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Interrupting Gender Bias in Tech: three real-world solutions for organizations of any size

This is an extraordinary moment that just a few months ago, I thought would never occur. As a female executive who’s worked in tech, advertising and finance -- and who has experienced both harassment and overt discrimination -- it’s an exciting moment. Every week, we see a new "bombshell" about women in tech, from the female entrepreneurs who broke their silence to expose the venture capitalists who harassed them, to the Google brogrammer who blatantly posts his 'women can't think systematically' manifesto. I see all this attention as a huge positive, since the window for a real conversation has finally opened up. Now we decide what we will do in this window.

We should use this moment to really address the power dynamics of gender that have existed for hundreds of years, and change what we think of as “good women” and “powerful men” so that we can truly shift the dynamics of our organizations and work relationships.

Power, Status and Culture Cause Sexism, not Biology or Attraction

No productive discussion on this topic can start without first understanding the root cause of gender harassment and gender discrimination. Both sexual harassment and severe forms of gender discrimination are motivated by the attempt to re-exert power by males over females when men feel that their status or dominance is threatened. It has very little to do with beauty or desire -- as it is usually directed toward women who do not conform to the stereotypes of demure, pleasing, and obedient women, regardless of their ‘attractiveness.’

As Adam Grant notes, “In three studies, gender expert Jennifer Berdahl found that sexual harassment isn’t primarily motivated by sexual desire: Women who meet feminine standards of beauty don’t experience the most harassment. Instead, “it is motivated primarily by a desire to punish gender-role deviants....Women who were "assertive, dominant, and independent” faced the most harassment, particularly in male- dominated organizations. Sexual harassment, she concludes, is mostly targeted toward ‘uppity women.’”

Other studies in gaming show that poor-performing men tend to be more hostile to women, while higher-skilled males are not as hostile: "We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance. We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena. Higher-skilled players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate."

So what is causing some normally rational men to behave so badly?

When confronted by a situation in which a woman is behaving in a way that is outside the normal male-dominant American stereotype, for some men, a cultural trigger is switched. That trigger compels some men to try to put the woman ‘back in her place’ in order to re-assert their status. This results in male behavior that pushes the woman back into one of two ‘places’ that women are traditionally allowed to inhabit: they are told to be more pleasing and demure or else face career consequences (ie, told to be less abrasive, to focus on their personality traits, try to be more likeable, etc) or they are positioned into the role of the temptress (ie, assumed to be morally loose, sexually deviant, etc).

The reason why so many of these types of men are in positions of power (and in politics, finance, and high tech) is because the motivation to harass and discriminate against women is entirely about power -- and thus the men most likely to strive for power (and achieve it) are also the ones most likely to want to maintain their power position and status at all costs when they feel that it is threatened. They thus are most likely to react to an uppity woman that they unconsciously sense is up-ending the normal status hierarchy of male dominance. Is this all men? Absolutely not -- but there are enough of them to skew the overall cultures of organizations so that women find there are barriers working against them at all levels.

So What Is To Be Done?

In order to address the real dynamics at the heart of gender harassment and discrimination ("power, impunity, and silence" according to The Economist), we need experts in culture and power to lead the way. Here are just a few specific and easy-to-implement solutions which are a good place to start for organizations of any size:

  1. Address Corporate Governance and make the CEO accountable for spotting and addressing the power dynamics in the organization. If your CEO is not an expert on culture and power, put an expert on culture and power on your Board of Directors. Choose a classically-trained cultural anthropologist or sociologist who understands organizational dynamics to join your Board. Properly trained social scientists bring with them a toolkit of questions, mechanisms, and metrics that can help to identify how a corporate culture is forming and how the ‘spaces of positions and position-takings’ are being framed within an organizational ‘field.’ (see Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour for references on how organizational cultures form through company founders and fields of power)

  2. When starting a new company or team, make sure that one-third of the initial top leaders are women. This will help create an environment where women interviewing in the future won’t have to ask themselves if they will be OK being the only woman on a team. Here I will say that the ‘pipeline problem’ is complete BS. As a VC partner told me, “It’s not a pipeline problem, it’s a time allocation problem. If VCs and CEOs aren’t making the time to meet talented women, then they probably won’t find any to hire.” Consider this: “Women today get the majority of college degrees in America. It doesn’t matter what kind — associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral — women beat men in all the categories. In the 2009-2010 academic year, women earned 57.4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees” (Washington Post, Dec 11, 2014). Consider also that many of the top CEOs in tech have business, social science, art/design, or humanities degrees, and you will understand that the ‘pipeline’ excuse doesn’t explain away gender disparity.

  3. Create, support, and reward Sanctuary Managers in your organization.Sanctuary Managers are top leaders who have experienced harassment and discrimination first-hand, are willing to speak openly about their experiences, and will support others in the organization who are experiencing harassment and discrimination themselves. When women are harassed or discriminated against, they feel alone, ashamed, and unsure how speaking to anyone might affect their future career. By having Sanctuary Managers visible in the organization, they are affirmed that other successful people have experienced this, and there is someone they can speak to who will empathize with their situation and will understand their current experience. This is profoundly important and this role cannot be fulfilled with training or delegated to an HR or diversity function. The power of simply knowing that other successful female leaders in their organization have experienced a similar situation and have not been blacklisted from the profession is extremely powerful. In order to assure that Sanctuary Managers are able to positively influence the culture of the organization, they can’t just be a ‘shoulder to cry on’ and must be supported from the top. Sanctuary Managers must be encouraged to go directly to the CEO if they are concerned about the culture of the organization based on reports they are hearing from others, and to suggest solutions directly to the CEO and/or to the Board.

As a woman who’s lived it all first-hand, this is an exceptional moment. If we are able to address the cultural root cause of what causes toxic work environments and are courageous enough to take some fully-doable steps, then we can change this.

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