Gender bias or intimidation? Why sex discrimination isn't business's biggest problem

Linda Bernardi

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Reposted from the Washington Post

When I entered the Austin airport on the heels of the SXSW conference last week, a group of female colleagues approached me, excited to tell me what had happened the day before. During a panel discussion that included Google chairman Eric Schmidt and U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith, Schmidt interrupted Smith a number of times. That wasn't what generated the women's discussion. It was that Judith Williams, a Google employee tasked with fighting unconscious bias, stood up and pointed Schmidt's interruptions out to him. The women at the airport were blown away that someone had publicly taken on one of their biggest frustrations.

I applaud Google for having the vision to investigate and explore bias. I'm also glad Williams's job, as the company's global diversity and talent programs manager, involves identifying any type of unconscious bias, gender or non-gender-related, and that she felt powerful enough to speak up in front of everyone.

But as I stepped away to catch my flight, I was left with this question: what if someone in Schmidt's position had interrupted another man in the same way? In other words, had it been a case of gender bias, or was it a broader case of intimidation, either conscious or unconscious?

Right now, Ellen Pao is in court in California, awaiting the outcome of her case alleging gender discrimination at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. At the same time, Facebook is facing its first open sex discrimination case. I don't know what went on in those companies and don't have an opinion on them, but in general, it seems that many of these issues are coming up now because women finally feel that they can speak up.

However, that leaves open the question of whether many of these situations are gender bias or intimidation. If we accept that gender is the primary issue, then we might assume that this kind of intimidation is mainly happening to women. But is this intimidation based on gender, or is it based more on power?

I've come to understand that there's a deep difference between gender bias and intimidation (conscious and unconscious). I think it is important to know which is occurring when and not to put everything under the umbrella of gender bias - because women aren't the only ones feeling intimidated.

Many people feel they aren't being appropriately represented in the business world: gay or transgender people, people of different nationalities, non-native English speakers. Women can intimidate women, women can intimidate men, and men can intimidate men - and many men don't feel they can speak up about it any more than women do. But at some point, all of us need to learn how to fight our own battles. We won't always have an executive in the room whose job it is to point out when we're being shut down.

I've dedicated 15 years to organizations chartered to identify, explore and remedy issues that women face in technology, to remove barriers and to promote women. I'm saddened that in 2015, we're still facing these issues. All these organizations and all that time have not been successful or productive in solving them. It's still happening on a large scale.

I celebrate open discussion about what the issues are. But indoctrinating women and telling them what to do is not working. More recently, men have talked more about the injustices against women, but this hasn't done much to remedy the situation, either. Meanwhile, some individuals and organizations are claiming to help women but are only out to enrich themselves. That is hurting not helping women.

Women are extremely powerful individuals; however, women also tend to get intimidated easily. Work environments are often antagonistic, and they constantly require immediate and persuasive reactions to situations. This environment is often very difficult for women, and it's one that some women choose to leave.

When I had my own software company, I employed nearly equal numbers of male and female software engineers. But male engineers were the ones who aggressively and enthusiastically wanted to own every aspect of the conversation. My female engineers, whom I respected greatly, waited to participate. You could say that the male engineers were intimidating the female engineers, or you could say that this was a gender issue. On the other hand, I had almost a 50-50 male-to-female ratio, and the door was open for women to push back. It was very difficult for me to see men owning the show when I knew it could have very well been the women.

It's time that we women did what we need to do rather than continuing to organize ourselves into committees or gather information and input. A prime example for me, and someone I look forward to speaking to in person, is Shonda Rhimes. I've come to admire her, although she's in the entertainment business rather than technology. She's an African-American woman who broke all the rules when she proposed a prime-time show with a woman as the leading actor. Several years later, she brought a second show with another woman lead to television, and last year, she unveiled her third prime-time show with a female lead. Two of the three leading women were African-American.

Now, one creator/producer has changed the game completely by having three very strong women leading network television for three of the top-rated hours on Thursday nights. Every other network has to compete with her.

What's admirable about Shonda is that she spoke less and did more. I don't think she's spent a lot of time talking about what works and doesn't work. She's led by example. As a result, today, many network television shows have women in leading roles - they're leading major agencies, even countries. That's created a major change in perceptions about what roles women can assume on television.

Women are incredibly powerful, talented and capable, and companies are looking for incredible, talented people. But as women, we sit back waiting for our gold-star opportunity to jump out and say something, and that's a major problem. In debates, women often feel pressured and attacked, which leads them to withdraw and say, "This isn't worth my time." They don't want to be confrontational, and sometimes they don't even have the right words to speak back.

Anyone who's been in meetings with powerful people knows that some individuals intimidate everyone around them, often unconsciously. I think many people in positions of power, including Eric Schmidt, honestly don't intend to be intimidating. But when they enter the room, everyone quiets down. People are afraid to speak up. As a result, the conversation becomes very one-way: they end up leading, and everyone else ends up following. Male or female. Intimidation knows no gender and hurts everyone.

The negative consequences of intimidation go far beyond women in the workplace. If colleagues feel intimidated-not matter who they are-innovation is stifled. If only one person in the room wields power, then only one person's ideas will be heard. Companies are actively seeking more diversity of all kinds, partly out of their own self-interest: studies show that more diverse companies do better. Google's efforts to address unconscious biases are a good start, since those biases lead to intimidation of the people with whom powerful people feel less comfortable.

Shonda Rhimes could have spent her career as a writer on shows that someone else created, but she said, "This is mine. I'm going to fight for it." She broke precedent, and she had to do it for herself. I'm sure she's had a lot of battles. But she fought them. And now her shows are bringing unprecedented diversity to prime time network television. She's an example that any woman, of any color, can do anything. And what Shonda Rhimes has done in Hollywood is something we can do over and over again, around the world, in every country, and in every industry.

Intimidation kills progress. If no one in a meeting feels brave enough to speak up, that's the end of progress. Concluding that this is all a result of gender bias doesn't address the larger underlying problem. We all need to fight intimidation, for everyone's sake. We all need to feel the confidence to speak - and to know that we'll be heard.

So, is it intimidation or gender discrimination?

It's your turn to speak up. Tell me: what do you think?

Linda Bernardi is the chief innovation officer at IBM focused on cloud and the Internet of things. A serial entrepreneur, investor and public speaker, she is focused on transforming global companies. She authored Provoke, which discusses why disruption is necessary for global innovation. She previously founded and served as CEO of ConnecTerra.

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