The Conversation No One Wants To Have: Gender Stereotyping

Author

Valley Voices, Contributor

April 16, 2015

A female moderator marked the midpoint of a four-man panel assembled to discuss the issue of “attracting, retaining, and advancing” women working in the technology industry.

Unintentionally, the lineup became the manifestation of a discussion topic no employer seems to want to touch: gender stereotyping.

It was a controversial discussion somewhat devoid of overt controversy. Society’s still unclear understanding of equality was exposed, but not acknowledged.

Two of the four panelists showed a lack of understanding of the subject; the moderator was unaware of the dictionary definition of feminism; and, some left feeling short-changed of the productive discussion they were promised. No statement seemed malicious; most simply seemed to circle the point of understanding without touching it.

The host organization, ARA — short for “Attract, Retain, Advance” — meant well, setting out to start the conversation. People are talking now, but complete with a moderator who said that she did not identify as a feminist because “what we’re really fighting for is equality,” the conversation quickly became one of the “us-and-them” variety.

A female attendee who works as a digital ad ops professional at an advertising software company and requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing future job opportunities, said afterward she and two of her coworkers left the event feeling dissatisfied. When the panelists came close to exposing controversial views, she said, the conversation was redirected to a neutral topic.

“It didn’t surprise me that the men were taking that stance, because . . . I think a lot of them do it unconsciously,” she said. “What surprised me was that the moderator didn’t push for better answers, and I don’t think they were challenged, and they should’ve been challenged.”

One panelist suggested sensitivity differs between men and women, influencing the way each pursues opportunities — ironically, a verbalized generalization that exemplified the omnipresence of gender stereotyping.

“I see that sometimes men and women, but maybe more often women, overthink the situation and maybe apply a little too much analysis,” he said. “Young men kind of boldly jump in like Captain Kirk, just sort of running into the alien world; and, in a startup, in a technology company where things change very rapidly, that kind of behavior is rewarded quite often.”

He said that sometimes, in talking to women in his organization, “I wish I could say, ‘Can’t you be more bold? Can’t you maybe take a look at what some of these guys are doing?”

The moderator said this was “a great point.”

When he started in the industry two decades ago, the panelist said later, “it wasn’t a boys’ club.”

“Somehow, over the years, it’s really become more of like a guys club, and we started doing guy things like going out for beers or doing activities where maybe people who aren’t into sort of typically male behavior [were] not interested.”

A recent hire told him their group of engineers should consider an outing that did not involve alcohol, “because maybe some of us aren’t really interested in that.”

That conversation got him thinking about the “guy culture that we’ve created in engineering,” he said.

“I don’t know how we lost it, but it wasn’t always like that because it was much more focused on building quality software and doing things with excellence, and now it’s kind of like showing off sometimes,” he said. “I think women can help lead us, if we ask them and talk to them, they can help lead us back.”

The moderator said this was a great point.

Catherine Ashcraft, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology at the University of Colorado, said that gender biases remain a topic of discussion because they are so deeply entrenched in society.

“They are unconscious, so they are more difficult to get at — you can be a very ‘enlightened’ or ‘fair-minded’ person and still have these biases without even knowing it,” Ashcraft said in an email. “Also, a lot of these biases and obstacles are subtly built into existing business processes, so they just seem like ‘the way things are,’ but the fact of the matter is we made them this way.”

Employers should work to promote the success of a group of people with different personalities, communication and work styles, work schedules, Ashcroft explained.

“This involves asking tough questions and looking past the way we’ve always done it,” she said.

Ensuring interviews are conducted by interviewers of both sexes, she said, is one way  employers can make a work situation more comfortable for both genders.

“It will also send signals about what you value at your company, and research shows that diverse teams (whether they be interview teams or other kinds of work teams) will lead to better decisions…  so in these ways it will also benefit both women and men,” she said.

Employers should also be looking out for “hostile or unhealthy team meeting environments” unwelcoming to quieter personalities, she said.

When panelist Yuri Aguiar, strategic portfolio director for WPP Coretech, took a leadership position at a different company around 2000, he inherited a team that included only one woman.

“She had a great sense of humor and just went with the guys, hung out for a drink after work, things like that,” Aguiar said. “So… I didn’t notice anything wrong with that mix, I just didn’t recognize it; I didn’t know better at the time.”

One day in 2001, at a “pokey little Thai place” on 9th Ave., she told him she’d decided to leave her job to teach.

As the conversation continued, he realized his prized employee’s desire to teach might not be her sole reason for deciding to leave.

“As I pried, she said, ‘You know, I’m the only girl on the team, and I feel like it’s a boys club,’” he said. “I never felt like I got punched in the gut harder than that, at that moment in time.”

Aguiar convinced her to teach only on Fridays and continue work with the team, determined to make things better for her. He spoke with the company’s human resources groups and worked to foster a more comfortable environment. HR also incentivized her, he noted.

Over a decade later, she is in “an advanced project management role,” and he remembers that $30 Thai meal as the best investment he has ever made in a lunch.

This article was written by Valley Voices from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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