Many stand to benefit when companies embrace diversity and inclusion. Women, people from different perspectives, and people of color challenge cognitive biases, prompting higher quality ideas and innovation, according to MIT Sloan senior lecturer and research scientist Renée Richardson Gosline. Women also score higher than men on 17 of the 19 most important leadership skills, according to a recent study.
While some companies focus on creating inclusive practices, women continue to battle bias as they navigate their careers. Doing so while becoming a strong leader isn’t easy, according to three business execs who shared their experiences at the recent MIT Sloan Global Women’s Symposium. What have they learned along the way? Learn to say no, get comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics, and help others coming up behind you.
Inequality in workplaces didn’t happen overnight, and won’t be diminished without effort, said Gosline, who moderated a panel discussion. “There needs to be deliberate and conscious action to make this change … this is work that each one of us has to continue to partake in,” she said.
Here are some ways to fight bias in the workplace.
Make the unconscious conscious
Anita Carleton, EMBA ’18, a software engineering executive, said she once noticed a male colleague addressing comments, feedback, and responses to other men in the room, even if a woman had asked him a question or made a comment.
Carleton, who is now the interim director of the Software Solutions Division at the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute, said she brought up the issue directly with her co-worker, who said he wasn’t aware of their behavior.
“When I brought up what I witnessed, he said ‘I didn’t notice I was doing that!’” she said. “It’s bringing the unconscious to the conscious.”
Making people aware of biased behavior is a good strategy, Gosline said. This often means getting comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, she added — improv classes and asking people for feedback are a couple ways to practice. It can take more than one conversation, Carleton said.
“Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable simply means that you're able to really take on these challenges and not let them derail you,” Gosline said.
Addressing issues head-on is also empowering, according to Vincenza Nigro, EMBA ’12, the vice president of global medical affairs at Hansa Biopharma.
“Permit yourself to directly address the issue and ask, ‘How do we all succeed?’” Nigro said. “How do we create the right environment for others to succeed in the organization? Because if I’m feeling this way, others sense it too, and that’s not good for anyone. So, let’s talk about it.”
Manage how others view you (and how you view yourself)
Rebecca Kirk Fair, MBA ’02, said she has employed deliberate strategies to empower herself and others, including taking a middle seat at the conference table. She does the same for junior colleagues.
“If I’m going with a younger woman to an all-male dominated client site, which is typically what happens, I put them in the middle. I make sure they have a speaking part,” said Fair, who is the managing principal at Analysis Group, a consulting company in Boston. “It’s working from the visual [point of view] and your set of expectations that you’re presenting to the world.”
It is important to have a clear vision of what you offer a company, Nigro said, and what your limits are.
Women scored higher than men on 17 of the 19 most important leadership skills, according to a recent survey.
“You have to know your skill sets and be comfortable with what you bring to the table and be the best version of yourself, not someone else’s version of you,” she said. “That’s difficult to do, but it comes with knowing yourself and knowing what you bring to the table and having confidence as a leader.”
That includes saying no. “Women often take on more in an effort to be seen by people on the executive team, but then end up overloaded,” Nigro said. “We take on more than our fair share. We try to do everything.”
Gosline said girls are often taught to be people-pleasers at an early age. Women tend to take on emotional labor for free, she said, like teaching other people about gender inclusivity. Research has also shown that women tend to be the ones to perform tasks like cleaning up after meetings. “Thinking about not just the way that people view us, but the way in which we view ourselves is really important,” she said.
Find allies, and be an ally
Friends and mentors are important for everyone, especially those trying to advance in industries where the rules of success are often unwritten. In some situations — like male colleagues talking exclusively to other men during meetings — it helps to find an ally, Fair said. In one case, she enlisted a junior male colleague to help redirect questions to her in a meeting with a client prone to addressing only men.
“It behooves all of us to figure out ways to empower the people around us, to include everyone in the discussion, and looking to your male mentors to share that authority that they have almost just for the state of their gender,” she said. “Making it discussable in your own organizations will help you deal with the broader context in the environment that we’re all interacting in. I think it’s on us to share it with women behind us, but importantly also to share it with the men around us at all levels.”
Leaders who have reached the top should take the time to help others behind them, the panelists said. “I try very, very hard for the new leadership teams that I bring in to inspire, mentor, give them opportunities, give them challenging projects, let them succeed and fail, because you learn a lot from all of those,” Carleton said. “I think those are sort of all the major ingredients to authentic leadership.”
“Leaving behind any one of us makes all of us suffer,” Gosline said. “So hold the door open when you walk through it.”