Although diversity in the workplace is proven to increase problem solving, improve innovation and contribute to overall financial performance, participation of women in the U.S. labor force has been on the decline since the year 2000.
You don’t have to be an exec to make change happen and start reaping the rewards of a more inclusive workplace. You need only be aware of how bias in the workplace tends to play out—keeping women from participating—along with a few strategies for combating unfair practices.
Karen Catlin, former VP of Engineering at Adobe Systems and advocate for women in tech poses three common problems—and their solutions—for a more inclusive workplace.
Problem 1: If you have homogeneous networks, you’re going to hire homogenous people.
Networks are rooted in commonalities
Networks form organically , because you like to hang out with people who are like you. Common interests often fuel networks, whether it’s a hobby, where you went to school, where you used to work, the neighborhood you live in, etc. When we have something in common with people, we like hanging out with them. Therefore, it can be hard for people who are underrepresented in the tech industry to have common interests with the majority. It’s not impossible, but it can be hard.
How women build networks vs. how men build networks
Social science research shows that outside of work men tend to hang out with male work colleagues. By contrast, women tend to hang out with non-work colleagues — members of their communities, churches, volunteer groups, parents at their kids’ schools. So, while men tend to strengthen their professional networks outside of the office, women tend to broaden non-work networks. This becomes a problem when you think about diversity in the workplace. These networks end up limiting diversity since we hire from our networks or referrals from friends of our network. If we have homogeneous networks, we’re going to hire homogenous people.
Impact of workplace trust
We tend to trust the people in our network. And that workplace trust manifests in different ways. Who are we going to recommend for that stretch assignment? For that cool, new project? For that important customer visit? We give more opportunities to people we trust, the people in our networks. Workplace trust also can impact promotions, especially at larger companies where (at a certain level) a promotion doesn’t just rely on someone’s manager saying, “I’m going to promote you.” Instead, it relies on a pool of people recommending that person for the promotion. Often, it’s at the director or executive level. Again, if you have these networks, you don’t open doors for people who aren’t in them.
What you can do
Introduce yourself to people who don’t look like you
It’s a simple thing, but it goes a long way. At your next networking event, happy hour, conference or professional social setting, introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t look like you — however you want to define that. If you’re a man, talk to some of the women you know at work. Likewise, if you’re caucasian, go to a person of color in tech or Latina tech event to listen and learn from their experiences. Get to know people who are different from you to build your network.
Assume people at tech events are technical
When you meet someone who is at a tech conference or working at a booth for a tech company, just assume they’re technical. Don’t assume women are in HR or marketing. If you’re a technical woman or minority, and somebody assumes you’re not technical, it’s yet another example of the messages people send that these groups don’t belong.
Problem 2: Women tend to volunteer or get assigned office housework tasks more than men.
What is “office housework?”
Office housework includes taking notes at a meeting (when it’s not your job), collecting money for a coworker’s birthday gift, cleaning up the pizza boxes after a lunch meeting, scheduling the next meeting, or, even in a more technical nature, cleaning up comments in the code before it ships. These are necessary tasks, but they don’t lead to bottom-line results.
What we know from social science research is women tend to volunteer or get assigned these office housework tasks more often than men. In a study called The Elephant in the Valley, hundreds of women working at Silicon Valley tech companies were surveyed. These were women with more than 10 years of experience, and almost half of them reported being asked to do “office housework” that their male counterparts were not asked to do.
What you can do
When you see office housework being assigned to a woman, step in and figure out how to share the load. Say something like, “You know she’s great at writing unit tests, but this would be the perfect time for Dave, the new hire, to learn this task.”
Share housework tasks
If it’s a task that can be rotated (meeting minutes are a great example of this), establish a rotation for it. Then it’s someone else’s turn in that group to take meeting minutes, set up the next meeting or schedule dinner. If you are in a lunch meeting and clearing out, don’t be the first person out the door. Take a look around and look at all of those pizza boxes, and help out. Simple, everyday actions make a big difference.
Problem 3: Women tend to get interrupted, overlooked and discredited in meetings more than men.
Transcripts of Supreme Court hearings from a 12-year period were analyzed, and what was discovered was women were interrupted three times more than men. And those same women only made interruptions 4% of the time. But this imbalance isn’t limited to the Supreme Court; it’s something that happens throughout the workplace. This doesn’t create an inclusive workplace, and it doesn’t allow women to fully participate in meetings.
Women in Obama’s staff meetings started to notice men would often appropriate or steal their ideas, so they adopted a strategy they called amplification. It worked like this: When a female staffer made a point in Obama’s meeting, another female staffer would chime in and build on it and allow that idea to keep progressing. That prevented the men from interrupting or potentially stealing the idea and claiming it as their own.
“I tell you, every woman — and I’ve coached hundreds of women in tech — every woman I’ve coached has had this problem,” said Karen. “They’ve said some killer points in a meeting. And whether those points fell on deaf ears, weren’t taken the right way, maybe that woman didn’t say it right or whatever it may be, later on, a man in the meeting said the exact same thing and got all the credit. ‘Bro-ppropriating’ is a big deal and it’s really happening across tech. It prevents women from really feeling like they belong.”
There’s also the problem of misdirected questions. Misdirected questions are when a woman is the most qualified person in the room to answer your question, but the question goes to somebody else — usually a man who’s less qualified. Remember the Elephant in the Valley survey mentioned earlier? Of those women, 89% said misdirected questions were something they had experienced.
What you can do
Advocate for women
When you see someone interrupting, appropriating or misdirecting a question, call it out with simple, kind statements like this:
“I think you agree with the point that Ana made earlier in the meeting.”
“I’d like to hear Emma finish her thought.”
“She’s the expert; let’s ask her.”
These problems don’t always have a man-woman dynamic either. When you see these things happening, stand up and support whoever needs it.
Being an effective ally to women or any underrepresented individual requires intention, effort and work.
“Being an ally is really a journey,” explains Karen. “It’s a journey I feel like I’m on myself. As a woman, I’m underrepresented in tech, but I still have a lot of privilege. I have white skin. I have a good education. I have a ton of experience from that first 25 years of my career. All of that gives me a position of privilege to be an ally, but I’m still learning how.”