Can You Ever Avoid Thinking About Gender at Work?

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I like just sitting down and getting my work done. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the diversity of the people I work with, if I can avoid it — I don’t look for a quota when I’m choosing sources to interview or clients to take on. I just focus on the work in front of me. I’d like to think that amazing people bubble up to the top, no matter their gender or race.

But I am aware of how the real world works. I know that there are unconscious biases that lead people to choose the people they work with in any capacity, even though the same people may have made a very aware commitment to diversity.

Working in the Real World

Tara Sophia Mohr pointed out something that has had me thinking in a recent blog post:

The research shows it’s not just men who view assertive women as less likable. It’s both women and men… We are a part of the problem, because we are holding women our women bosses, colleagues, direct reports, business partners, and clients to a different standard. We are likely expecting them to be nicer in the midst of a busy and stressful work day than we are expecting men to be. If a woman is gruff or emotionally unavailable or terse at work, we tax her in a way that we don’t tax the guys. If a woman makes an autocratic decision that isn’t aligned with the opinions of her team, we’ll tax her for it in a way that we wouldn’t tax a man.

We have to bring at least a bit of analysis to something as simple as who we like to work with. It’s incredibly hard to be that self-analytical on a day-to-day basis, but it may be a necessary step to get the sort of on-going diversity that makes for a better business as well as a healthy society. It’s the low-hanging fruit of improving working environments: not everyone is committed to diversity, so getting those who are to make sure that their actual actions are in line with their values is a relatively simple step.

I know off the top of my head who I don’t like to work with. But I can’t definitively tell you if I have good cause not to like those people or if I’m just holding different people to different standards. It’s something that I’m paying more attention to, in the hopes of making more conscious decisions. I’m not automatically going to cut people slack, but I am going to stop and think about whether I would respond in the same way to a problem if the other party was someone else.

My Self-Interest is Showing

There’s a far side to this discussion that scares me a bit: I know that I push hard. Being able to run a business is a crucial part of how I define myself. And if someone doesn’t seem to be doing what is necessary, I have no problem winding myself up and telling them the way things are going to be. I try to generally avoid being a jerk, but I don’t always succeed — and since I do happen to be female, I’m sure that my attitude hasn’t won me any friends.

Since high school, I’ve been in situations where people used some unkind words for me because of my attitude and pushiness. I’ve had some successes because I’m willing to dig in my heels, but I know I’ve also missed out on certain projects. I don’t want to miss out on anything just because of a double standard. I’m not prepared to change the way I work, because the results I get speak for themselves. But if I’m going to lose out on an opportunity anyhow, what’s the harm in calling someone on their biases? Maybe it’s time for me to actually step up my attitude a little more.

As much as I wish I could just not worry about the whole matter, I’m committing myself to stop and actually consider what lies under my own decisions and those of the many people I work with. I try hard not to make assumptions about anyone, but I’d like to go further.

I’m going to be creating reminders to dive deeper in the decisions I make on who to work with — no matter who the default person I’d normally go to might be. I already track certain details about the people I communicate with (nothing sketchy; just information about what their areas of expertise are or details I want to follow up on eventually), but I’m going to start taking notes on who I ask to work with and when. After all, if I’m going to go hunting for a bias I don’t even notice, looking at the impact that bias makes is going to be a fast way to find opportunities to change my behavior.

It’s not a solution to the whole problem, but that’s the first step I can make. From here, I’ll look for other opportunities to improve my own unconscious behaviors where I can — the ones I’m perfectly aware of, however, will probably be sticking around.

Image by Flickr user Kristin Ausk

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