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Obstacles for Women in Business: The Comfort Principle

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BUSINESS WOMAN
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Among the causes for why women are still not proportionately represented at the top of U.S. business are what McKinsey & Co. calls invisible "mindsets." These obstacles to gender diversity in the workplace are tough to uproot because they operate at the unconscious level.

One unconscious mindset is what, in my book and workshops, I call the "comfort principle." This is the normal, understandable preference that we all have for being around people with whom we are comfortable. Often that means people with similar backgrounds, ways of thinking, politics and even gender or skin color. It is the tendency of "birds of a feather to flock together." The typical man prefers having a beer, playing golf or poker or riding Harleys with other guys over hanging out with the average female co-worker. I personally would rather go shopping or have a glass of wine with a female colleague! So I do not judge the comfort principle. I do not even want to change it. I simply want to bring it to the conscious level so it does not create obstacles for women and other groups.

Access to informal and formal networks, and having mentors and sponsors, are keys to a successful climb to the top. Good work assignments provide opportunities for development, experience and exposure. If leaders and managers are unconscious of the comfort principle, they are likely to think first of people with whom they have developed comfortable relationships. People most like those leaders and managers gain an advantage if access, mentoring or getting great assignments depends to a large degree on "comfort." Those with whom the leader is less comfortable (often women and people of color) may be disadvantaged, perpetuating the current demographics of leadership.

Conscious awareness of the comfort principle is its cure. If I acknowledge that I am subject to this natural phenomenon, I can make conscious, deliberate choices. I can stop and consider whether it is influencing my decision about mentoring or assigning work. I can think about what skill sets are needed on a project or who needs an opportunity to gain experience or exposure. I can be more inclusive!

What can women and others affected by the comfort principle do? I suggest we look for ways to build comfort. We can notice what the leader has in his or her office that reveals hobbies or family. For example, "I see you have a boy and a girl; so do I" or "It looks like you are a swimmer; where do you swim?" We can find opportunities to get to know him or her outside the work environment. At my last corporate job, my boss liked to go out with the guys for beers. He was not comfortable going out for drinks with me alone. So I invited three other women to meet the boss for beers after work. Sharing social time can build comfort!

What you have done to make sure you do not make choices based on comfort? What have you done to minimize the negative effects of the comfort principle on you?