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Ideas Made to Matter
4 workplace barriers for women and how to dismantle them
Mitzi Short remembers being the “one and only” woman of color in the room. Angelique Krembs was told she’d “need to be seen breaking glass” if she wanted to get to the next level of her career. Katie Lacey’s boss said she should smile more. Lori Marcus was advised to smile less.
“The walls of gender inequity … happen every day with these little moments,” Lacey said during a recent panel discussion about allyship at MIT Sloan. “When they happen to you, oftentimes they feel too small, too insignificant, too petty to bring up. But they do form a wall, and they’re what contribute to women starting to opt out of the workplace.”
Marcus is one of six members of The Band of Sisters, a group of Pepsi alumnae who are co-authors of the book “You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace.”
One of the themes of the book is that micro-inequities can occur anywhere, at any time. While the focus of the authors’ primary and secondary research is women, many of their findings apply to any underrepresented group.
“It’s bringing everybody into the conversation,” said Marcus, who serves on several corporate boards, including Fresh Del Monte Produce and 24 Hour Fitness. “It’s bringing in men, it’s bringing in leaders, it’s bringing in everybody to help recognize and then defuse and eliminate these situations before they happen.”
Here’s a closer look at four of these micro-inequities and how to address them as someone on the receiving end of these words or behaviors, a manager, or an ally.
“Great idea, Greg”
One of the things many women experience in the workplace is not getting credit for an idea. One common example is when a woman makes a suggestion during a meeting and receives no response, only to have a male colleague voice the same idea a few minutes later to great fanfare.
“For a minute you’re like, ‘OK, that seems mean, but it’s a small thing. I’m not going to say anything. I don’t want to be that person,’” said Krembs, chief marketing officer in residence at A.Team, a members-only network of tech talent.
But this is one of the reasons why women disengage in the workplace, Krembs said. To address the situation, she and her co-authors recommend taking the following actions:
- If it’s you: Acknowledge your input and “Greg’s” input. For example, say, “Thank you, Greg, for building on my idea. The other thought I had was …” If it’s a Zoom meeting, put your idea in the chat so it’s on the record for everyone to see. Share your idea early on in the meeting and stay active in the conversation.
- If you’re the manager: Pay attention to the voices being heard, and notice any gender or other imbalances. Make an effort to call on women, junior team members, and other employees who may feel marginalized.
- If you’re a witness: Amplify voices that aren’t being heard, or include a person in the conversation who hasn’t been able to get a word in. Use the suggester’s name when calling attention to an idea. After a meeting, look for ways to give credit in group emails.
The meeting before the meeting
Short, now an executive coach and CEO at New Season Coaching & Consulting Group, talked about the importance of the “meeting trifecta”: the meeting, the meeting before the meeting, and the meeting after the meeting.
Short said she learned about this trifecta early on in her career when she pitched an idea for available funding at a meeting. While her male colleagues seemed to sail through questions about how much money they wanted and what they’d do with it, “I felt like I was just getting grilled,” she said.
Short learned that her male colleagues had presold their ideas to their boss. This allowed them to get the tough questions out of the way ahead of the meeting, in a more informal setting, and understand what data they needed to have.
It can be tough for women to stay in the loop when these pre-meetings or informal chats happen in spaces where they aren’t allowed or don’t feel welcome or comfortable, such as the locker room or golf course. The authors advise taking the following actions:
- If it’s you: Be physically available for informal pre-meetings. Keep your office door open and don’t always wear your headphones. Try to build relationships with people across different departments, whether that’s through watercooler conversations or going to lunch. Learn the power dynamics of your organization.
- If you’re the manager: Mentor and train your employees in meeting-before-the-meeting skills, such as how to presell projects before they’re accepted, the authors write. Or consider formalizing these unofficial meetings so that all stakeholders are aligned. If you realize that not everyone was included in the pre-meeting, ensure that those people are up to speed at the start of the actual meeting.
- If you’re a witness: Let new people in your organization know about the process. “Alert a colleague as to who might be important pre-meeting targets for conversation,” the authors write.
Have you ever heard a female candidate described as “not a good fit” or “too emotional” when your organization was looking to hire someone? That’s an example of “lazy language,” and it’s another micro-inequity that can work in a man’s favor.
“It’s really vague and it’s really nonspecific, but people say it … as though it’s a truth and fact,” Marcus said. “Then, on the other side, there’s everyone’s favorite, which is ‘He’s a great guy.’”
Marcus said there are three things to remember in these instances: situation, behavior, and impact. If someone refers to a woman as being too emotional, have them explain the situation that prompted that perception. Ask the person to describe the specific behavior they witnessed. As the person describes what happened, they’ll either realize that the woman’s response wasn’t inappropriate or that it should in fact be addressed.
Father of the year
While there are benefits to more fathers taking on child care responsibilities, there’s also an imbalance in the way they’re acknowledged in the workplace.
A woman might show up to work late and miss a staff meeting because her child had an earache and needed to go to the doctor. That woman runs the risk of being viewed as unreliable, said Lacey, a board director at protein powder company Designer Wellness. But if a male employee leaves work early every Wednesday to coach his child’s soccer team, he’s viewed as a great dad.
The co-authors recommend taking the following actions:
- If it’s you: When family issues take you away from work, share the information with your manager and colleagues clearly and unemotionally. Avoid apologizing.
- If you’re the manager: Demonstrate support for employees who are juggling work and family, and speak up on their behalf.
- If you’re a witness: Applaud women caretakers as much as you applaud men. “Acknowledge all parents in their efforts equally,” the authors write.
This equal acknowledgment is at the heart of the 31 micro-inequities discussed in the book, because removing these barriers in the workplace requires mutual support between women and their allies.
“There are lots of big hurdles that we all need to solve,” Lacey said, but by “taking those little moments and making a positive impact in your next meeting, in your next class, in your next work session, we can all be allies for each other.”
Read: What these 9 female leaders learned from their allies