I recently read an article by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg on why, while trying to eradicate bias, we can end up in actual fact making gender bias worse. Sandberg has been a pretty (read: very) vocal proponent of addressing and discussing the roles of women in positions of executive power, a feat that has drawn her both criticism and regard from all sides. She is also the current COO of Facebook, an ex-VP of Google, and a former chief of staff to the United States Secretary of the Treasury. Adam Grant is a Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a bestselling author.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the ideas Sandberg and Grant brought forth regarding gender bias, mainly because my entire career (which, in fairness, isn’t long) has been confined to spheres where men predominantly excel. I have a degree in political science, where I was usually one of 5 girls in a class of 30. In my university side jobs and post-university gigs, I’ve worked almost entirely within the tech industry in a couple of its incarnations: telcom and IT.
Sandberg and Grant sum up gender bias in one profound brain teaser:
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.”
Were you able to figure it out? The boy’s mother is the surgeon. Apparently 40-75% of people, myself included, don’t pick up on this in spite of the fact that this conundrum is years old. The truth is that whenever most of us think of a person in a position of power, whether we like it or not, we are programmed to picture a man.
In another article, Sandberg and Grant write that,
"In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish.”
Of course, Sandberg and Grant would likely be the first to admit that these are broad generalizations. Not every workplace is a hotbed of misogyny. Not every woman is viewed by her colleagues as a sensitive “Earth Mother” type, and not every man as a ruthless and ambitious Leader of Men.
And yet gender bias doubtless exists. I began to wonder whether I myself was blind to gender bias within my own workplace. Although it’s impossible to not notice being one of few females in a company of guys, at Bynder I’ve never felt ostracized from my colleagues for reasons pertaining to my sex.
My previous job, a telcom sales environment where I worked with customers daily, was a whole other story. I developed a sales persona counterintuitive to my own personality in order to both (a) meet my sales targets and (b) get taken seriously by customers. You see, when you are a young girl - I was 20 at the time - it is supremely hard for customers of both genders and of all ages to accept you as an authority on all things technical.
I noticed that especially when the client wanted free tech support, a refund on a device, or anything for free, they would use my cheeriness against me. I would get verbally harassed, yelled at, and attempts to intimidate me physically. Even when I was the nicest person around, I would get people referring to me and my nametag as “that girl”, while I never heard a customer refer to a male coworker as “the boy”.
With time, I learned to present a more reserved persona. Of course, because I’m a girl that made me “cold” - I didn’t and still don’t care. In the end, being less warm and less nurturing made me more respected, and I would argue it still does even as my retail days are long behind me. Clients stopped trying to take advantage of me. They made less chit chat and didn’t act surprised when I displayed technical expertise. Once, on a particularly busy day when I was at my busiest, bossiest, and most crowd-controlling, I even got offered a managerial job by a client waiting in line. Turns out my cold and efficient persona had resonated with her.
As I work within the marketing and sales departments of an IT company, most women at the company work within our department or an adjoining one (Customer Success, Office Management, Implementation, etc). However, we do also have some pretty amazing developers and designers working for us that are women.
You have to understand, our technical employee gender disbalance isn’t because we choose to hire predominantly men. IT development is legitimately a field where women are few and far in between. As a result, these women not only work in an office men outnumber women, they also likely went to a college/university where the majority of their classmates and professors were men who didn’t have a lot of experience teaching classes audited by women. When I asked my colleagues what that experience was like, I learned it was exactly as one would imagine: takes getting used to, with bias still creeping in occasionally - especially if you happen to look like a girly girl.
I was ecstatic however, to hear our female developers swear they had faced no discrimination working in the predominantly male environment that consists of the Bynder development. In fact, some were offended on behalf of their male colleagues about the assumption that they could be treated any differently. One of my female associates did say, yes, it takes some time to fit in and become “one of the guys”, but I feel that that’s the same in any new team you join. It takes time and shared experiences for your colleagues, male or female, to fully trust you.
Apparently, the best part of being a girl developer (or, a “Bynder B**tch” as they fondly refer to themselves) is the looks of intrigue they get when they tell a new acquaintance that they build software for a living.
If even my own experiences within one industry vary so profoundly, I cannot imagine how arduous of a task Sheryl Sandberg has taken on with her “lean in” campaign that attempts to address all forms of gender bias in the workplace. I can say, however, that a positive and aggressively equalizing company culture is crucial towards fighting bias in the workplace. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to be part of a team that appreciates this.