The Inclusive Champion
Diversity is a recruiting statistic. Inclusion makes people stay.
This conversation has been following me around for my entire professional career. Even when it’s not the main topic, it’s still there as the elephant in the room — or perhaps more appropriately for this article, as the woman in the room. I’ve been in discussions about it — conference panels, sponsorship initiatives — and yet still the same questions come up. I catch myself explaining away my career choices in a way no man would ever need to. So, how did we get here?
Even though the start of my professional career was in an industry that was more evenly gender split, there were still some very strong assumptions made about being female in the workforce. Upon resigning from an early position my male boss’ reaction was that he saw this coming, as I’d recently gotten married, so I was obviously quitting the workforce to start a family. At the same time my new husband also gave his notice to his employer — we were actually moving to another country — this family-based assumption as a newly married man never came up. There are many books and articles out there aimed at women in the workforce on how to manage family and a career at the same time, and are still leaning towards this being the fundamental challenge for why women aren’t succeeding. This is a very frustrating brush to be painted with, when bringing home another puppy is the closest I’ve ever been to starting a family!
Being a Woman in Tech
Starting to work in technology didn’t initially strike me as an odd career choice. Lots of people were working in technology, and doing very well in their chosen fields. It wasn’t until I started getting some curious questions, and even looks of surprise, that it occurred to me that choosing a career in technology wasn’t odd — it was being a woman choosing that career path that others found odd. If you take a look at any of the interviews done with women in STEM careers, invariably one of the first questions asked of them is how they came to find themselves working in the industry — like this is such a surprise and needs an explanation! I’ve caught myself doing this, as if I need to explain my presence to the men around me and justify my right to be there. Can you imagine the response of any male Silicon Valley leader who was asked “Exactly how did you get into technology, and why were you even interested in it!?”
Dealing with Assumptions
Earlier this year I was involved in a diversity initiative that asked the question “How do you overcome diversity in your current technical role?” I started seeing patterns in the responses; to overcome diversity challenges they simply worked harder. The respondents all said that they gave more to their job, had to prove themselves to gain respect and even went so far as to adjust their approach so as not to seem threatening to others. Looking deeper into these responses, then, leaves me questioning why this diverse population in technology are not at the forefront leading the charge if their approach is to put more in?
Digging into this, I started thinking about what it was that we, the diverse population of tech, were in fact “putting in”. I started looking around our team and identified several places where the assumption that putting more in was going to help them succeed, and it wasn’t necessarily playing out as expected. I watched two people applying for the same career advancement; one male, one female. Upon learning of both of their desires to move into this role, I had a conversation with the hiring manager for their first impressions. This is where I started to see some differences in approach. The male candidate had approached the hiring manager directly, stated his interest in the role and asked questions about what more he could be doing to be considered as the primary candidate. The female candidate listed her (exceptional) qualifications for the position in her resume, and continued exceeding in her current role. The belief here being that current performance would be recognized outside the team. Unsurpsigingly, the result from these different approaches was that the hiring manager immediately made a judgment that the male candidate was a better fit given his ability to put himself in front of the them in a positive light.
This story doesn’t end here, though. In this case, the male candidate was his own champion — he had no fear of standing up and saying he was ready for the challenges of this new position. This is not to say that every man is out to be their own champion — going back to the diversity feedback I’d read earlier this year, it was in fact a male respondent that answered that they feel the need to adjust their approach to not be considered threatening. Promoting inclusion and diversity could be as simple as being that champion for someone. The female candidate in this story had a champion. After her champion had a conversation with the hiring manager pointing out all the success she has had in her career so far, and the contributions she’d made to her current team, opinions began to shift. As a result the female candidate earned the promotion based on being the best candidate for the position.
This is where I believe we can all start to make a change
In our team we’re building an environment of inclusion. We didn’t set out to build a diverse team, but as it turns out, when you can build a role that appeals to many, the result is a diverse team. Our job descriptions promote curiosity, learning, and the ability to see your contribution to not only the company, but beyond into the community. While we have several different roles, we all get together every Monday morning for everyone to share equally. Each team member contributes one thing they learned the previous week, one thing they’re working on this coming week, and details any roadblocks that the team or management can help with. This format not only gives everyone on the team a voice, but has the added bonus of team collaboration in areas we couldn’t have anticipated. Not every meeting in our organization can be run in this manner, but a set structure means that individuals know their voice is heard. This leads to increased self-confidence, which increases contributions in traditional meeting formats where they may have previously taken a back seat.
Recently a colleague expressed an interest in understanding this team meeting format. While appearing interested, he interrupted me to continue discussing the challenges facing women in technology with another male colleague who was also standing with us.
I’m looking forward to following up with this colleague soon, and while I may revisit that situation with him, I’m more interested in ensuring he understands what he can do as a champion in the future.
Talking about, thinking about, and acknowledging the need for inclusion are all very important things. Being an inclusive champion is what’s going to allow us all to overcome the current disparity.