Well, it is 2020, we are finally living in the future and despite of what we have been promised, we don’t yet have flying cars, are not living on the moon and many of our fellow male colleagues still think this whole diversity and inclusion thing is a waste of time, or maybe even detrimental of the career progression of those they consider worthy, an impediment of the true meritocracy.
My argument here isn’t going to be why women deserve more effort from us (I obviously believe they do). Instead, I will argue that us, men, are the ones who can benefit the most if we make that effort.
Those of you who think this whole D&I is bullshit must be already rolling your eyes, but as a fellow male colleague in tech, I ask you to give me the benefit of doubt and follow my thinking here. You can have an open mind for a few minutes, I’m sure.
Let me tell you a story that happened a few days ago: I was in a meeting with some 10 other people, men and women. A woman (very senior one at Microsoft) wanted to bring up a few points on the topic we were debating. It wasn’t just her opinion: It was literally the work she had been doing for the past couple of months. A guy who had just joined that working group and had literally no previous context on that topic immediately interrupted her to provide his opinion. I will be very specific here: She would start saying “Well, I believe” and he would jump right there, without asking, without apologizing, and start describing his opinion. This didn’t happen once, or twice, but multiple times during the meeting.
She was sitting right by my side and I could hear a loud *sigh*. It was frustration, she had things to say and was not able to.
-Well she should just have raised her voice and imposed herself, complained that she was being interrupted, that’s what I would do! – you might say
Yes, she could. And she would be then described as “emotional” or “aggressive”, or maybe “difficult”. Someone to avoid, someone who shouldn’t be given more responsibilities or be promoted. Have you ever described a woman that way for that same reason?
Besides, the guy who was doing this was her new boss. Would you be so brave against your own boss in front of others saying you wanted to speak too?
But even more baffling to me was after the meeting when I asked a male colleague if he noticed what happened:
-What, really? In that meeting? No, I didn’t see it! Are you sure?
(See, I want to repeat it: If she reacted more aggressively, this guy who also didn’t see anything wrong happening would probably also think she was too aggressive without a reason)
I then asked a female colleague who also was in that meeting. Her response:
-Oh my God, that was terrible! He undermined her and randomized my work too!
I ask you reader how can two different people who witnessed exactly the same meeting, saw exactly the same things could walk away with two completely mental pictures of what happened? Is one of them lying? Perhaps one of them is “too sensitive”?
The answer is neither: My male colleague wasn’t “tuned” into that dimension of the dynamics that was happening in the room. He didn’t have the instruments to detect what, to him, was very subtle. It wasn’t obvious.
Have you ever watched a magician doing a trick in front of you and wondered yourself “how can that be possible?”, then learned the trick and watched it again? In that second time, a variety of things that were happening right there in front of you become way more evident, you just didn’t notice it before. You had your mind focused on something else.
Well, it turns out this happens a lot here. In fact, the guy who was interrupting the woman I mentioned wasn’t even doing it intentionally. He didn’t go to work thinking “Well, today I’m going to be an asshole, I will make sure I interrupt her every time she tries to speak, just to make sure everybody walks away with a bad impression of me”. No, he was probably thinking that the meeting went fine, he had some smart thoughts to share, everybody spoke, no problem.
Why am I telling this story? Because I want you, my male colleague, to consider that sometimes, you might be that guy. Heck, sometimes I am that guy. We might be thinking that we’re doing our best job when other people in the room might think we’re being complete assholes. If people think you’re being an asshole at work, wouldn’t you want to know? And if it is something simple to address that will dramatically improve your image among others, as a leader, as a peer, as someone who is trustworthy… Don’t you want to make that very little effort and reap all the benefits that it will bring to your personal career?
-But how can I know if they don’t say anything? I don’t have a crystal ball – you might ask
That’s right, it is not easy. I often don’t see it myself, although I have become much better over the years, with their help, at seeing some of these things.
There are simple things you can do: First, you can ask. In private, to them, via e-mail or whatever form of communication that works: “Do you have any feedback for me? Am I doing this right? Did I miss anything? What do you think?”. But here’s the catch: You must lower your guard.
If someone has negative feedback about you and you invite them to tell, the way to completely ruin it is to automatically start arguing against it, defending yourself: “What!? NO! I DID NOT INTERRUPT YOU!”.
Way to go, you are making absolutely sure that they will never trust you and give you honest feedback ever again.
It takes courage to accept where we fail and look for improvement. And yes, those are often small things. You may think they are stupid, but imagine getting not one, but a thousand of those small papercuts every day. Being unable to speak in a meeting, not being considered for an interesting project, having to constantly prove yourself to be technical, and never being noticed, no matter how hard you try. Having to watch people constantly say that you don’t deserve to be there, that you aren’t good enough… Heck, people saying that you are genetically not fit for tech, just imagine how that would feel!
Let me tell you something: Unless you have been designed in a lab and are of a completely new species, then sadly neither you or I are designed for tech. Tough luck because here we are nevertheless. What a great time to be alive! I’m not telling you to go live in a cave and hunt for food and I expect you to not suggest the same to women.
If you can’t accept that you fail at those things, I am afraid that you might be part of the problem… We all can improve, you are not God, neither am I. But if you really think the feedback you receive is unfair, ask for more: Ask different women, see if the information you’ve got is validated. You will be surprised.
Here’s another story: A friend decided to leave her job because she wasn’t being taken seriously by her colleagues. She had ideas for the product but her male colleagues couldn’t care less for what she thought. I spoke with her manager about it and his response was that he tried to help, he offered to change her job title, to become a Program Manager which would be more adequate for someone who wants to drive a product.
I was disappointed, because he failed to see the obvious: The problem wasn’t her job title. He could make her “President” for what I care and she would still be the same person in the same team, trying to be heard by the same guys who were too arrogant to consider her point of view. That is why she left. Because her manager didn’t support her, he didn’t empower her, nor reminded her colleagues that she too had opinions that were worthwhile to be discussed. Once again, everything was happening in front of her manager but he couldn’t see it. There was the magician once again making cards materialize out of thin air and he couldn’t see that in fact, those cards were being pulled out of his sleeve all along.
If he could, he would be a better manager, he would have less attrition in the team, and perhaps some of those ideas she had would improve the product he owned.
Perhaps one of the best benefits of building that trust and creating an open channel is that you develop a “sixth sense”: People start trusting you and telling you things that you otherwise would never be able to notice or figure out by yourself. Maybe your strategy was wrong, maybe the way you’ve been trying to sell your idea didn’t come across right. Maybe what you thought was your best joke was in fact terrible. Maybe the person who said they agreed with your plan was in fact completely against it.
Maybe you could be a better manager, a better salesperson, a better product architect… But the opportunity gets missed because you think women don’t deserve any more “favors”, meritocracy is all that is needed in this game and they should just get over it.
Let me make this clear: Women will get their opportunity. Society will grow, like it has already been growing, and changes will continue happening. The question is what side of history you want to be at.
I’m not advocating for you to take advantage of it, sign up for some D&I groups to make them your personal brand and pretend to care while you continue to make sexist jokes, sabotage their careers and act like an asshole. If you feel the need to be that kind of asshole in order to be an overachiever, then you are only one of those two things, and everybody can tell that you are in fact being dishonest.
What I am advocating for is for you to give yourself a chance. We can all do better, if we keep an open mind.
Happy International Women’s Day.