Hopefully, most of us are not daily sparring with co-workers behaving similarly to the fired Google employee James Damore who recently unleashed a 10-page anti-diversity, gender-bashing manifesto.
The fallout and his threat of legal recourse has prompted conversations, backlash, anger on all sides, action and perhaps new policies about unconscious bias, gender bias, the gender gap, gender parity and discrimination.
Yet such gender stereotyping, blaming and pushback against women in tech, STEM and the C-Suite is not an anomaly. Nor is it new. Lawrence Summers, then-president of Harvard University, in 2005 proclaimed, “...one reason there are relatively few women in top positions in science may be ‘issues of intrinsic aptitude.’”
That was 12 years ago when the 28-year-old fired Google engineer and author of the memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” was just 16.
Damore things change, Damore they stay the same.
The response immediately from on high this past week at Google was swift. CEO Sundar Pichai fired the employee for violating the Google Code of Conduct for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” in the workplace. In his memo to employees, Pichai wrote: “It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.’”
CNN’s Sara Ashley O’Brien commented that Pichai wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Still, a planned company-wide Town Hall to address the memo was cancelled after female employees were targeted personally on social media.
Susan Wojcicki, the highest ranking female Google employee as CEO of YouTube, in a Fortune essay writes of responding to her daughter that women are not biologically inept. “That question, whether it’s been asked outright, whispered quietly, or simply lingered in the back of someone’s mind, has weighed heavily on me throughout my career in technology,” Wojcicki writes.
Danielle Brown, Google’s new VP of diversity, integrity and governance, wrote an internal memo explaining her views, according to Kara Swisher at Recode.
Brown writes: “Google has taken a strong stand on this issue, by releasing its demographic data and creating a company-wide OKR on diversity and inclusion. Strong stands elicit strong reactions. Changing a culture is hard, and it’s often uncomfortable.”
The official responses referring to policy, reminding employees of a code of conduct, modeling behavior and offering a thoughtful personal response are welcomed. But what action is possible on an individual level? How do you handle a co-worker with gender bias who may act out in a way that makes you uncomfortable?
Here are some tips on handling and perhaps rectifying a work culture where you may feel under attack due to gender bias because of who you are and perhaps what others feel you ideologically represent as a woman.
Never respond in kind. If you are a recipient of an email, memo, text or post that lashes out and is negative, personal, discriminatory and accusatory, resist the urge to respond with emotion. Document the communication, take screenshots of a Twitter conversation, print out the email, put the memo or the document in a separate digital folder. You will want to report all communication of this kind to your supervisor. Also refrain from talking about this to your peers in the office. You do not want this to escalate. Know that communicating in a way that can be considered harassment is illegal. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission defines harassment this way:
“To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people. Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following: The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee. The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.”
Organize a company-wide discussion of positive tactics for a culture shift. Be careful, sensitive and not knee-jerk in your approach. But do this swiftly within a week or two of the recent event so it is still fresh and not forgotten. Do not concentrate on the single incident, but plan a discussion around solutions for gender bias and discriminatory behavior. Organize a panel with experts and perhaps prep the participants with a reading list.
To that end, the 9 Leadership Power Tools created by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, offer Power Tool # 2, “Define Your Own Terms—First, Before Anyone Else Does.” Feldt explains, “Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins. By redefining power not as ‘power over,’ but as ‘power to,’ we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone.”
As leadership expert Margaret Wheatley says, “Be brave enough to have a conversation that matters.”
For instance, planned long before this Google eruption, in Cleveland this week, Startup Scaleup, JumpStart’s all-day networking and expertise-sharing event for entrepreneurs and small businesses, has a panel specifically addressing the challenges of being a woman in the startup world, according to The Plain Dealer.
Fedlt counsels, “Frame the discussion in such a way that it’s not a complaint session, but a genuine opportunity to state their concerns forthrightly and leave with an action plan to address them. Moments of controversy are the best times to make progress because people are paying attention.”
Answer with facts and evidence. If a coworker pontificates about gender stereotypes and offers what he or she considers to be facts, be sure that you have even more abundant, recent, accurate evidence, studies and research that counter the claim. One of the best ways to bolster your argument, according to The OpEd Project, is to “acknowledge and dismiss” the evidence of the other side with irrefutable information. What that means is when a person mentions unattributed, vague research without naming it specifically, be sure you have multiple, specific and accessible sources at the ready as a rebuttal. Offer to send links to the research. Assume the person is unaware, not intentionally malicious. You can word it with, “That is very interesting, but the most recent research has debunked that theory. I am happy to send it to you.”
Be clear on boundaries and rules of engagement. If your company or organization does not have a manual or code of conduct as it relates to gender bias, ask to help create one. And be sure that you are respectful in all communications with your peers and colleagues. If there is a code of conduct, know it and follow it. “It’s fine to provide a space for respectful discourse and disagreement, but the line is crossed when bias views are espoused that can lead to very real career stagnation, derailment, and disparate impact with no consequences. This means companies need real policies, and enforcement, for offensive behavior, so as not to be a rest haven for prejudice. A company won’t achieve the desired outcome as long as it employs those that actively resent and work against diversity and inclusion,” Bari Williams, attorney and business operations executive at StubHub, writes in Huffington Post.
Do not make this “us against them.” It would be easy for the perhaps smaller group of women in the organization to band together against men who may project gender bias. Instead, make an effort to include men in conversations of bias.
Amber Madison writes in Fast Company: “Traditional norms of masculinity come along with a great deal of power and privilege. But adherence to these norms is also associated with health issues, social isolation, and loneliness. Helping men challenge and examine the biases and stereotypes that directly concern them, too, is one way to bring them in on conversations about biases and stereotypes that concern others. It may also make them feel less defensive and threatened, and make clear that when it comes to bias, we all have skin in the game. We know–from an abundance of research–that diverse and inclusive companies do better, and are better places to work. The more people we can get on board with that reality, the more realistic it is to think that we can create workplaces that are truly diverse and inclusive.”
Contribute to and help create a culture where words and communication tone matter. “You have to be totally intentional about making people aware of how they sound and the way they’re behaving and the way they use words,” Ken Ziegler, CEO of cloud-computing company LogicWorks, tells Business Insider. “The majority of the folks can be trained and sensitized and they can learn from it. It’s a learning opportunity.”
Understand that you have the power to make a cultural change in your organization, acting on the individual as well as the organizational level.
Yes, you could always quit and try to find another job if the company culture becomes unbearable. Optimally, you can work in a culture where you are valued and where the leadership understands that a diverse culture is smarter, more productive and more profitable.
“One of the best ways to boost their capacity to transform themselves and their products may involve hiring more women and culturally diverse team members, research suggests. In a study published in Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, they found that companies with more women were more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market over a two-year period,” according to The Harvard Business Review.
Actively working toward gender parity in all forms of leadership across all sectors is a goal of Take The Lead by 2025. This recent Google episode punctuates the urgency of that challenge.
“The worst of the Google rant was his underlying belief that women are biologically unfit to work in tech. If any part of your leadership shares this mindset, please bring in some expertise to educate them (you),” writes Annie Feighery , CEO & co-founder of @mWaterCo. in Medium. “Socializing and cultural norms gave rise to these notions and they are the poison seed that threatens to destroy all that is beautiful about Web 2.0, Silicon Valley, the idea economy, and the future as we dream it to be.”
This post originally ran in Take The Lead’s Movement Blog. Take The Lead offers a full range of ready-to-use leadership training solutions, proven to make the breakthrough difference in any career trajectory and create results, whether you’re an HR officer looking to develop more leaders in your organization, or looking for diversion and inclusion programs for your team, or an individual taking charge of your own personal growth. Learn more about Take The Lead training programs here.