Holacracy: A Step Toward Equality

Battling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Kristy Meade
Sep 11, 2014 · 10 min read

Unconscious bias, while unintentional, is far from harmless. Most women experience unconscious gender bias at work every day, and there is no easy way to address it. Study after study after study has proven this is happening and happening often. There are plenty of laws and company policies in place to protect from gender discrimination, but how do we get protection from the assumptions and bad habits of others when they don’t realize they’re doing it? What can we do right now to relieve us from some of the issues that arise from this unconscious bias in the workplace? Holacracy.

If you are unfamiliar with Holacracy, get familiar with it. It’s a new organizational structure and it provides protections that create an environment in which some actions based on unconscious bias are not possible. Yes, that reads “not possible.” Too good to be true? Here’s how it works…

1. Not enough women at the top? Get rid of the top.

In the ordinary structure, the way to make changes within a company is to be at the top. Unfortunately, there are few women at the top. Only 24 of the Fortune 500 companies are lead by women. Changes are made based on what an individual senses and one tends to only sense what affects oneself. An example from Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In:

I’m embarrassed that I didn't realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet… the other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed.

It’s not that those at the top aren't thinking of the rest, but that they lack the insight into the challenges others face. It’s not maliciousness; it’s a lack of information. Due to the impediments of getting women to the top (a whole ‘nother issue I won’t get into here), there are few people in such positions to sense the changes we may need.

Holacracy has a fix for this: just remove the top. Every single one of us is not only empowered to make any change we sense a need for, we’re encouraged to do so. If any one of us senses anything that isn't as good as it could be, we have the authority to improve it. If anyone senses a need for pregnant parking that person can find out what role has an accountability for parking and put in a project to have that role arrange for pregnant parking. If the role doesn't exist that person can create it. We are no longer dependent on someone else noticing when we need a change.

2. Not being taken seriously? You don’t need them to.

The ordinary structure allows for the unconscious biases that lead to women not being taken as seriously as men. When a man expresses a problem it tends to be taken seriously, however when a woman expresses a problem she tends to be seen as emotional, selfish, or aggressive. This usually means that a man’s concern is addressed, while a woman’s concern isn't considered real.

If I may share a personal example: it had come to my attention that a tool at work was not configured to handle a serious technical problem. Over the course of six months I brought my concern up in most of our weekly meetings, but it wasn't being taken seriously. I really didn't know what else to do other than to continue bringing it up again and again, each time hoping that maybe this time someone would get it.

My coworkers weren't ignoring my concern on purpose. It appeared they’d just existed so long in a culture in which women weren't expected to contribute seriously on technical matters that they were reflexively not expecting me to say anything that really mattered. I’m sure that had I acted more aggressively I could have been heard, but aggressive just isn't who I am.

Holacracy has a fix for this. Instead of having to change who I am to be taken seriously Holacracy removes the need for me to get others to agree that something is a problem. In my very first Holacracy meeting I was able to just put in a project to have the person managing that system fix the issue. It took two minutes to get done in Holacracy what I couldn't get done in six months in the old structure. When we sense a tension (a gap between where we are and where we could be) we are to process it selfishly to address that tension in the way that we sensed it. We don’t need consensus; we don’t need anyone else to believe it’s a problem. If the resolution will not bring harm to the team or company we’re going to implement the solution, and that’s all there is to it.

3. Can’t finish a sentence? No more interruptions.

In the ordinary structure it’s common to be interrupted. Studies show woman are interrupted significantly more than men, and that men interrupt women significantly more than they interrupt other men. It can be a challenge to just get out what we have to say. If women aggressively try to get the focus back on what they were talking about before being interrupted, they then have to deal with the effects of the negative view on aggressiveness in women. In the end, it’s often not safe for us to do anything about being interrupted.

I was in a meeting while a couple of my coworkers were having a bit of back-and-forth on an issue. She was talking, he interrupted her, she interrupted him in return, and he responded with, “don’t interrupt me.” He seemed to genuinely not realize he had interrupted her.

I don’t believe our colleagues mean to do this. As children, boys are not taught to control their impulses to the same extent that girls are. Our culture has been programming us like this for a long time.

Holacracy has a fix for this. We now have a protected space to speak. In these meetings we have a facilitator (someone who is there to protect the process and protect our space). No one is allowed to interrupt you. If someone does, the facilitator will stop the interruption and bring the focus back to you. This helps others be aware of themselves when interrupting people. The practice seems to teach overall better habits as this awareness carries over with them to non-Holacracy meetings. The process also protects us from having to be aggressive and risk the negative effects of attempting to bring back the focus on our own.

4. “Didn't I just say that?” You will be heard now.

In the ordinary structure this happens more times per week than I can count and is happening to most women. A woman may make a suggestion and it will seem to go unheard. Moments later a man might repeat the suggestion, and suddenly it’s the highlight of the meeting. The problem with this is that, while the suggestion did get out there, it is now being processed by someone other than the person who sensed the need for it.

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If only this were just a joke.

It’s not that our male coworkers are stealing our ideas. I don’t think that to be true at all. They really do seem to have honestly not heard us. I’m not sure why this happens, but it happens too often to be purposeful. I refuse to believe there are that many callous people in these meetings.

Holacracy has a fix for this. When it’s my time to process my tension and share my suggestion, the facilitator keeps everyone focused on me. This means everyone hears my idea. Then we have a phase of the meeting in which everyone is engaged and asking questions to help them fully understand what the tension is and the intention of my suggestion. Then there is a phase of the meeting in which everyone reacts to my suggestion and shares his or her thoughts on it. As long as my suggestion doesn't harm the team or company, it’s implemented.

5. Assumptions about the work you do? Let’s clear that up.

In the ordinary structure it’s commonly assumed that a woman is doing a modified version of a job than what a man is doing in the same position. A man may be a “software engineer,” while a woman is a “woman software engineer.” It’s the same job, but for some reason is referred to as though it’s different. This unconscious modifier can lead to confusion about the actual work a woman is doing and can have an effect on her pay, performance reviews, and representation of her skills.

Studies show that men tend to boast more than women about the work they do, while women regularly share the credit for collaborative work. This can give an inaccurate view of the two employees from the perspective of a manger who may not be paying attention. The flawed assumptions made based on boastfulness can get in the way of a woman advancing her career.

Holacracy has a fix for this. The work we do has gone from implicit to explicit. Each role in Holacracy clearly defines the work being done. This provides complete transparency into the work each individual is doing. The same transparency exists for actions and projects each person is working on. It is now explicitly clear that I am more than a modified version of my male coworker; I am an analyst.

6. Male peers managing your work? Nah, you got this.

In the ordinary structure it’s common for our male coworkers to offer advice we didn't ask for about how to do our work. This can lead to pressure to perform work in the way they're pushing for or else, again, we may suffer the negative effects of being aggressive.

Rebecca Solnit gives a great example of this in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. As she is having a conversation with a man, he interrupts her to tell her about an important book that had come out on the topic. She tries to tell him she wrote that book but he continues to explain to her why it’s important, and doesn't stop until she's repeatedly told him she wrote the book.

This is so common a phenomenon that the habit is defined on urbandictionary.com (the term used seems counterproductive, but I’ll save that for another day). How often this happens seems to make it a natural part of our daily life at work.

Holacracy has a fix for this. Instead of feeling pressured to do our work in the way someone else is pushing us to do it, we now have clear authority over our work. The decision on how to do the work is now explicitly on us, not our coworkers; not the people previously referred to as managers; not the once-CEO of the company; no one else. We are each the boss of the work we’re doing. When I fill a role, I am in charge of that work and how it gets done. I make the final decisions about what to do with it. If I want more feedback, I can seek it out, but I do not need consensus from anyone.

7. Leadership catch 22? F*ck the standard.

In the ordinary structure leadership is stereotyped as aggressiveness or the ability to keep people under control. The joke? When women are aggressive they’re seen as selfish, bossy, or out of control. Nice little catch 22 there for women. In other words, we aren't seen as leaders when we don't portray these traits, but if we portray these traits we’re seen negatively. Well… shit.

Women often have a smaller range of acceptable behaviors at work than men. If they are too nice, they are seen as weak or manipulative. If they are too aggressive, they are judged as acting like men or typical bitches.

Holacracy has a fix for this. Its structure won’t help you squeeze into the old standard definition of a leader, instead it changes the standard. This environment has absolutely no need for an aggressive, in-your-face, control-everything, style of leader. Those outdated methodologies are useless here. The new leadership needs of the company are to step back and to not get in the way of anyone’s work, inspire and encourage team members to do what they feel is best, trust everyone to engage their roles or put someone else in a particular role, provide advice and mentoring, protect your team’s boundaries, and to share the responsibilities of the team with its members. Women can show their ability to do all of these things without the common negative response.

Potential fix by exposure: Equal work revealed.

Despite what cynics say to deny it, women are still not getting equal pay for equal work. Since it’s a major taboo (or maybe this is exactly why it’s taboo) to discuss pay with coworkers, most people will remain unaware of the fact that they’re not being paid fairly.

Holacracy could fix this. I don’t know what my company’s plan is for this yet, but it’s something that is possible… Those who see salaries can now see, with complete transparency, who is filling which roles. With this exposure we can make it very easy to determine if those filling the same roles are making the same pay (with exceptions for time with the company/cost of living raises). With the exposure of this information in Holacracy, there becomes absolutely no good excuse for why two people who are explicitly doing the same work should be paid significantly differently.

While Holacracy may not solve the root cause of these problems, and it may not stop the unconscious bias, it does stop these biases from getting in our way. I can’t stress enough that these are unconscious biases and not anything I believe anyone is making a decision to do. We are only able to see things through our own perspective, so anyone who has never experienced these things has likely never given them much thought. Most of us have been conditioned to think in these ways since we were children and most just don’t notice themselves doing any of this. So, while we work on raising awareness of the issues and to train people to identify the problems, let’s implement a new organizational structure that can help protect us in the meantime. Unless you just prefer the ordinary way.

Ordinary (dictionary.com) adjective

1.of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional:

2.plain or undistinguished:

3.somewhat inferior or below average; mediocre.

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