
More importantly, it doesn’t mean that organizations hire or promote individuals who are less or unqualified. But this is a perception that must be deconstructed because bias has played a major role in performance assessment. Men have been a major benefactor of this implicit gender bias and are judged and evaluated differently than women in the workplace. So we have to redefine what qualified means, and accept that bias has and may play a role in how others are evaluated.
Being more aware of our bias and sensitive to difference will help organizations recruit and retain talent that are the best of the best and representative of diverse voices and experiences
How can you make it happen?
It begins with an inclusive and gender parity mindset. You have to believe that inclusion and gender parity is just, and to want your organization to reflect that. It should be at the core of all that you do in order for it to become a lived value and experience within your organization. It isn’t extra, not on top of or in addition to. It isn’t something you get to eventually or correct after you have failed. It is a starting point, your base, and the ultimate check and balance.
Next, leaders must equip themselves and their team to challenge bias and stereotypes. Not only to challenge it in others when we hear it and see it, but to challenge our own personal bias and stereotypes. Both are a biological function of our brain, it is what allows us to make sense of the world around us and create spaces where we feel accepted and safe. However, the world has changed faster than our brains and we are now much more exposed to difference. So we have to be able to recognize how our brain has categorized the information and realign our bias and stereotypes that don’t support equity and inclusion, with our conscious values that do.
This riddle may reveal more than you know about your own bias. Here you go:
A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.
I remember the first time I heard this riddle, and I remember being frustrated because I’m so good with puzzles and riddles. But that wasn’t even a match for the disappointment I felt when I heard the answer.
You see, the surgeon is his mother. A woman.
So here I am, a woman, a feminist, and intercultural practitioner, and I still didn’t get it. And while there are plenty of reasons for my own bias, they exist. The funny thing about bias is that it is so deep and invisible that we don’t even know we have them. It is especially difficult to recognize because often they don’t always align with our conscious attitudes. This is why it is so critical to become more aware of our bias because they inform our reactive mind. We use our subconscious all day long to interact, communicate and make decisions. So challenging our own bias will help us make better decisions and have fewer “foot in mouth” conversations.
Then as leaders we must forge positive visibility for those who are less represented within our organizations, and in many industries that is women. And in others it is people of color, the LGBTQ+ or disabled community. So access has to be created by building a path for those less represented to be included. This might include effecting change outside of your organization to create access for others, including effecting public policy or education, or other resources.
Lastly, leaders must act to influence the beliefs and actions of others. You will have people on your team who will resist change and believe that things are just fine. It is your responsibility to educate, train, inspire, motivate, and influence them to be more accepting and inclusive, and to adjust and adapt their behavior to do so.
Now how do you get all of this done?
Here are some practical actions you can take today, without spending any money at all (BUT be prepared to financially invest if your needs require it):
Step #1: Listen! Really listen.
Listening is a very powerful tool that is far too often ignored. This is an important time for leaders to stop talking and listen. Here are some things you should be listening for:
- What are women in your organization saying?
- What language is used in the organization?
- How are people talking about gender and gender differences?
- How are people asserting themselves?
- How much time to women talk in meetings? And men talk in meetings?
Take the time to listen, gather information, and then use it to take action.
Step #2: Mentor and be a mentor
If you are in a field or industry that is predominantly male, than mentoring can be a powerful tool to create a path for women and others who are less represented. Research continues to show time and time again that mentoring makes a difference. It creates a pipeline for promotions, increases retention, and contributes to a greater talent pool. The majority of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs because they understand the value it has for their company.
Create opportunities for mentoring within your organization. There are great resources available to help you determine the type of mentoring program that will be a benefit to your team.
Step #3: Accept Difference, even when it’s hard to do
Organizations put a lot of pressure on their people to conform to a norm which helps everyone understand their environment, get along, and achieve common goals. However, it can also create an environment that mutes and silences creativity and diversity, which are necessary components of innovation and achievement.
Celebrate difference in sincere and more complex ways. An international potluck is fun, but it is not the most meaningful way to help people increase their sensitivity. Think of opportunities that are really going to help your team learn and reframe their mindsets. This might be the time when you invest in bringing in SME (Subject Matter Experts) to help your team increase their awareness.
Step #4: Talk, talk, and keep talking
It is a normal human tendency to rely on what we have in common and avoid those areas where we are different. But we have to be able to talk about difference, and to do it well with respect and curiosity. The keys to these conversations are an open mind, respect, and curiosity. Ask questions to learn and understand your differences, not to change or undermine others. Curiosity is a genuine desire to have more information. So start there and don’t be judgmental. Differences aren’t to be corrected, they are to be understood and accepted.
As a leader you don’t have to have all of the answers (and you usually don’t). Let your team educate you and others about who they are and what they need. That by very definition is inclusion.
So build on the momentum that has been created to make women’s parity and gender inclusion a reality within your organization. Think, listen, talk and act.
Please share any thoughts or comments below. And if you are looking to increase your own capacity as a leader, check this out www.leadershipabq.com