Archives For Women

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Ashton Applewhite, in her blog, This Chair Rocks, defines ‘Ageism’ and writes about how a discrimination against age is creeping into Corporate America and why that is all wrong.  Separately, Lynn Parramore wrote a post on “50 is the new 65“, talking about the discrimination that Americans increasingly face in later stages of life.

I’m going to refrain from debating whether or not they are actually right – and whether there actually is a discrimination that is plaguing our society right now.  However, I do believe that the older you get, the harder you have to work to convince a decision maker that you are the right choice.

Unconscious bias is innate in humans to begin with.  It starts from very early stages in every aspect of life.

  • An old battered toy vs a shiny new one – which one does a child pick?
  • Who do you assume can lift a heavy box – the man or the woman in the room?

The answers are obvious.  Based on things we learn, we unconsciously associate characteristics and desirability to different things. Unconscious bias is articulated in this exceptionally well narrated Washington Post story, Pearls Before Breakfast, about Joshua Bell’s performance on a subway, disguised as a street performer.  A world renowned musician whose concerts sold at $100 a seat, Joshua was performing at the metro station at L’ENFANT PLAZA in Washington D.C., indistinguishable to the passersby from a street musician.  Sure enough, he made $32.17 during the time he played at the metro!

When it comes to the workforce, what is it that we value and how does our unconscious bias associate these values with age?  Citing a few things:

  • Energy (advantage young)
  • Experience (advantage mature)
  • Motivation (slight advantage young)
  • Ability to learn new things (advantage young)
  • Compensation (advantage young)

There are, of course, many other important things, such as commitment, team skills, domain knowledge, etc., but, when all else is the same, it boils down to some critical factors that lean one way or the other.

This isn’t unlike other types of unconscious bias – such as, for e.g., the (perceived) bias against women in technology.  Women have to work extra hard to get recognized.  To be viewed as a leader, to be viewed as a strong technologist – we have to give a lot more.  Alternatively, we can work our way up starting from being a “note taker” – in other words, being of assistance to the real leaders and technologists – but, we will constantly find ourselves starting at the “note taker” level, as we work with different people.

But I digress.  The reality is, when we are dealing with a natural unconscious bias in the society – cultural or global – the larger population is not on the side of the disadvantaged, by default.  We have to be conscious and we have to work harder to earn our place.

All that said, capitalism actually makes this worse.  The idea that the profits can be unevenly distributed in fact, creates a further divide.  And yet, with this divide, is its incredible dual – the power of diversity – the fundamental value that allows us to really define who we are.

It’s not necessarily fun being on the disadvantaged side of any bias – but, it does make us a better person.  And when we conquer it, we have made an amazing impact for ourselves and we have done our part in slowly chipping away at the bias!

diversity

The tech community has demonstrated that it is at best confused about what type of diversity businesses should aim for, in order to advance well.  It is one thing to curb discrimination, but on the topic of diversity, I think we should be looking for “diversity in perspectives”.  

Diversity has hardly been an easy topic to understand.  For centuries, the human civilization has been trying to deal with just what diversity is and how best to handle it.  So, it is no surprise that it leads to exhaustion as Dick Costolo gets hammered on the lack of women on the Twitter board.  Those who followed the NYTimes article and the less than ideal exchange that happened on Twitter following a harsh comment by @dickc know that the situation is getting so much attention.

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On the topic of “women as minority”, I have very conflicted views.  I’ve written earlier on this topic, advocating that women need to be confident and trust in their abilities to be as good or better as their male counterparts.  So, this question of “should an organization be compelled to have a woman on their board” makes me very uncomfortable.  If you are a woman, would you like to be hired because you are a woman (of course you’d be subject to a minimum bar) or would you like to be hired because there isn’t a better candidate than you for the job?  I’d prefer the latter myself.

For what it’s worth, I think we are hung up on the wrong question!  We are implicitly making this be about discrimination rather than diversity in a meaningful sense.  Have you hired the best candidate you could find for the job?  Of course, there are all kinds of other factors – a reasonable timeline for one – but, in general, if you answered yes to that question, you are done!

Diversity In Perspectives

Now, diversity in perspectives, however, is a completely different thing.  A company like Twitter needs creativity in multiple dimensions.  Arguably, understanding female users is one area.  But, I have a hard time professing that you need a woman to understand female users.  Would you hire a teenager to the board so you can understand teenage users?  Not necessarily.  In a similar manner, the key is that you have a board that can bring in diverse perspectives that are important to your business.  The real problem lies in the fact that most leaders are not necessarily excellent judges of other people’s strengths.  So, it is generally hard for someone to understand who is bringing the right set of perspectives in which area.  How do you know that a male director you just hired understands female users?  It is much easier to believe that hiring a woman will bring that perspective.  All the noise about how Twitter has so many female users and hence desperately needs a woman on the board relate to exactly that!

It is true that it is often difficult for people to understand how their real users behave and what they need.  The solution to this is not that they go find themselves a representative from each segment of their user population.  First of all, there is no guarantee that a 40-year old woman can bring the perspective of a teenage girl.  So, unless you got your segments exactly right, that would not be an ideal fit.  Second, not only do you need the right perspectives from different user segments, you also need these people to be able to connect the dots together and create a cohesive strategy.  Not to mention be able to identify user segments of future relevance.

The bottomline is that diversity in perspectives is what is most important and you need creative people who can understand that they are not necessarily the representative user, can understand the actual users and project their future wants and needs and equally critically, can work together!

The debate continues about whether Sheryl Sandberg’s message about leaning in is the right message to send to the women who aspire to be in the corporate world, but struggle to make it happen for various reasons.  While some of the comments have been positive, her message has certainly received a number of harsh criticisms.

In a recent HBR post, James Allworth talks about how it is not women who should lean in, but men should step back instead.  Earlier, CNN published an article about having it all that sparked a lot of debate on whether it is women or men that have it all.  My blog post on having it all addressed that topic to highlight that it is not about having it all and rather about knowing how to navigate the environment we are in.  Also, recently, Kristin van Ogtrop of Time’s Real Simple wrote about how she would rather stand up straight.

The point in these articles is that there is more to life than trying to constantly do better and want more.  And more to life than being aggressive in one’s career or working too much.  Couldn’t agree more!  But, when I read these takeaways, it occurs to me that something fundamental has been misconstrued from Sandberg’s message of leaning in.  I don’t believe it is about working oneself to exhaustion or ignoring everything else in life.  It is about paying attention to our environments and being one among the (male dominant) corporate population that gets much of the attention.  All within the scope of what we do and more importantly, what we want to do.

For women that have navigated the corporate world, even the ones like me who are mostly just nobodys in various organizations, this distinction should be clear.  If, as some reviews of the book have suggested, men were to actually alter their behavior, then perhaps women become natural members of the corporate society and we don’t need to be talking about what it means to lean in.  But, as it stands today, for the woman that desires to be in the game, it is rather important to assume the behavior that is most familiar to the predominant decision makers and the corporate society at large.  Mostly speaking, that is all about confidence and communication – and these are not necessarily bad characteristics to adopt.

When we have that moment of doubt, we just need to remember that such moments happen to everyone, including the men at the table.  That will help us get past it and be in the game. Not by overworking or constantly looking for more, but simply by knowing that we can do as well as our male counterparts in what we choose to do!

Having It All!

March 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

As the world is busy debating whether women or men can have it all, it strikes me as unfortunate that we are even having this debate.  “You cannot have it all” is a lesson we teach our kids from a young age.  As part of parenting, many of us teach our kids that they have choices and they need to make a choice.  So, why is it that as adults, we seem to be busy debating who has more or if anyone can have it all?  Of course we cannot have it all. We don’t have infinite time – there are times when we do have to make a call between taking our children to the park and staying late at work to meet a milestone.  Or, even tougher choices about going to our child’s recital vs a big presentation perhaps.  And some women may want to do so much of one that they opt out of the other.  That is perfectly fair and fine.  All the debate only applies to those women that want to have a career (not necessarily at the expense of everything else).  But the key point this debate seems to miss is that it is about encouraging women to believe in themselves and focus on their strengths.

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I wrote about empowering women a while ago.  Sandberg’s TED talk sends a similar message.  If you aspire to have a career, the #1 thing you have to do is to be confident of yourself.  On a related note, over the years, there has been a lot of debate on whether it is necessary for a woman to look good to be successful (do looks matter?).  I strongly believe it is tied back to self-confidence – the confidence that comes naturally when we feel good; the feeling that sometimes comes when we think we look good!  So, it is necessary to dress for success – only in a way that maps to our confidence.

As women, we are wired to think differently from men.  That is a known theory, one that we see play out a lot in life.  However, being more self aware of our strengths and weaknesses can bring so much to our success.  There is no reason for us to hold back.  We need to know that we can do as well as our male counterparts.  We need to forget about gender for that moment and pull up a chair “at the table”, to borrow Sandberg’s phrase.  More often than not, it is us, women, that self-impose restrictions on ourselves.  If we believed we can do it and we acted like we can do it, the rest will follow.  Let’s focus on the fundamental message of leadership here instead of the futile debate on having it all!