Recognize Habits That Hold Us All Back

Today’s problems with gender equity won’t be solved without new ways to get past ingrained mindsets. When reactions to diversity, inclusion and equity discussions are emotional, logic doesn’t work. Melanie Ho author of “Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity & What Organizations Are Up Against,” uses cartoons, humor and fiction to help people see things differently.

Here are her suggestions for making the critical issues in gender equity more approachable.

Reframe Issues From ‘Intent’ to ‘Impact’: The Cupcake Trap

Discussions of bias can make employees feel attacked. Ho showed how humor can break the tension, using the example of a promotion memo recognizing “Mike” for bringing in revenues, and “Mara” for bringing in … cupcakes. The uneven emphasis can have a lasting impact on how people see them. And the cupcake example sweetens the lesson.

Don’t Say ‘Unconscious Bias,’ Say, ‘Mental Auto-Completes’

The phrase “unconscious bias” can make people shut down, Ho observed. To make the idea less threatening, she uses the phrase “mental auto-completes.” Early smartphones automatically replaced words with emojis, and “CEO” and “Doctor” called forth male faces. “The phone didn’t mean to be biased, but it was programmed to think of CEOs and doctors as men,” Ho said. “Our own unconscious wiring can overpower the facts.”

Watch Out for Your ‘Buts’

  • “Chad is inexperienced BUT he did a great job.”
  • “Haley did a great job BUT she’s inexperienced.”
  • “Dan can’t control his temper, BUT he’s a good guy.”
  • “Shannon can’t control her temper. It’ll really impact her career.”

The second half of the phrase is the one that matters — the one after the “but,” Ho pointed out. Showing the parallels side by side can make it easier to recognize bias.

Value Assists Over Points

In group discussions, women’s socialization can mean they listen more and help amplify the voices of others, in contrast to men’s, which can push them to talk louder, interrupt and take up space (literal and metaphoric). Men score points while women score assists. Points tend to advance the individual’s profile and agenda, while assists advance the organization’s collective aims. And everybody loves a sports metaphor.

Address Generational Gaps

Older women experienced more overt gender discrimination early in their careers than is acceptable today. They may dismiss some equity issues as trivial, creating generational conflict when younger employees refuse to play by the old rules.

But younger workers value things in the workplace that women have done and valued all along. Among them:

  •  Authenticity in leadership
  • An inclusive culture
  • Work/life balance
  • Finding personal meaning in work

Find the overlap in values. Consider a “reverse mentorship” program, pairing younger employees with older employees to help older workers understand how things have changed – for the better.


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