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Women are not Broken

It’s not women who need to change; it is our culture, our leadership, and our implicit biases surrounding our definitions of success, leadership and competency.

Dear Women of America,

I’ve had the privilege to work with and mentor many women throughout my career and I’d like to tell all of you:

You are not broken

We’ve all heard the statistics: Women make 80 cents for every dollar that men make and that women of color make even less. There’s a constant barrage of advice for professional women on how they need to change to be more successful, overcome the glass ceiling and economic barriers.

We’ve all seen the list: Women are poor negotiators; need to develop more confidence; don’t take enough risks; don’t speak up enough; need to be less sensitive; need to smile more/smile less. It goes on and on.

Actually, I’ve used this list in the the past when advising women professionally. But after many conversations with women in various stages of their careers, I’ve changed my viewpoint. The issue with all this well-meaning advice is the implication that if women would just “fix” these characteristics, we’d be more successful.

It’s not women who need to change; it is our culture, our leadership, and our implicit biases surrounding our definitions of success, leadership and competency.

Changing Organizational Culture

In order for women to thrive, we need a cultural ecosystem that supports equal pay, fosters greater workplace equality and honors different approaches to getting the job done. The good news is that there are signs of progress: Massachusetts, the City of New York agencies and Philadelphia have set precedents of supporting equal pay by prohibiting employers to ask about an applicant’s previous salary. These policies ensure that lower wages and salaries do not follow women throughout their careers. Companies such as Etsy and Patagonia have signaled cultural change in work-life balance in the area of parental leave and family support where the U.S. notoriously lags behind other countries.

Organizations can also have an impact by creating an inclusive environment and signaling the type of culture that would benefit women, especially in the field of technology. DjangoCon, an international community conference held each year, is an example of a welcoming environment. At the 2016 event, the planning committee instituted practices to honor the values of their diversity statement including reviewing all talk proposals through a double blind review system. The conference ticket price included childcare, and the organization’s code of conduct was strictly enforced. Inclusive signs throughout the conference venue kept the organization’s diversity values fresh in attendees’ minds.

Leadership and unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can insidiously impact a leader’s assessments of his or her employees and their contributions, how she or he perceives the visibility of employees, and how he or she establishes the ground rules for teamwork. The first step of correcting the damage of unconscious bias is to become aware of it in the first place through assessment tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test or unconscious bias training courses. Unconscious bias may manifest through the tendency of leadership to reward employees with high visibility and the unfortunate fact that women are less likely than their male counterparts to be assigned high visibility projects, especially in technology. With less visibility, women are more likely to be passed over for promotions and more likely switch fields or even drop out of the workplace. Leaders need to make a conscious effort to include women in assignments that build skills and increase organizational visibility.

Similarly, leaders need to establish ground rules for working in teams so that the loudest and most visible voice is not always the voice that establishes group decisions or receives the most credit. Leaders have a responsibility to their organizations and to their staff to create successful, diverse, and inclusive teams.

Some years ago, I was in an executive education course on leadership where our learning team consisted of two American men, a Nigerian woman, and me. When presented with our first case, our Nigerian team member quickly deduced the correct solution but other team members stated their incorrect solution so confidently and loudly that our team failed the case. This exemplified a social trend I’ve come across many times in my career — those who are confident and louder tend to stand out as leaders, even when they are wrong and their decisions lead to failure.

In comparison, another learning team I was on won a multi-party negotiations case by choosing the right leader. This team consisted of three men and another woman who was about 15 years younger than the rest of us. We were in complete agreement that this woman should be our leader based on her intelligence, knowledge and her performance in other cases. As we learned during the debriefing, a critical element to success was to identify the right leader who could direct all the elements of the negotiation while letting each team member manage their own part. Weighing experience and talent, regardless of gender or age, allowed our team be successful. These contrasting experiences remain important lessons for me to this day.

What we can do for each other

We need to pay it forward by advising, mentoring, and advocating for women and girls. Bring your best self to work and when applying for jobs. Thoroughly assess the culture: Is this a place that’s going to value you for what you bring and what you can contribute in the future? Make sure it’s a good fit for you. Look at the roles of other women in the organization. Do they get promoted? Is it an environment that fits the complexities of your life?

A recent example of how women advocate for one another in the White House was through a strategy called “amplification.” When a woman made a key point, other women repeated it and gave credit to the original author, which forced men to recognize the contributions. By advocating for one another, these women increased their visibility, credibility and impact.

About men

As gender diversity has a positive economic impact at corporate and national levels, men can be important allies in creating an ecosystem of equality, and their support will lead to positive outcomes. As over 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men, it is crucial to have men as partners in this endeavor.

Research shows that men gain personal benefits when their partners work for gender-inclusive companies such as better health, freedom to be themselves, and the ability to share financial responsibilities. Men can help signal change by shattering outdated cultural norms that keep everyone bound in limiting roles through the following: cross-gender mentoring to expose everyone to different leadership styles; becoming aware of unconscious bias and double standards in language; and becoming advocates and champions for diversity, by demanding access to and taking parental leave and equally sharing in household, child and elder care outside of work hours.

Be the best version of you, not someone else

Many of you take professional development and leadership courses, belong to organizations that support the advancement of women and participate in networking and other events. If these activities bring you satisfaction and energize you, that’s fantastic. However, women don’t need to spend more time learning how to accept criticism, how to work harder, or how to be assertive and exude confidence in the workplace. And while the results are welcome, women don’t even need more academic studies proving that they make enterprises more successful. We DO need the workforce culture to change: we need accountability from senior leadership to retire outdated policies and biased practices that do not support equality. As for women, we only need to do one thing: pay it forward by advising, mentoring, and advocating for women and girls.

Let’s just stop the cycles of trying to fix ourselves and redirect our resources towards signaling cultural change. Let’s hold our leaders accountable for unconscious bias and outdated policies. Let’s rally men as our allies in the pursuit of embracing diversity. Let’s show our support for organizations that prioritize accessibility and inclusion. Let’s empower each other and amplify this vision of an ecosystem that supports the innate talents of women. Most of all, let’s drop the needless thought that we are broken in the middle of a culture that needs to change.

As Principal of Deirdre Woods Technology Advisors, I work with organizations to leverage their digital landscape, launch high visibility initiatives, and develop strategies that support success and growth. In addition to advising on and executing strategies, I really enjoy presenting about topics that capture the transformative power of technology as a medium of change in society and education. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @deirdre_woods.

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