The Subtler Gender Inequalities at Work

gender inequality

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. [There's definitely a disparity of girls entering tech, but that's another topic.]

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. It's so subtle that I don't blame anyone for biases. When 80+% of people you work with are male, it's just the way it is. I'm finally writing, ironically, after going to a talk by Jacki Zehner of Women Moving Millions, who said the worst thing you can do is ignore biases. Here it goes to provide awareness and not stay quiet.

"There isn't one right way to do something"--but there's a most accepted and most rewarded way of getting things done.
My perspective comes from being a program manager. I'm the glue that keeps a program going from start to launch, planning, scheduling, balancing risks, resourcing, and just keeping the ship moving. I'm in the middle of most discussions and I've seen how decisions get made. The crude ends of the spectrum are:

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

In reality, there's a huge spectrum of behavior that's hard to put a finger on--most is so inconspicuous, you brush it off, but it adds up over time with how others perceive you and ultimately how you're rewarded at work, whether that's promotion or bonus. Here's specific examples of behaviors, and again, I'm making an assumption of gender since it's usually one way, but I've seen the opposite too.

Enter already firing. Statements abound, questions aren't had.
There's a meeting to discuss whether to push a build with your eng leads, QA, program managers. There's issues this week. Joe sits down and 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. Jill's in the room but is quiet while Joe talks. Rewind to if Joe hasn't spoken first--Jill's 98% sure the push can't happen this week, but instead frames it "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 encouraging discussion, taking a 3rd party stance to evaluate options. Both ways get to the same result in the same amount of time. But Joe's way is favored, and he'll be remembered as the guy who has the answer 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.

It's really hard to mediate these types of discussions. I want to hear all relevant issues (concisely, though, don't waste my time). 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 and isn't the best way to cultivate a sustainable team culture over months and years.

This merely irked me in the past--after all, a decision was made whether it was painful or not. Over the long haul, though, it adds to the impresson others have of you. The wrong assumption is that you're decisive 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. Quite often the ones trying to facilitate a decision sans blood bath are women, and if there's strong personalities in the room, they get interrupted and then resign to silence.

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, whether it's 11pm or the weekend. He may not have the answer, but he responds. Others then chime in with bits and pieces of info. At 9am the next day, Jill opens her email and has a significant part of the answer but it's already 20 responses deep. Joe summarizes, even if it's just a simple single sentence "so we're going with option A, it's the best cost and schedule."

There's a lot of churn time spent after hours on email back and forth without having everyone involved. 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.

I hate bringing motherhood and families into the equation, but usually I've seen more men online late at night and weekends more since they're not the primary caregiver.

In absence of any proof, assume you're not working on it.
There's a minimum amount of information anyone should be sharing about what they're doing, whether it's schedules, design docs, or discussions. Beyond that, there's invitably going to be questions of who's doing what. These normally come up in other conversations: 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", making 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.

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 forgotton 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.

I'm not suggesting triple-checking every word that comes out of your mouth. Just be aware of biases and actions will follow. I admit even I've fallen into the trap of forming an initial impression and seeing how others treat a person before checking myself. There's a different way to approach issues that's not wrong--It's more sustainable for teams and a company over the long haul to acknowledge and respect all ways.

[Top photo credit, Bottom photo credit]