I've avoided being active in corporate women's groups. I've always felt that if you put in hard, smart, good work, you'll be rewarded regardless of your specialness, and so far that's been mostly true. And, I've been pretty lucky to work at Google, a pretty open and forward thinking company.

I'm not going to rehash the multitude of research, articles, and talks about gender inequality. There's a subtler side that, actually, I'm not even going to claim is strictly gender based, but is usually tied with gender traits. It doesn't hit you on the head and isn't a horror story to pin up on a wall. It's so subtle it's taken me 7 years as a Technical Program Manager to put a finger on. I'm the glue that keeps a program going from start to launch, planning, scheduling, balancing risks, resourcing, and just keeping the ship moving.

"There isn't one right way to do something"--but there's a most rewarded way of getting things done.

As a Program Manager, I'm in the middle of most discussions; my job is to facilitate decision-making. Individual contributor/manager/team culture usually falls along the spectrum of:

  • Guns blazing and loud, OR
  • Listen and mediate, then act

Typically women will gather more information before acting; men act faster. I've seen the guns-blazing behavior rewarded more at performance review time. In reality, both behaviors are good and bad depending on the situation, but guns-blazing translates to more bonuses and quicker promos, which add up over your career lifetime.

Enter already firing. Statements abound, questions aren't had.

There's a meeting to discuss whether to push a software build with your eng leads, QA, program managers. There's issues this week. Joe sits down and immediately says "We can't push this week, we've got A, B, and C problem we need to solve first." Joe must be on top of it since he spoke first to summarize A B and C, and is pulling it together.

Replay this scenario with Jill. She's just as informed as Joe, but paused for a second instead of gushing like Joe. She was going to say, "Normally we push weekly, but there's some problems. What does everyone think? What are the issues, and are they solvable by Friday?"

It's amazing how a meeting can set out on a different path based on the first action. Jill's method encourages discussion, taking a 3rd party stance to evaluate options. Joe's method hasn't even facilitated a resolution; he's just summarized a problem. But Joe will be remembered as the guy who was on top of it rather than the one asking questions.

Louder is better. Better yet, interrupting is better.

When decisions need to be made, everyone has points they want to get out and interrupt each other. Frank says, "There's a schedule risk in going with option A.  A isn't staffed right, we don't know if their leadership is on board, and the technical--".  Joe interrupts "But it doesn't matter, strategically we're ok with the risk since A is the best part to use." And so the round-table of interruptions continues.

Usually the person who's the loudest is seen as the influential decision maker. It's a tactic that exhausts everyone into submission or frustration. It'll force a decision (maybe not the best one), and won't cultivate a sustainable team culture over months and years.

Quite often the people trying to facilitate a decision sans blood bath are women, and if there's strong personalities in the room, they get interrupted and resign to silence. Over the long haul, it adds to the impression others have of you.  The wrong assumption is that you're decisive only if you talk loud and interrupt. There are people who aren't pushy but who absolutely have strong convictions, and their method is to guide the team to an unbiased decision.

gender inequality
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I'm the first 911 responder, I'm on it.

Joe's always on it and always responds to emails with a 3min turnaround time. At 11pm, he responds to an email, and others then chime in with bits and pieces of info.  At 9am the next day, Jill opens the email that's already 20 responses deep. Joe was the last response, a simple sentence "so we're going with option A, it's the best cost and schedule."

This issue didn't get resolved any faster by working past work hours; it would've been resolved after 9am the next day anyways. Joe didn't really help things along, but perception is that he's dependable, always on it, and "resolved" the issue. In most cases it's a non-issue to begin with, or it really needs everyone involved for a quick chat rather than after-hours partial discussions.

Many times I've seen more men online late at night and weekends since they're not the primary caregiver.

In absence of proof, they assume you're not working on it.

Suppose Joe and Frank are talking, and Joe says "speaking of the ABC system, do you know if Jill's looking into the uptime requirements?" Frank replies, "I'll take the action" or "I'll look into it."

Frank made the implied assumption that no one, not even Jill, is working on it, and Frank's taking initiative. I've noticed women phrase things more like "I'll ask Jill," making the implied assumption that Jill's on it already.  In the worst cases, I've seen Frank actually begin Jill's task, creating confusion among the team on who's taking the lead on what.

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The point

No one of those examples is a smoking gun for gender biases or personality biases, and it's by no means an exhaustive list of how impressions get engrained.  The presence of one of these examples also doesn't mean there is a bias.  But, when biases do exist, it can be a slow-eating disease that others pick up on: the seemingly "ineffective" person is forgot on on emails and in meetings and they're not looped into tasks under their responsibility purview, so they must be a crappy worker.  Thus starts a self-selecting spiral.

Over the years I've seen louder, more aggressive women "make it" since they can live sustainably in this culture.  I've seen women work much harder to reach the same respect and reputation.  I've seen great women fade away due to exhaustion fighting the norm.  In all fairness, I've seen terrible women (terrible workers) hold a job just because they're women.

There's many ways to solve issues, and many behaviors that Get Things Done--we need to respect all of them. It's more sustainable for teams and a company over the long haul.