Hey, Let's 'Lean In' for Each Other, Too!

Rayona Sharpnack

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Hey, Let's 'Lean In' for Each Other, Too!
By Rayona Sharpnack

No one is born with bias. Male and female, we each come into the world with flailing little limbs and open minds. Then the cultural conditioning starts. It's inevitable. No matter which institutions we are exposed to - our family, religion, school, the media, or the petty tyrant known as "tradition" - we get conditioned to think the way they do. And the subtler the message, the more likely we are to buy it.

Many men have been conditioned - consciously or unconsciously - to regard women as less important, less intelligent, and less serious-minded. The thing we often forget is that conditioning affects everyone who is exposed to it, women included. Which means that women, too, grew up bombarded with messages that women are "less than."

We can see this operating in today's business world in a number of bewildering ways.

- Research shows that women are just as likely as men to show bias against women in hiring practices, salaries, and mentorship.

- A Harvard study found that young job applicants were willing to give up as much as $3,500 a year in salary to get a male boss.

- A study by a team of researchers from Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago, found that both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a math task - even when candidates of both genders had been shown to perform equally well at the task.

- Ideally, performance evaluations are a place for constructive criticism. If you are a woman, however, you get a lot more. In a study reported in Fortune, managers of both sexes were found to make negative criticism 88% of women's performance evaluations (but only on 59% of men's evals). In addition, 75% of those evaluations included negative personality criticism, such as "too abrasive," "watch your tone," "don't be so judgmental."

Studies aside, consult your personal experience. You have probably witnessed women who put down other women based on their appearance, their much-envied success (on the job or in social circles), their outspokenness, unabashed self-promotion, or unapologetic use of power.

Why do we women do this? Is it simply human nature? Most important, how can we stop undermining other women and start supporting each other? We can't just focus our equality efforts on engaging men to advance women, we need women advancing women as well. Think what our workplaces would be like if we all "leaned in" on behalf of other women.

Let's flesh out this problem before I propose the solution. In additional to cultural conditioning that says women are worth less, there are "rules" about how women should behave (modest, self-effacing, polite). Women who break those rules may antagonize other women. Stop being so bossy! or How come you get to break the rules and I don't? are some of the reactions to behavior that challenges the status quo. Simple human jealousy can get in the way, too: Why should I help her? She's prettier than I am, or She went to a better school, or She has more friends.

Unconscious stinginess can also be a factor, particularly in women executives from the baby boomer generation: I made it the old-fashioned way, through hard work pushing my way up. You need to earn your stripes. I'm not helping you get them!

Finally, many of us inherited a belief in what's called the scarcity model, which is the mindset that there is not enough to go around. If you get yours, I won't get mine. If you get ahead, there won't be room for me. Many men live from this model, too, and it gets in the way of their willingness to help advance women, no matter how big a priority it is in their organization.

If we live our lives from a belief in scarcity, we will fulfill that belief in the same way that we fulfill the other deep "truths" we believe in. I am inviting you today to make a conscious choice to commit to transforming your old, limiting mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance, from seeing other women as competitors to seeing them as partners, from being hobbled by fear and envy to prospering through generosity and kindness.

Choosing a new truth to live by is what I call shifting context and I have been teaching it as a breakthrough leadership method for over 25 years. It's learnable, it's doable, and it's remarkably quick to achieve. It's also enormously effective.

The biggest hurdle to shifting one's context is unconsciousness. As Judith Coyne writes to the women readers of More magazine, "Unconscious gender bias exists even though people's intentions are good. Even if you are sincerely meritocratic in your beliefs, those beliefs don't inoculate you from undervaluing women."

That's why the most powerful tool for shifting to a new mindset is awareness. Let's make that awareness without judging ourselves for how we behaved in the past.

Here are three actions steps you can take to lean in on behalf of other women. Doing so can change your life and it can change theirs.

Step 1. Become aware of your current mindset, or context, about women you work with by making a list of what you believe about them, in general. If you don't think you have any bias in this area, explore what might be hidden by taking the Implicit Association Test, a 10-15 minute exercise. Be willing to be surprised by the results, and remember that your goal is awareness without judgment.

Step 2. Create a new context. Here are some examples.

- Choose to operate on the principle of 100% responsibility: If something (like bias against women) is happening on my shift, I probably have something to do with it, whether by acts of omission or commission. What am I doing that is perpetuating it?

- Choose to be the solution: If I own the problem, I have the wherewithal to solve it. If I accept some responsibility for women being disadvantaged in the workplace, I have the power to change that by changing my behavior. I can consciously choose to act with and for other women every time the opportunity arises. I can give someone a hand up or go the extra mile to clear her path. I can remind myself at every turn that we women will stand - or fall - together.

- Choose to take a higher path: I am going to be an encouragement, a support, and a warrior for the other women in my organization. I am not going to unconsciously uphold a system that keeps women from becoming their best and brightest selves.

Step 3. Choose a practice or two to put your new context into action.

- Speak to another woman's virtues so she doesn't have to. This is critical because the research is clear that women in business get penalized for what's considered boasting. But you can say something like, "Wow did you hear what Kathryn did last week? She aced it at that meeting with _________."

- Help another woman get credit for her ideas. When a woman suggests something during a meeting and it's ignored until a guy repeats it, you can say something like, "You know, when Ana first mentioned that, I didn't see the full implications. Ana, is that what you were pointing at?"

- Advocate for another woman to be given a stretch assignment. "Hey, we should give Alexis a shot at that. Even though it's not something she's done before, she's so good at creative problem solving, and she's so good with people, we should give her a shot at it."

- Welcome the new woman on board. Poke your head into her office or cubicle, and say hi. Invite her to lunch. Introduce her to your work buddies. The guys do it for each other, you do it for your "team."

- Acknowledge and compliment other women on their work. Be specific and genuine. Send a congratulatory email. Often, no one else will, and you will find yourself with a new ally.

- If you've made it into a position of power, pay it forward (and demonstrate your leadership skills) by offering your support to your peers, not just to those below you in the hierarchy.

Actions like these will contribute to an organizational culture of women for women - and it will help your company attract much-needed female talent. If we don't "lean in" for each other, we risk allowing our own unconsciousness to obstruct the most crucial social change of our time: Gender Partnership.

Rayona Sharpnack is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Women's Leadership and co-founder of GenderAllies. For more than 20 years she has taught co-ed groups of Fortune 500, government, and non-profit managers the secret to achieving breakthrough results and achieving full Gender Partnership. She is also the author of "Trade Up! 5 Steps for Redesigning Your Leadership and Life from the Inside Out" (Jossey-Bass, 2007).

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