How to Create Female-Centric Cultures in your Small Business

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It’s well-established that gender diversity is remarkably good for business. According to a 2018 report from McKinsey, companies with a balanced mix of male and female executive team members are 21% more likely to see above-average profitability than their more homogenous peers. These gains aren’t limited to boardrooms, though; research published by Gallup indicates that gender-diverse business units in retail and hospitality have 14% and 19% higher average comparable revenue, respectively, than less-diverse business units.

Female inclusion creates business gains — it’s as simple as that.

Given a little thought, it’s not hard to see why these benefits appear. Workers of different genders and backgrounds naturally have different ideas, viewpoints, and insights into the market at hand. In a respectful, collaborative working environment, these differences give diverse teams a better ability to creatively solve problems, deliver top-tier performance, and serve a complex consumer base.

The opportunity for profit hasn’t gone unrecognized. Today, some 85% of companies track gender diversity to some degree, and many have made diversity a priority. Microsoft, for example, announced that it would be linking its executives’ bonuses to the company’s diversity goals in 2016. In the same vein, the technology manufacturer Intel crafted a diversity initiative that sought to mirror the percentage share of women and minorities in the broader workforce within the company’s employee base.

Of course, companies have a reason to act beyond diversity gains alone — talent. According to the 2017 PwC Female Talent Report, a full 77% of CEOs view the availability of skills as the most significant threat to their business. Researchers found that 58% of surveyed employers were actively attempting to recruit female hires to broaden their talent pool; for employers with over 10,000 workers, that percentage leaps to 78%.

Companies need gender diversity — not only to thrive but to survive. To borrow a quote from a writer for Gallup: “Companies cannot afford to ignore 50% of the potential workforce and expect to be competitive in the global economy.”

However, businesses cannot reap the benefits of gender diversity without first understanding what women value and creating a workplace culture that acknowledges and supports them. Below, I’ve listed a few ways to do so.

Design Forward-Thinking Recruitment Strategies

Too often, qualified women are passed over as a result of unconscious or intentional gender bias. According to the PwC study mentioned above, more than one-fifth of surveyed women across the globe reported experiencing gender discrimination when applying or interviewing for a job, as opposed to just 5% of men.

Though harmful to gender diversity, these exclusionary decisions often aren’t consciously made with exclusion in mind. Some recruiters might pass over an exceptional female candidate for a less-impressive male after seeing a gap in her resume. Others might consider a young, married applicant and worry that she might soon need to take maternity leave; or review a young mother’s resume and decide that she might focus on her family more than her work.

Make no mistake — though on the surface understandable, these decisions are exclusionary, unfair, and without basis. Researchers for the PwC study found that the stereotype of young women taking an extended leave to care for children is largely unfounded — in fact, men leave more often than women.

To quote the researchers: “Across the network, more women leave than men at our most junior grades only – and at this point in their lives very few of these women are at the stage of starting a family. At all other grades, more men actually leave than women. But we were replacing both our male and female leavers with predominantly male experienced hires.”

Thus, women too often find themselves shut out of career advancement opportunities because of outdated stereotypes. For the women who do temporarily leave the workforce, it can be incredibly challenging to return — some remain in unemployment limbo for years at a time.

Companies should make an effort to eradicate bias — conscious and unconscious — from their hiring process. Otherwise, they risk losing their ideal candidate to stereotype and assumption.

Provide Women With the Benefits They Want

When companies discuss benefits with female employees, they tend to focus on motherhood alone. However, while family leave policies are important, women want support in other aspects of their professional lives. According to CNN Money, 70% of surveyed female workers cite paid time off, respectful work environments, flexibility, salary equality, and learning opportunities as “must-haves” at work.

The takeaway? Create benefits that support women at all points of their careers, not just during their maternity leave.

Check Your Messaging

If women don’t see their gender represented among company leadership — or even respected industry roles — why would they want to join the team? Workplace cultures that don’t present women professionally and undermine their welcome will naturally struggle to gain diversity benefits.

As one writer puts the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “If the ‘fun’ culture being promoted or bragged about is one in which women may be less likely to be able to participate, what are the chances that women are seen as “fitting in” the company?”

Creating a culture that is gender-inclusive is not only the right thing to do, it also empowers you to appeal to the entire available talent pool, not just a small subset.

Self-Awareness Isn’t Helping Women Progress At Work. Here’s Why.

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New research has identified three reasons why self-awareness can actually hinder the success of many female workers.

Self-awareness is often touted as a foundational leadership skill for the 21st century. After all, research shows that executives who see themselves clearly are more confident, more creative, make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.

The self-aware are also better leaders and receive more promotions. It’s even true that companies with strong financial performance are comprised of employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.

When it comes to self-awareness, women have a slight advantage over men, which would lead us to jump to the logical conclusion that women are being promoted more often. Except, of course, that’s not true. Women are still underrepresented in senior leadership roles and are still paid less than men.

How do we reconcile the fact that self-awareness isn’t helping women progress at work? New research has identified three reasons why self-awareness can actually hinder the success of many female workers.

Women Believe They are Underestimated in the Workplace

Let’s begin by clarifying a popular theory: women are not less confident than men. It’s been found that the self-confidence gap between girls and boys diminishes significantly by the age of 23. Men and women in leadership positions rate their abilities similarly. The idea that gender inequity in the workplace can be explained away by a woman’s lack of confidence no longer holds water.

But while women strongly believe in their own abilities, they face a related challenge that men do not: many women feel that their colleagues underestimate their output and worth. In fact, a recent study showed that while men and women’s self-ratings of their emotional intelligence do not differ, women are three times more likely than men to believe that their supervisors would rate their abilities lower. In reality, their bosses rated women slightly higher than their male counterparts.

What accounts for this disconnect? Research suggests that ingrained gender roles and persistent stereotypes likely play a role. While women are self-aware in that they understand themselves and the value of their contributions, they’re also aware of unconscious prejudice at play within the workplace and are therefore less likely to correctly perceive how others view them.

While prejudice certainly still exists and cannot be downplayed, it’s also true that many leaders are willing to award credit where it’s due, regardless of gender. When a woman believes that others don’t value her, she’ll inevitably be more cautious about asking for things that she may very well deserve, like promotions and raises. Therefore, women looking to advance quickly should attempt to gain a more accurate picture of their contributions through the eyes of others. This might involve soliciting feedback from supervisors and other colleagues to gain a greater understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as others see them.

Women Do Not Receive Quality Feedback

Although women ask for feedback just as often as men, they’re less likely to receive it. Many managers fear giving honest feedback to women because they’re concerned about having their comments perceived as hurtful. These managers still believe the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, and they choose to avoid difficult conversations that could provoke tears or an irrational outburst. Researchers have coined the phrase “benevolent sexism” to refer to behaviors that shield women from negative feedback.

This is problematic because feedback is essential to a leader’s growth and development. It’s very hard to improve without it. It’s much more likely that a woman will be passed over for promotions and raises when she can’t address the issues that would make her more effective in her role and more valuable to her organization. Whereas men are getting feedback that’s specific and tied directly to business outcomes, women are more likely to receive feedback that’s vague, which only tells a woman that she’s not meeting expectations, but doesn’t give her the specifics to address her shortcomings. It’s simply not actionable. The disparity is devastating, as vague feedback leads to lower performance ratings.

On the other hand, vague positive feedback is just as problematic because, while it tells a woman that she’s doing well, it doesn’t specify why or how, so she’s left in the dark about how, exactly, to continue replicating those actions which are valued. And without detailed, documented achievements to point to, it’s more difficult to make the case for promotions or raises. Likewise, when women can solicit and record specific feedback, it has been shown to eliminate men’s overrepresentation in performance categories. In other words, it helps to neutralize bias.

The best solution for women is to know their audience and solicit concrete performance feedback from colleagues that they feel will be both supportive and honest. And, when feedback isn’t specific enough, women should ask follow-up questions. They can try to quantify successes and failures, the behaviors that have led to both, how often they engage in such behaviors, and the organizational impact of their achievements and shortcomings. Seeking concrete examples and documenting them makes them available for future negotiations.

Women Can Take Negative Feedback to Heart

The three ways people form a picture of who they are include: how they see themselves, how others see them, and the comparisons they make to others. While men most value how they see themselves, women tend to focus more on how others see them. Women are also more likely to amend their view of themselves in the presence of feedback from others. While feedback is essential to leadership, placing a greater importance on others’ evaluations of one’s performance can be dangerous. It not only potentially causes us to depart from our own values, standards, and goals, it can cause us to dwell on our fears and shortcomings. Coupled with the tendency to ruminate on insecurities (which women are more prone to do), this kind of behavior can be fatal to one’s career.

Self-awareness is a comingling of self-perceptions and the perceptions of others, and women need to be careful not to fall into the trap of overriding their own self-images based on others’ opinions. Feedback is important and should be taken seriously, but it should not be taken as gospel. Viewpoints will inevitably vary person-to-person, and it is the synthesis of those varying impressions, paired with one’s own assessments, that form a more complete vision of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. It is this diverse and informed view that women should analyze to extract actionable insights and form the foundation for their personal performance improvement plans.

Additionally, women can strengthen their own sense of self in the process. We can ask ourselves about our greatest aspirations, our guiding principles, and our values. What work energizes us the most? What career path should we take and are we on the right track? The more we recognize, value, and prioritize our own views, the stronger and more resilient they will become. This strength is perhaps our greatest protection against negative views that threaten to upend our own. It never hurts to prove someone wrong.

Despite the bold claims about the importance of self-awareness in leadership, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Sure, women can strive to be self-aware leaders. That’s not a bad goal, as long as we also commit to ensuring that we keep others’ feedback constructive, productive, and in perspective.

When Should Women Ignore Career Advice?

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As soon as women step foot into the working world, they face an inundation of career advice from magazines, from family members, from coworkers, and even from the strangers that they happen to strike up conversations with during a wait at the train station. Each person has their own opinion on how a female worker can optimize her skillset, demeanor, ambition, speech patterns, and outfits to maximize her potential for professional growth. They often feel inclined to share their wisdom — regardless of whether their beneficiary even wanted the guidance in the first place.

For the person on the receiving end of the conversation, this tidal wave of advice can feel frustrating and stressful. Women — and particularly those in the earliest years of their career — may struggle to reconcile conflicting instructions or worry that they might fall behind if they don’t follow given advice. They may even feel insecure in their carefully-planned career trajectory if an unsolicited advisor provides well-meaning but judgemental criticism. Over time, the accumulation of well-intended but grating advice can wear away at the receiver’s confidence, leaving her unsure of her own direction and capabilities.

Now, this isn’t to say that all advice is harmful and wearing — quite the opposite. When solicited, guidance from our friends, family, mentors, and others can be invaluable, especially when we begin our careers. After all, what better way to learn how to start a business, ask for a raise, or even switch industries than to consult someone who has already done precisely that? Experience is an invaluable tool in any professional development arsenal, even if the lessons we draw on aren’t ones that we lived firsthand.

The problem comes, however, when we begin to think that others’ experiences and opinions are more valuable than our own. In perpetually accepting advice, we unconsciously position ourselves as always needing help — and stop believing ourselves capable of walking forward on our own.

This would be troubling enough on its own — but is made even more so because not all advisors instruct to help their advisees grow.

Understanding the Nuances of (un)Healthy Advice-Giving

The reasons behind a person’s decision to give unsolicited advice can vary. Our friends and families want to see us succeed; other women want to mentor us; our colleagues and supervisors want to see us thrive. Well-meaning advice-givers are often motivated by altruism, friendliness, or even excitement.

series of four studies published in the May 2018 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that even when an advice-giver isn’t actively or consciously attempting to control another person, the very act of providing advice provides a sense of sway and power. An earlier study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania supports this finding, writing: “In giving unsolicited advice, the advice-giver appears to presume that his/her authority will be accepted by the advisee.” The report goes on to say that because women are socially conditioned to shy away from authoritative statements and use more questions, their conversational partners — and assertive men, in particular — often already have a presumption of authority and therefore feel comfortable giving unsolicited advice.

Naturally, the advice-receiver is put in an inferior position, which can have a clear and detrimental impact on both their confidence and their relationship with the advice-giver — although the advice-giver may not immediately recognize the harm they cause.

As MindBodyGreen writer Dr. Margaret Paul wrote of her experience as being an unsolicited advisor, “Over the years, I finally began to understand that my imposing viewpoints weren’t being interpreted as sharing wisdom, and my care was instead being viewed as an attempt to control.”

The truth is, no one can tell you how to live your professional life better than you. While others’ perspectives can and should — when requested — inform your decisions, they should never take precedence over your own opinions.

Here are a few tips for how you can productively dismiss unwanted career advice.

Set Boundaries 
When someone gives you unsolicited advice, decline their assistance. You can do so politely by acknowledging their perspective and intent; however, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that you needed, requested, or couldn’t have succeeded without their help.

Don’t Ask for Advice to Be Polite
Sometimes, we ask questions for the sake of making polite conversation. However, if you don’t need advice, don’t ask for it — if you do, you may inadvertently make others think that they have permission to step into an authoritative or mentor-like role over you.

Assert Yourself
Accepting productive advice without losing self-confidence is a balancing act that you will need to achieve alone. As feminist writer Rebecca Solnit put the matter: “I’ve learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing–though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots.”

It is possible to stand firm against unsolicited advice while listening to those you want guidance from; however, striking that balance can take work. Shut down your self-appointed counselors if you feel that they’re forcing their authority onto you — or don’t. The choice is, as always, up to you.

On Momternships: Do Working Moms Really Need to Start From Scratch?

Returning to the workforce shouldn’t require jumping through so many hoops.

On Momternships: Do Working Moms Really Need to Start From Scratch?

Image credit: StefaNikolic | Getty Images

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For women who take a temporary leave from the workforce to care for their children or family, returning can feel next to impossible. “I’ve had a lot of really well-meaning people tell me to quit looking,” Hagit Katzenelson, a programmer and mother, told one writer for the Harvard Business Review, “They’d say, ‘Come on, you’re banging your head against a closed door.’”

It certainly felt that way for Katzenelson at the time. Despite having an electrical engineering degree, an MBA and 14 years of experience in her field, she had to search for five long years for a job after taking a four-year break to take care of her three children. Katzenelson’s story isn’t an anomaly.

“I would get into interviews,” programmer Abby Carrales told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year as she recounted her attempt to break back into the workforce, “It would always come down to myself and another candidate. When employers see a gap in a resume, they assume the person has left to have children and that their career would always play second fiddle to their primary-caregiver responsibility.”

Similar frustrations echo across forums, magazine articles and social studies, all aligning with the same narrative through line: If you leave to have kids, don’t expect the working world to welcome you back. Research backs these anecdotes. In February of 2018, one Harvard Business Review study found that stay-at-home moms were only half as likely to obtain a job interview as a person who was laid off. Researchers further wrote that, “Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants.”

It’s a cold hiring landscape. However, some have celebrated “returnship” programs as the solution to returning mothers’s hiring woes, indicating that such initiatives can provide former stay-at-home parents the tools they need to break the ice — partially, at least.

Introducing Returnships

Returnship programs aren’t, strictly speaking, new. Goldman Sachs launched the first returnship initiative a little more than a decade ago; since then, 50-plus companies have opened their doors, including IBM, Johnson & Johnson and United Technologies. In April, Apple offered a 17-week return-to-work program for professionals who both took time away from work and have more than five years of professional experience. These programs are typically open to people who have left their industries for two or more years and last for a limited period — usually between eight weeks and six months — and are designed to provide networking and mentoring opportunities, help returnees refresh their professional skill set and give the company a chance to gauge whether the returnee is a long-term fit.

A Solution, or Just a Flawed Fix?

For both Katzenelson and Carrales, returnships were a lifeline, a means to climb out from the hiring sinkhole they had been struggling with for years. Both cited the returnships as stepping stones for getting back into their careers. Their stories provide hope to stay-at-home parents who want to return to work. And to be sure, all returnships offer participants the chance to update their resume and gain professional acceptance, even if they aren’t hired at the end of the program period.

However, these programs are not without their flaws. While some returnships are paid, many are not. Others require the returnee to pay for their participation. Hiring, too, can vary widely. While Ford’s returnship program hired 98 percent of its enrollees, Goldman Sachs only accepted 1.9 percent. Both are on extreme and opposing ends of the hiring spectrum; research indicates that most programs hiring between 50-100 percent of their participants.

Then there are the semantics. Should experienced moms fall under a subcategory of “interns”? For some, embarking on a “returnship” may mean accepting — at least subconsciously — that their skills are less valuable. As one writer protests in an article for Working Mother, “Companies like Goldman Sachs actually play on this perceived lack of expertise or skills. They promote the low self-confidence some people feel after being out of the workforce and use it to their advantage. Under the guise of helping people get up to speed and allowing employees to ‘see if it is the right fit,’ they get a no-risk trial and can fire you.”

This might not be entirely fair, especially given that these programs do help participants add to their professional networks and update their skills. However, the writer does have a point. While many programs don’t approach their participants as low-level, inexperienced or temporary staffers, the implication is baked into the title. I would argue that the assumption of in expertise and the dismissal that the writer highlights is a symptom of a broader problem, one that returnships can only partially address, even as they reinforce it through nomenclature: the devaluing of and bias against mothers in the workforce.

Go to the Source: Examining the “Mommy Tax” at Work

Returnships are a halfway solution, but they don’t solve the underlying social problem mothers face in the workplace. Research has repeatedly shown that mothers who leave the workforce for an extended period to care for children — or even simply have children — face penalties in their career. One study conducted by the nonprofit thinktank Thirdway found that women’s wages decreased by an average of 4 percent for each child they had. Ironically, men’s wages increased by more than 6 percent when they had children. The gap between the genders remained even after researchers controlled for significant factors such as education, hours worked, experience and spousal incomes.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology may shed some light on the cause of the gap. Researchers wrote, “Mothers were expected to be less competent and were less likely to be kept in the running for advancement opportunities than were other female or male applicants who were applying for the same high-level managerial position.” The writers further explained that hiring managers expected mothers to adhere to overly “feminine” behavior stereotypes; female candidates were believed to be too soft, too focused on their home lives and not suited to the demands of a male-dominated workplace.

With this, we can see that returnships aren’t a golden career ticket for stay-at-home moms; instead, they serve as a band-aid on the larger professional injury that social bias causes for women in the workplace.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

I’m not suggesting that women call for an end to returnships, or even that they avoid them. Quite the opposite. I believe that we need to provide more resources for stay-at-home mothers in and beyond the workplace. We need to establish more apparent channels for re-entry, push for more flexible and family friendly policies in the workplace and create programs that acknowledge the skill set women already bring to the table instead of framing their re-entry as an “internship.”

Most of all, though, we need to turn our focus inward and face the unacknowledged bias that so often prevents women with families from returning to work. As one leader for the job listing company Apres put the matter, “It’s one thing to say you are going to hire women on the sidelines, it’s another thing to train your hiring managers to interview without bias toward the gap.”

Gender bias isn’t going to be something we can solve with a single training program or one push towards returnship expansion. But if those in the business world launch a cohesive effort to value, welcome and support women returning to work, we might be able to give mothers a fair shot in the interview room.

Want to Be a Leader at Work? Try Rehearsing in Your Personal Life.

There are days when you think that you might not be cut out for leadership. After all, you’re continually trailing behind instead of leading the pack; you sit at meetings and nod along to mediocre ideas, even though you have a better option tucked away in your notes. You never quite have the courage to speak up and share your inspiration — even though you desperately want to.

Maybe your confidence as a leader will grow when you become an entrepreneur, you think; if you head your own business, you would have to step into the role. But here’s the problem — merely being in a position of leadership won’t make you a leader. If anything, the added pressure and high stakes might make matters worse, leaving you without proper leadership skills, a business, or way forward towards your aspirations.

Statistics support this conclusion. Currently, the failure rate of all U.S. companies after five years stands at just over 50%, and above 70% after ten. Interestingly, one study conducted by CBInsights found that the reason behind these failures tends to root in leadership or directional problems; researchers report that 23% of businesses crumpled because they didn’t have the right team, 19% were outcompeted, 13% fell apart due to disharmony among team members or investors, and 9% failed because they lacked passion.

In short: leadership matters. Your success in business will hinge on your ability to communicate, raise your voice, address interpersonal issues, pick the right team, and inspire trust — regardless of whether you’re an active entrepreneur or a corporate team member.

As CEO and leadership writer Peter Bregman puts the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “Leadership is hard in a very practical way. It’s about managing politics skillfully and effectively to achieve what’s most important […] showing up in critical leadership moments with confidence; connecting with people in a way that inspires their commitment, responding productively to opposition without losing your focus; skillfully handling people who push back; and building trusted relationships, even with difficult people or people you don’t like.”

However, the skills Bregman describes aren’t ones you should — or even can — learn on the fly, not when money and business are on the line. Instead, you should start developing your leadership skills now, while the stakes are low. The best way to grow your interpersonal working abilities is to practice them at home, in an environment that you feel comfortable being bold. Then, after you feel more confident in your communicative skills, you can transition those skills to the office — and, one day, perhaps even a CEO’s chair.

Here are some ways to go about cultivating leadership in your personal life.

Understand Your Communication Breakdowns

As you might have already inferred from Bregman’s comment, leadership leans heavily on effective communication. No one will follow a dictator; eventually, someone will question your ideas or suggest a different course of action. If you cannot learn to listen, address push-back, compromise, or craft compelling cases to those you lead, you will never be able to achieve team buy-in for your ideas.

You need to learn how to present points and disagree productively — and the first step to doing so is to understand where your communication skills tend to break down in your personal and professional lives. We all have fights with our friends, our coworkers, and our families; the question is how constructive those arguments are.

As one writer for Psychology Today describes, “Boiled down, the essence of many quarrels goes something like this: I’m right. You’re wrong. And I absolutely positively will not back down or change the subject until you admit it.”

That kind of thinking exemplifies the heart of an unproductive disagreement. If you argue ineffectively, you aren’t just going to fail to make your point effectively; you may even contribute to toxicity as a leader. People may become passive-aggressive, disengage, or foster workplace incivility. These behaviors can come at a significant cost to your business in the long term; According to one Harvard Business School study, nearly half of surveyed employees who worked in “toxic” environments decreased their work effort and spent less time at work, 38% “intentionally decreased” their work quality, 25% admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers, and 12% left their jobs altogether.

So, the next time you disagree with your roommate, partner, friend, or coworker, stop to think not only of what you’re arguing about but how you’re going about the discussion. If the conversation seems to be reiterating the same points without progress, take a moment to step back and consider how you can make your point clearer to the other party and acknowledge their perspective without abandoning yours.

Everyone communicates differently — sometimes it’s just a matter of meeting someone halfway. Once you know how someone interacts, you can understand their view and respond constructively. You still may not agree, but at least you can discuss your differences productively.

Practice constructive arguing at home, and you may find that the experience empowers you to make your voice heard at work.

Speak Up In Low-Risk Environments

If reaching out and communicating with those who intimidate you makes you uncomfortable, you need to brace yourself and do it more. If you know that you rely on your partner or roommate to talk to the landlord or insurance company representative, step forward and do it yourself. If you have a question about your car bill at the garage, ask the mechanic to walk you through it; if you’re stuck on a call line, tolerate the call center until you have the answers you need. Don’t give up, take the loss, or allow others to step into the responsibility!

Too often, we allow our fears of people thinking us rude, or of taking up time, to stifle our voices. Women, in particular, often hold back, worrying that being confident will come off as being rude to those around them. Speak up — not rudely, but firmly, and with the knowledge that your questions are worth the time. As a leader, this will prepare you for leading meetings, directing conversation, and getting any necessary information — without ever losing control of the conversational flow or giving in to frustration.

Step Out of Your Defined Role

The quickest way to fumble your shot at leadership is to settle into a role that doesn’t challenge you. Once you begin to gain some confidence in yourself as a communicator, start applying the skills you’ve developed at home to the workplace! Volunteer for projects at work if you have the capacity; demonstrate that you can handle the demands of management and project leadership.

Leaders aren’t appointed, but developed over years of dedicated effort — so why wait to sow the seeds of your success?

Here’s How Big Tech Companies Can End the Gender Pay Gap

Recognizing the myth of the meritocracy is the first step toward ending the gender pay gap for women in tech.

Image credit: Hinterhaus Productions | Getty Images

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Silicon Valley is known for its innovation, high-skilled talent and its meritocratic ethos — that is, the focus on evaluating and rewarding employees based not on who they are, but on what they achieve. Big tech companies like Google and Uber famously promote company values that emphasize those ideas as a way of creating equality in the workplace.

When taken at face value, that all seems fair and good. However, reality captures a far different picture. Despite the tech sector’s good intentions, companies with meritocratic principles still face a deep gender gap in their industry and continue to be criticized for their bias. For example, look no further than Google’s memo fiasco or Susan Fowler’s criticism of Uber’s gender bias, management hubris and poor HR support.

How is it that top-tier tech companies can seemingly promote meritocratic ethics while their female employees fight against systemic barriers that prevent them from progressing up the ladder? Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that despite the values these companies claim to embody, meritocracy in big tech might not actually exist at all.

Meritocracy: the myth contributing to the gender pay gap

Unlike their male counterparts, women aren’t facing an industry that judges them solely on their accomplishments. In actuality, the majority of women operate in organizations muddied with institutionalized biases. At least 42 percent of working women in the United States report that they’ve experienced some form of discrimination, including unconscious bias at work. While sexual harassment is a painful, very explicit form of unfair treatment, biases at work can be far more insidious than that.

When it comes to diversity, Google still has work to do. It’s latest diversity report shows that the number of women and unrepresented minorities barely budged in the past year. The company has faced gender-pay lawsuits. Similarly, Uber suffers from limited female staff and leadership and has also been hit with sexual harassment claims.

MIT research echoes these assumptions, citing how seemingly meritocratic organizations can unintentionally favor men over “equally performing women,” offering them higher bonuses and more favorable career outcomes.

Authors Emilio Castilla and Stephen Bernard called this contradiction the “paradox of meritocracy.” They argue that when progressive companies foster merit-based practices, they assume they’re not biased regarding hiring, retention, compensation or promotion decisions. However, these processes don’t protect against ingrained, demographic bias. For example, a merit-based system still doesn’t stop managers from giving more favorable reviews to employees who are most like them.

“When managers believe their company is a meritocracy because formal evaluative and distributive mechanisms are in place, they are in fact more likely to exhibit the very biases that those systems seek to prevent,” says Castilla for the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Tracy Chou, a tech engineer veteran who has worked at tech companies like Quora and Pinterest, has experienced this kind of bias and marginalization, despite being an expert in her field. Chou confronted biases ranging from everyday microaggressions to sexual harassment from her male coworkers, despite her authority. After hearing similar experiences from women in the tech industry, she started to realize that meritocracy in Silicon Valley is deeply flawed and didn’t support equitable work environments that help women like her succeed.

“Meritocracy is this myth that, if you have merit, you will rise up and people who are in positions of power and success got there because they have the most merit and they most deserve it. Having a lot of markers and credentials that Silicon Valley generally like, I didn’t quite question that either, when I first started working,” Chou told Quartz.

Due to the prevailing biases which persist today, it’s no surprise a truly meritocratic system ceases to thrive. But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel — and it begins with changing work cultures.

Tools and initiatives to help companies curb gender bias

Silicon Valley can incorporate truly meritocratic values, but it requires making a few small, meaningful adjustments to the current structure.

Castilla says, “Companies can develop into meritocracies by implementing merit-based evaluation and reward systems that have both accountability and transparency.”

Clear processes that offer criteria for all employees at any career level can help companies ensure that skilled workers operate in a truly merit-based culture. These programs need to have individuals or groups of individuals that focus on the responsibility, ability and authority to ensure that these formal processes remain fair.

Google has taken a step to help resolve this issue. The tech giant now allows an employee’s qualifications for a promotion to be based on peer recommendations rather than a manager’s decision. These peers (along with all Google employees) are trained to spot and guard against unconscious biases so the review process remains fair. It’s not perfect, but the practice is now the norm in many Silicon Valley tech companies, including Pinterest and Quora.

While Chou no longer works at either of these companies, she now uses her expertise to guard against bias, promote transparent data reporting on gender and reshape big tech’s work cultures. In 2016, she established Project Include, a nonprofit that uses unbiased data programming and advocacy to help these tech giants bring on more diverse employees.

Uber has also managed to redefine its ethos from 14 core values, which ineffectively promoted meritocracy, to eight new cultural norms, which are expected to evolve as Uber grows. The company is still slow to implement more women in leadership and overall staff positions, but it is reinforcing its diversity and inclusion goals to offer an equal playing field for talent.

According to Uber’s 2019 Diversity and Inclusion report, it’s strengthening its hiring manager training program to create more inclusive interviewing skills through the Interview Moderator Initiative. The initiative helps ensure that tech interviews are free from subjective bias and stereotypes. Meanwhile, throughout their Career and Talent teams, they continue to review and redesign their systems and programs to help employees of all backgrounds thrive equally. This includes the creation of performance management and diversity scorecards.

However, biased work cultures will not change without internal awareness and analysis. The World Economic Forum advises companies to incorporate The Implicit Association Test. The free resource from Harvard University helps users gauge their personal biases around gender, race, age, weight, sexuality, tone and more. The tool offers insights into conflicts, addressing how employees think, their assumptions of social norms and how these biases inform our decision making on a daily basis. In all, these tools and initiatives can help make both the hiring and promotion processes more equal.

Reviving meritocracy with gender equality

While it’s often assumed that meritocracy fosters gender equality, it seems to initially have had the opposite effect in companies who promote these principles. It’s not that meritocracy is hurting women’s careers, per se, but that companies with unconscious biases are using meritocratic principles in ways that are ineffective and problematic.

We have a long way to go until businesses reach a truly meritocratic model. It’s time for companies to reexamine their diversity and inclusion goals and offer better support systems that help working women thrive. These companies can only become truly meritocratic workplaces by instilling gender equality policies and thus mindsets, at the core of their cultural value systems. Then, and only then, will we start to build a corporate ethos that is truly based on talent and hard work.

Creating a Workplace that Supports Female Safety

Companies can consciously integrate, adjust and support gender-equal policies to create a safe environment for everyone…

This post was originally featured on ThriveGlobal

Amid the #MeToo movement, widespread reports of sexual assault and harassment exposed the unsafe and hostile workplaces that women regularly experience in every industry across the nation.

Research from Lean In and SurveyMonkey found that 57 percent of working women have experienced some form of harassment in the workplace, not only sidelining their security, but also their career progression.

While 71 percent of companies have reviewed their sexual harassment policies since the advent of the #MeToo movement, women in the workforce continue to face rampant sexual harassment. MarketWatch reports that over half of human resource professionals saw no evident changes in behavior while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a significant rise in sexual harassment complaints over the past fiscal year.

To make matters worse, at least half of employees think that punishments for perpetrators are not harsh enough, with high performers never or rarely held accountable for their actions.

Clearly, companies still need to make systematic and cultural changes so that women can feel safe and productive in the workplace. For business owners who are looking to be part of the solution, there are several actionable, concrete steps that have been shown to make a difference.

Hire and Promote More Women

Ever since women have entered the workforce, sexism and harassment have prevented them from breaking the glass ceiling. During the #MeToo movement, the nation saw how patriarchal systems continued to normalize inappropriate behavior and silence female perspectives, showcasing how these male-dominated hierarchies created corrupt work settings by protecting the majority from pushishment or criticism.

A slew of research proves this to be true. The 2018 Hiscox Harassment Study shows that 78 percent of accused harassers are men and 73 percent hold a position senior to the accuser. Research from the Harvard Business Review reports that harassment is more prevalent in workplaces where men hold the most managerial positions.

To counteract negative cultural effects of this hierarchy, a Lean In report advises that companies hire and promote more qualified women, not just in leadership positions, but across the board. Harassment is less likely to occur when women are well-represented in “core” jobs and hold positions of influence. IBM and Starbucks are two corporations that have been recognized for doing exactly that. Gender bias and power imbalances are more effectively controlled when more women have the power to fight in higher numbers for equal rights in the workplace.

Thankfully, a focus on doing the right thing is starting to be recognized as good for businesses, too. Companies that focus on promoting more gender equality at the top can foster more collaborative teams, drive innovation and even make more money.

Enhance Harassment Policies with Interactive Trainings

Of course, there’s a difference between demonstrating dedication to harassment-free environments, and merely offering jargon-filled trainings that simply check the legal liability box. While most companies — 98 percent — do provide conventional anti-harassment policies and sexual harassment trainings, they often makes employees uncomfortable, reinforce gender stereotypes and fail to address the root problem.

Companies interested in finding more effective anti-harassment policies are seeing success with innovative approaches like workplace civility and bystander intervention training programs. These trainings help employees learn how to recognize, intervene, report and show empathy to targets of assault. Research shows it not only increases awareness but also improves attitudes and encourages bystanders to stop assaults before they happen. It also helps survivors report and find support after they experience harassment.

These innovative programs are especially helpful since in-depth zero-tolerance harassment policies, which enforce that harassment of any kind won’t be tolerated in the workplace, are known to backfire. The severity of getting someone fired for inappropriate behavior often lowers the chances of reporting, defeats the goal of learning and can even have polarizing effects on gender relations in the office.

For companies to convince trainees to stay educated on anti-harassment policies without causing fear or resentment, incorporating interactive workplace civility and bystander trainings can effectively permeate cultural changes. Since April 2019, New York City requires by law that all companies with over 15 employees provide these trainings, which could be a long-term solution that soon trickles down to companies across the nation. Since these enhanced programs can foster a sense of community and respect, companies who implement them tend to benefit from safer (and happier) work cultures.

Design the Workplace for Safety

It may be obvious that physical and emotional safety are crucial for a healthy and productive workplace. What’s perhaps not so obvious is how an office’s design can have a drastic impact on worker safety.

Private spaces, for example, allow workers of all genders to have emotional moments, concentrate or take a breather. Too much privacy, however, can be isolating and decrease an employees’ access to help if harassment occurs. Therefore, some private rooms or offices are often designed with transparent features in mind, like glass walls and bright lighting. These designs allow professionals to stay visible during meetings where someone who feels uncomfortable alone with a particular coworker won’t feel as anxious or trapped.

Communal work areas are equally important because they offer the option for coworkers to meet where more bystanders are present. Of course, open, safe offices have enough space for private conversations, too. If possible, companies can enhance safety by incorporating two open exits at the end of each communal room so that people can move about efficiently without fear of being blocked, for example, by an aggressive coworker.

Modern offices need to strike a careful balance between private and communal spaces to cater to the different comfort levels of employees. Research indicates that too much open space can make feel women exposed while too much private space can feel isolating.

Nancy Board, a workplace behavioral health and wellbeing expert, says, “It’s important that women are not ‘trapped’ in corner areas or exposed to areas where they may be locked into a space/office.”

These strategies offer a mixture of emotional safety, a sense of escape, and support — and this is not just for female workers. Studies show workplaces that design with an emphasis on safety improves productivity by eliminating unnecessary stressors in the workday. It’s estimated that for each employee who is sexually harassed, companies lose an average of $22,500 in lost productivity alone. Of course, lost productivity is a small consequence compared to the lasting psychological and emotional impacts harassment can have on those who face it.

Safeguarding The Future of Work

All companies have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that their employees are safe and able to perform their jobs without fear of physical, emotional or mental harm. Businesses that consciously integrate, adjust and support gender-equal policies, systems and spaces are much more likely to foster this kind of environment. And when companies provide safer environments, they can help create more positive workplaces that harness cooperation and help everyone bring their A-game to work. That’s a world worth fighting for.

VR is Incredibly Empowering for Working Women

Virtual technology can help create a more equal reality.

Image credit: Caiaimage | Sam Edwards | Getty Images

This post was originally featured on

Virtual reality (VR) is changing the way we view the world and each other, literally. Already, the innovation has made advancements throughout numerous industries — entertainment, business, healthcare, etc. — reimagining the way we communicate, learn and work.

Still, critics counter that its software and programming foster sexism and gender bias, evidenced by the traditional power structures that prevail in leadership positions today. However, interest has increased in using the immersive tech for social change, so it’s worth asking: Can we truly realize VR’s potential to help, and not hinder, working women?

The answer, I believe, is yes. While it’s true that programmers must take proactive measures to ensure that VR avoids creating hostile environments for women, groundbreaking VR applications can empower female leaders by nourishing supportive mentorship groups, educating on and preventing sexual harassment and ultimately fostering the empathy that safeguards against workplace sexism.

VR’s Realms of Support and Mentoring

In order for women to thrive at work, it’s important that they have strategic support systems of peers and mentors, specifically those comprised of other women who know first-hand the challenges they face regularly. VR extends the opportunity for women to communicate with each other in networks that help them flourish. One great example is the Lioness app created by the integrated ad company Ogilvy in partnership with Google and UN Women. Due to the lack of female representation within the advertising industry, the app was created to foster a platform where women can share and learn from each other’s experiences. Employing various Google tools, including augmented and virtual reality portals, the app offers features a tour creator to generate visual workplace field trips, inspiring students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to female leaders.

Though some men in leadership positions have reported fears of mentoring women in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more companies are now emerging that focus on creating virtual learning and mentoring environments for women. Take Ceresa, for example, which offers structured programs with virtual mentorship meetings to remove the burden of anxiety and build more lasting mentoring relationships.

Virtual reality also allows women to step into the journeys and professional worlds of successful female leaders. For instance, The Female Planet, a YouTube VR series, makes it easier to shadow and learn from global female leaders by tracking the personal and professional experiences of five women from the tech and even entertainment sectors.

As the confidence gap remains a major challenge for female workers, these virtual worlds can build a more empowering reality, offering them the support and learning tools they need to excel.

Virtual Sexual Harassment Training and Monitoring

A 2017 study found that 78 percent of female founders had reported experiencing, or knowing someone who had encountered, sexual harassment at work. However, VR can both train coworkers and monitor the office to safeguard against sexual harassment and abuse.

The key is creating an immersive experience that helps engage trainees and puts the material into a real-life context. Companies like Vantage Point have designed a multi-step, VR sexual harassment training program that essentially transports you to another world. In safe environments, users become educated on how to identify and report sexual assault, practicing the best ways to respond if they find themselves in a similar situation.

Similar to how AI-led companies like Callisto and can monitor and help survivors report sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s worth noting that VR tools with augmented features can identify and monitor when sexual harassment occurs, helping to expose and address its prevalence.

In India, for example, VR is trying to wipe away stigma and deep-rooted fear of reporting sexual assault. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in partnership with the Rajasthan Police, has created multilingual “Virtual Police Stations” that allow citizens to stay informed on the various laws concerning these issues. By simulating the environment of a real-world police station with 360-degree technology, Google Cardboard and corresponding mobile apps can be used to file a report anonymously.

As an additional bonus, these immersive tools, through exposure-based therapy lessons, show promise of treating post-traumatic stress disorder that sexual assault often creates. If applied as part of an Employee Focus Group or an employee health and wellness benefits package, VR can foster a more emotionally engaged, positive environment.

A More Empathetic Reality for Working Women

Several organizations are already integrating VR to help workers empathize with each other. Nonprofit organizations use it to encourage donor involvement with humanitarian causes, and many companies are using it to create safer spaces and stronger bonds with their employees and customers.

For women, virtual features can help male co-workers in particular, understand how sexual harassment affects them. Recently, the independent filmmaker Jayisha Patel created Notes to My Father, a short documentary that relays the story of a human trafficking survivor. The vivid and uncomfortable presentation demonstrates what it’s like to be the subject of the male gaze.

A VR episode or series doesn’t exist yet that documents the normalized biases, microaggressions and sexism that female founders and workers face from investors and higher-ups, but this approach may provide impetus to create and promote these stories for businesses that are still heavily male-dominated.

As VR introduces people to new perspectives and information, we will be able to share and understand more clearly the sexism and discrimination, either blatant or unconscious, that working women and female leaders regularly experience. There are still many fundamental and systemic societal changes that we need to improve, but with a market projected to be worth $33 billion by 2022 and a unique ability to educate and foster empathy, VR could be the missing technology to help us get there. Virtual reality doesn’t merely offer a vision for the future, but puts in place a support system and empowering technology that helps professional women thrive.

How Your Small Business Can Support Programs Focusing on Women and Girls

This post was originally featured on ScoreNYC

We know that women have long suffered misrepresentation in the business world. They are scarce in corporate leadership roles and male-dominated fields like science, technology and entrepreneurship. We also know that gender diversity is good for business, resulting in greater profitability and innovation. We all know these facts, and yet the problem persists.

There are a number of ways to address this, but one that is less discussed is the idea of supporting girls and women as a part of a company’s social responsibility program. There’s perhaps nothing more beneficial to businesses and their surrounding communities than supporting young talent, and if that talent consists of women and girls, we’d be doing ourselves an even greater service.

In the entrepreneurial space, only 10 percent of funding globally goes to women, and only 0.2 percent to black women. This is a gross disservice that needs to change and it’s why supporting female-driven programs is so crucial. There are many avenues for doing so, from facilitating mentorships to hosting workshops; depending on your industry and your community, your highest impact options will vary. Take a look at the organizations and nonprofits in your area, as well as schools and community support programs looking for partners. In many cases, your best bet might simply be to donate time or money to the organizations that are already making headway with dynamic programs aimed at supporting women and girls.

Here are a few options that are worth looking into:

  1. Digital Undivided: This organization offers a 9-month incubator program designed to help black and Latinx women through the startup pipeline to launch their own businesses. Participants receive instruction in customer development, product development, and company development. Upon completion, participants pitch their company to active investors.
  2. MakerGirl: This organization provides a STEM education and mentorship program to girls. Honing in on kids in the 7–10 age range, MakerGirl strives to show girls that they can be creative and analytical at the same time. Data shows that girls fall off the STEAM train around middle school, so MakerGirl seeks to grow and deepen their interest before that happens, encouraging participation in creative, analytical projects like 3D printing. MakerGirl also has partnerships with college campuses and facilitates mentorship programs for women.
  3. The National Association of Women Business Owners: For over 40 years, this organization has been helping women working in all industries found and run their own businesses. NAWBO supports networking and mentorship programs, provides educational resources, and advocates for the needs of female business owners.
  4. Pretty Brainy: This nonprofit empowers girls (ages 10–18 as well as their collegiate mentors) by providing them with relevant STEAM learning. Pretty Brainy tailors curricula to hold girls’ interest and gives them the confidence necessary to excel in science and math.
  5. Women Who Tech: This nonprofit showcases and funds female founders. They also monitor the landscape for women in leadership, and have found through their research that about 40 percent of female founders looking to raise capital are sexually harassed and, of those women, 65 percent were offered funding in exchange for sex. Women Who Tech not only raises awareness of these issues, but offers women a safe alternative for funding needs.

Investing in programs that help females is a social cause worth fighting for, or at least one that should command financial support from a business community that stands to benefit from a more diverse workforce. Your support can help a little girl dream beyond what she thinks is possible today. You can help women gain employment, start businesses, and reach financial independence. Until we step up to truly support our women and girls, providing them with confidence and training, we’ll never realize the true potential of our economy.

AI Can Help Working Women Become Better Negotiators

This post was originally featured on ThriveGlobal

Forbes reported last year that 80 percent of companies have already implemented some form of artificial intelligence (AI) while 30 percent plan to expand their AI investments in the next three years. It’s clear why: AI promises to reduce costs, boost efficiency and help employees achieve more productivity.

While AI offers us many advantages in the way we work, it also provides a seemingly random benefit: helping women become better negotiators.

Women have long suffered from fewer economic opportunities as men, and they continue to earn only 82 cents to a man’s dollar. Part of the problem is that women face significant negotiation hurdles. Glassdoor research concludes that 68 percent of women accept starting salaries without negotiating compared to 52 percent of men.

With the pressure on companies to demonstrate progressive change in 2019, it goes without saying that they have an ethical obligation to provide equal pay for equal work. Even so, there are ways women can empower themselves to help close the pay gap by becoming better negotiators — and AI could be the tech that helps them achieve that:

‘Hagglebots’ Lend Support & Strategy

In a world of ingrained gender inequality, research indicates that women don’t negotiate as much as their male counterparts, in part, because they don’t receive the support they need to build confidence. Other times, women fear they’ll be penalized for their ambitions. But that’s where AI may lend a strategic hand.

Science Magazine mentions that “hagglebots,” or AI-driven negotiation systems, can offer a variety of applications when women fail to reach the best agreements. Currently, negotiation support software assists users by suggesting equally beneficial outcomes on sites like eBay. In a job negotiation scenario, it can use data to track issues previously discussed in career conversations, helping women build constructive strategies by assessing the best ways to find a middle ground with superiors.

Computer scientist Tim Baarslag explains how these systems pick up on specific patterns. For example, your boss may have dismissed a large salary increase in previous meetings. In those same meetings, the employee may have brought up parental challenges like child care more than once. The software identifies these patterns and can suggest that employees negotiate for an extra work from home day instead.

Indeed, AI’s negotiation skills are improving. Facebook experimented and trained AI bots to negotiate between themselves and replicate human negotiation techniques. Built with learning algorithms, the bots were able to evaluate different actions and their possible outcomes. Additionally, the tools were able to help users leverage information and determine the best deals possible during a negotiation. The experiment demonstrated how bots are easily trained to imitate linguistic and logical patterns of human behavior, paving the way for them to assist in real-world transactions in the future.

Fully autonomous bots can’t negotiate on their own just yet, but in the future, it may help women thrive at work. Users will need to feed the bots information for now, but Baarslag says that solving political arguments could be done efficiently in virtually any marketplace or industry.

Guard Against Gender Bias

Research shows women are often better at negotiating when they’re doing so on behalf of someone else, not themselves. The articles goes on to report that when it’s on their own behalf, the systems-that-be often expect women to be collaborative in the negotiation process so as to not seem combative. Harvard Business Review examined this “social cost” of negotiating for women. Both male and female professionals were less interested in working with women who try to negotiate better salaries versus men with similar ambitions. Clearly, unconscious bias attributes to the anxiety and insecurity working women experience surrounding salary negotiations.

While women have tried their best to strategize around these barriers since entering the workforce, AI may provide an actual solution. Some tech companies actively seek to improve unconscious bias through programming. Scientists at DeepMind are attempting to eliminate the human bias element through their AI system, the Generative Query Network (GQN). The framework places AI bots in learning environments so they can form their own observations about the world. In doing so, the bots could help employers adhere to fair negotiation practices, identifying and signaling against unconscious bias so employers can understand where and why they were unfair.

San Francisco company, Kanjoya, uses natural language processing (computer algorithms that read for tone and context) to limit gender bias and discrimination. The system processes hundreds of millions of words with emotions so they can determine why a particular subject is being brought up in surveys. Kanjoya then aggregates these and cross references it with hard evidence like starting salary across a particular industry or a specific job position. For example, if more women mention salary, career development or work/life balance in a negative context, the system can indicate to employers that these issues more readily affect women.

Entelo, another San Francisco startup, uses unbiased sourcing models, a tool that anonymizes job candidates. The machine redacts names, photos, gender and other information deemed preferential against a candidate.

Currently, these tools are used for the hiring process, but imagine if everyone could use these technologies to base salary on the professional attributes and accomplishments regardless of gender identification during the review stage. It would help ensure that women get as fair treatment as possible during pay reviews. With the passing of California’s strict Fair Pay Act — a law that puts the burden of proof on companies to show they haven’t shortchanged an employee’s salary based on gender — we could soon see the promotion of these technologies in other places across the country.

Autonomous Tools Inspire More Professional Women

It’s not that women aren’t naturally bad at negotiating, it’s that the structures that keep them disadvantaged are, by and large, what cause them to have less confidence than men during negotiations. To counteract this effect, AI has huge potential going forward. We already have the foundational technologies and processes, but it’s up to employers and leaders to expand them in the workspace.

Companies may find AI intimidating, but since the technology can help put an end to sexism in the workplace and improve the way we communicate, it is definitely worth consideration — not just for the benefit of women but for business as a whole.