“Don’t Say That To Me. Don’t Do That To Me. I Hate It.”

(Photo credit: Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal)

“Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it.”  That’s the phrase that author Barbara Kingsolver teaches her daughters to say when they want someone to stop what they’re doing. Nothing passive or aggressive about it; just a clear “cut it out.”

In this #MeToo, #Time’sUp moment, when women have had it with sexual misconduct and men are ducking for cover, we’re all being asked to establish new levels of respect for each other and ourselves.  Much of what’s been written has focused on what (mostly) male abusers need to do differently. To that, I say, “Amen” and “At last.” But are women (or any targets of predation) also being called to do something new? I think so. I think there’s a call for us to confront sexual misconduct with more ‘grit.’ Like Barbara Kingsolver is teacher her daughters, women of every age can to learn how to be more direct and fierce at the boundaries.

Actor David Schwimmer and director Sigal Avin recently co-produced a series of short videos enacting scenes of women being sexually harassed. (A disclaimer here. Portraying harassment of only women, and only white- and light-skinned women at that, the series has some serious limitations. But it’s a well-done start, worth checking out.) The videos’ intent is to help men and women better recognize harassment when it happens. The hope is that  recognizing harassment – by anyone and toward anyone – will help us interrupt it.

What struck me most in the series was how often the women tried to stop harassment through demure, ‘grace-filled’ strategies: averting the eyes, smiling or laughing, ignoring or redirecting behavior, treating come-on lines as compliments, etc. The mushy responses in the videos felt so familiar to me that I felt sick to my stomach watching them.

I know why it happens… why I’ve done that stuff myself. As a harasser creeps in, the harass-ee intuitively knows that standing up for herself (/himself) could make things worse. The aggressor could become embarrassed or angry and step up the aggression. Because of that risk, many people being harassed often soften their own edges in the hope of getting the intrusion to fade.

While this is certainly one strategy, it’s pretty limited. Submissive behavior rarely stops a power play. Worse yet, smiles and laughter can signal to the harasser – who is, by definition, self-interested – a consent that does not exist. Here’s a quote, I think from Melissa Harris-Perry, that sums it up: “If you’re not having fun or do not agree, don’t smile or nod.”

When someone crosses a boundary, we don’t push him back by a blurry response. We redraw the line in bolder relief. 

Being bold does not equate to being bitchy. Boldness can just mean being rooted in your own, clear dignity and integrity. 

When I think of this kind of boldness, I think about the unshakable quality of a mountain.  Firm. Grounded. Unmovable. Without attack. Meeting a harassment situation with this kind of steadfast authority is often the most effective. 

Still, we all know there is no safe path when confronting harassment. Assertion and submission each has its risks, and the risks vary significantly, depending on your race, gender and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, after watching Schwimmer’s videos, I realized that it behooves women to expand their repertoire of responses beyond coquettish avoidance.

This is way easier said than done. But here are a few thoughts about how to bring more of that mountain-like ‘grit’ to address a harassment situation.

  1. Fine-tune your internal “ick-ometer.” There is a point in every harassment where the interaction turns from normal to creepy. And at the point of that crossing, it’s common for the harass-ee to doubt the validity of her own revulsion. “I’m probably misreading this. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Who am I kidding – someone this high up wouldn’t be taking an interest in me.” But know this. These doubts aren’t your allies; they’re the harasser’s. As your most reliable gauge of what’s ok and not, your “ick-ometer” is your best alert system. Get familiar with the dials.
  2. Respect your instrument readings. Whether or not someone intends a transgression is irrelevant. You are feeling creeped out, so something needs to shift. Whether anyone else in the same situation would feel uncomfortable is also irrelevant. What matters is that you do. Respect that.
  3. Act early. Every move in a real or perceived harassment throws us off-balance mentally, emotionally, and physically. That’s what harassment is intended to do. So the longer the harassing behavior continues, the more you lose your own center. And the more off-balance you are, the less likely you’ll be to respond effectively. If you go into shutdown or explosion mode, the harasser will likely use that to impugn you. “Hey – you never said anything. I’m supposed to be a mind reader now?” or “Whoa, Missy, what the hell is up with you?” Suddenly, you become the problem in this story. The earlier you can stand your ground, the clearer and calmer you’ll stand it.
  4. Have a plan. Harassment is inherently disorienting, so you probably won’t have access to your best thinking when your boss’ hand sneaks onto your thigh. So it helps to prepare some retorts for a moment like this. The most effective phrases are simple ones that clearly state your position without attacking the other:
    • “Please don’t say (do) that.”
    • “Nothing is going to happen here. So let’s either stick to the agenda or postpone this meeting.”
    • “Are you aware that what you’re doing now may constitute sexual harassment?”
    • “Dude. No.”

In addition to planning what you might say, you might plan out what you would do. Move away? Call a break? Stand up? Leave the room?

The bottom line is this: before a harassment starts down the runway, identify the exits.

For many, setting respectful, yet unapologetic boundaries can be a life’s work. And after all that work, standing your ground doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. But neither does demureness. Because so many victims of abuse and harassment have spoken out, you and I now have more room to speak. Awareness is growing daily. Productive anger is rising up and claiming its place. Truth is having an impact. More than ever before, there’s an opening to confront harassment – not just with grace, but also with some clean, clear grit.

#metoo: Coming To A Workplace Near You?

How surprised were you by the number of #metoo’s on your social media a few weeks ago? I found the magnitude of those affected by sexual misconduct absolutely breathtaking.

Behind every #metoo, there is the face of at least one aggressor. My own #metoo represents four different men over the course of my life whose sexual actions put me in direct harm or imminent threat of it. That doesn’t count the scores of men I’ve forgotten about whose comments or leers made me just garden-variety uncomfortable. I am not unique. Think of all the #metoo’s you experienced in your small world, and extrapolate that out. That’s a lot of harassed people. And for every one of them, there are one or more harassers.

Given the extent of sexual predation coming to light, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there are troubling sexual power dynamics in your world and workplace. I’ll bet that some of your coworkers are feeling (re)traumatized by what’s been in the news. Others may feel relieved. Some folks may be in denial, while others are hiding under their desks hoping they don’t get “the call.”

In a new way and with new urgency, people are questioning what conduct is OK and not OK. But I’m not sure I buy that question. It’s not that the lines of acceptable behavior have suddenly changed or blurred. What’s changing, I think, is that we’ve reached a tipping point in our tolerance for crossing those lines. The rules of physical engagement at work are, and always have been, pretty straightforward:

  • Shaking hands is the language of physical connection in the western workplace. Stick with that.
  • If it’s not your body, don’t touch it, comment on it, or share your fantasies about it.
  • Don’t look at someone’s body like it’s your favorite meal.
  • Don’t sexually touch or comment on your own body in front of someone else.
  • Don’t make any career opportunity contingent on a sexual act. Don’t even insinuate it.

In this current tsunami of truth-telling, we realize that this is too big to be just an individual problem – it’s a cultural problem. Our society has a long-standing illness that has allowed and excused sexual misconduct by people (so far, mostly men) in power. It’s absolutely important to hold the individual perpetrators of sexual misconduct to account. At the same time, there is a larger conversation needed, in which we take a harder look at the cultural dynamics of power in this country.

This is a potent moment in which to examine how powerful people use sex, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate others. If you want to investigate your own behavior in this realm, here are a few questions you might ponder:

  • When have I said or done something of a sexual nature that could have made someone feel unsafe, insecure or devalued? What are the cultural beliefs I’ve inherited, such that that behavior seemed OK to me?
  • Do I find myself levying criticisms or doubts about the women who are coming forward now? If so, what assumptions might I be holding about them?
  • Have I ever tacitly allowed or condoned someone else’s inappropriate behavior?
  • What is the most impactful action I can take now to stop sex from being used as an intimidating force in myself or my sphere?
  • What am I willing to put at risk to do that?

Here also are some questions that leaders can use to engage their teams and organizations in self-reflection:

  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be giving people in our organization permission to wield sexual power over others?
  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be discouraging victims of sexual harassment from coming forward?
  • What are some of the things we should be looking out for to indicate possible sexual harassment?
  • What are the most powerful practical commitments we are willing to make as an organization to stop sex from being used as intimidation?
  • What will we need to put at risk in order to carry out that commitment?

As unsettling a time as this is, it’s a time of clearer seeing. With truth comes the possibility of reconciliation, that we might create a more just and vital way of living and working together.

Workplace Diversity: Vitamin or Pathogen?

Ever since I’ve been in the workplace, which is a long time now, diversity has been touted as a business and moral imperative. Most organizations hold diversity as a core value. Yet 50 years into this push for diversity, and with a workforce growing more diverse by the day, why do we still need to talk about this? Why are women and people of color still so scarce in top leadership roles? Why do so many organizational cultures still reflect the complexion and preferences of their founders, rather than the kaleidoscope of the current workforce? The reasons are many and complex, but I want to explore one in particular: our default mindset toward diversity.

I believe there are two fundamental mindsets that operate at both an individual and collective level: diversity as vitamin, and diversity as pathogen.

The ‘vitamin’ mindset holds that:

  • diversity (the many forms of variety that humans bring) is a necessary element to the health of the enterprise;
  • a deficiency in diversity weakens the system, and the remedy is more diversity; therefore…
  • the organization embraces and metabolizes diversity as medicine – even when it might be hard to digest.

The ‘pathogen’ mindset holds that:

  • what is different from the so-called norm is considered alien, foreign or other;
  • foreign objects stress the system and threaten its health and stasis; therefore…
  • the organization must use its informal ‘immune system’ to neutralize what is different.  This includes behaviors such as silencing, ignoring, isolating, attacking or discouraging people who are different from the norm.

Like most people, you and I would say that we ascribe to the “vitamin” theory. And at the conscious level, we probably do. But researchers at Harvard University’s Project Implicit have shown conclusively that most people have both an explicit, conscious view of diversity, as well as an implicit, unconscious one.

Our conscious mind tends to embrace difference (vitamin view), while our subconscious mind tends to house our more negative perceptions (pathogen view). Research shows that these dual mindsets co-exist within almost all of us. Because both levels of belief are operating simultaneously, we behave inconsistently. We say we value diversity (which we do), but our behavior will reveal any of our ambivalence or fear toward it.  Because we don’t tend to own or acknowledge our implicit biases, those tend to disproportionally drive our behavior. Hence, 50+ years in, we’re still struggling to embody our diversity ideals because we are conflicted.

In their excellent book, “Blindspot,” the Project Implicit researchers emphasize that these dual mindsets are not cause for shame or blame. They are part of the human package. But the beliefs we don’t own or examine can drive some very counterproductive behavior that can only be righted through self-awareness and conscious effort.

These dueling mindsets don’t just happen at the individual level; they occur organizationally, driving the behavior of an entire system.

Like most individuals, most organizations hold a consciously positive mindset toward diversity, and we can see that play out concretely. Many companies hail diversity’s rich virtues. They aggressively recruit for it. They set up diversity and inclusion programs, and sponsor affinity groups around race, gender and sexual orientation. None of this would be happening unless organizations believed, at some level, that difference is a strengthener, worthy of aspiration and investment. Diversity as vitamin.

And yet… If organizations were operating solely from the ‘vitamin’ mindset, workplace life would be very different. Employees of all kinds would feel a more consistent sense of ease and belonging at work. Variety, both in demographics and perspectives, would be reflected and embraced at all levels. Employee retention, satisfaction and turnover rates would be consistent across groups. If our sole belief were that diversity was a nutritional necessity for organizational health, we’d take our vitamins – happily and often.

Our lived experience reveals the diversity-as-pathogen mindset is also strongly at work. Often without intent, organizations will treat a person who seems “different” the same way a body would treat a foreign object: as a threat. Like the body, organizations will deploy an autonomic cultural immune system to isolate or neutralize that disruption to the norm.

Here are some of the indicators of the diversity immune system at work at the interpersonal or group level:

  • The minority person or point of view is repeatedly excluded, ignored or negated.
  • People are spending significant energy tending the wounds of conduct that, intended or not, diminishes them.
  • Some groups of people chronically struggle to be heard or included.
  • Those who raise questions about inequity are told that they’re seeing the situation incorrectly.  They’re often accused of being “sensitive,” “angry” or “difficult.”

Here are some indicators of the ‘diversity as pathogen’ mindset working at the systemic level:

  • Pay gaps might exist between different demographic groups doing the same work.
  • An organization’s retention rates may be inconsistent across demographic groups.
  • The ranks of senior leadership may not reflect a variety of backgrounds and points of view.
  • New employees who are not white, male and heterosexual may still be referred to as “diversity hires:” as if white/male/hetero is the standard of sameness and all others are, well, “other.”
  • An organization may have succeeded at hiring a diverse workforce, but finds that a disproportionate percentage of non- white/male/hetero employees feel undervalued, underutilized, over-securitized or excluded.

If your organization is experiencing any of these dynamics, it’s facing an opportunity you may not have considered. Rather than building new policies, procedures or programs, consider first examining the organization’s underlying mindset(s), and identify how those are expressed through behavior, culture, systems and outcomes. Awareness isn’t everything, but it’s the necessary starting place.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
~ James Baldwin

How Do We Loosen the Grip of Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is the new hot topic in diversity these days. But what is it, exactly? Why are we talking about it now? And what do we do about it? Here’s my take on those questions.

What is it?

The best way to define implicit bias is to contrast it against explicit bias. Explicit biases are the conscious judgments that we hold about other people/groups and that intentionally drive our individual, collective and/or systemic behavior. Examples include segregation, sexual harassment, bullying of LGBT people and racial profiling. On the other hand, implicit biases are discriminatory behaviors and outcomes that arise without intent. They’re often born from judgments/beliefs that we don’t even know we have and may not even agree with consciously. Here are some examples of implicit bias:

  • executives’ making important decisions on the golf course
  • the use of unintentionally denigrating turns of phrase (e.g., “He’s so articulate!” “That is so gay.”)
  • expectations of women to be the meeting note-takers and corporate party planners
  • unspoken organizational norms that pressure people to be someone they’re not in order to be accepted or successful.

While one form of bias is overt and the other more subtle, they can have similarly profound effects – not only on those on the losing end of bias, but also on the health, productivity and harmony of our collective engagement.

Why now?

Implicit bias has come to the fore for a couple of reasons. The more hopeful reason is that, having significantly reduced explicit bias from our workplace policies and practices, we can now address the subtler vestiges of inequity. It’s like manually removing the fragments of computer code that are left on your hard drive after you uninstall a program.

The other reason we’re talking about implicit bias now is that, 50 years after the civil and women’s rights eras, we’re stunned at the inequities that still exist. Reducing explicit bias hasn’t made bias disappear; it’s simply driven it underground. It’s still shaping our landscape in powerful ways, but is harder now to detect and address.

What can we do?

To address implicit bias, we have to be willing to see it, to claim the reality of it without collapsing into shame or blame, and to commit to action. I’m going to explore it through the lens of gender, but the principles apply to all dimensions of “diversity.”

We know we need to start with awareness – but what do we look for to check where implicit bias is operating? I’ve developed an “AEIOU” model to help guide your inquiry:

A = Access.  Inclusion in the conversations and relationships that matter
E = Expression.  Permission to speak freely and fully
I = Influence. Power to sway group opinion
O = Opportunity. Receipt of plumb assignments and promotions
U = Updraft. Dominant social status and systemic advantage

Let’s dive in to each of these.

Access. Are there any people or subgroups in your organization who just seem to be more “in the know” than others? Folks who always seem to just be there when the off-line decisions are made? Then this person or group enjoys the implicit bias of “access” tipping in his/her/their favor. They won’t even see that the door of access is wider for them, but others will feel it acutely.

How does this show up?  Working parents – mostly mothers – often face access bias, since a lot of business happens after hours and on weekends. The guys on the golf course don’t intend to exclude women – in fact they may wish that more women would join them there. But events held outside of 9 – 5 implicitly block mothers (and primary care-giving fathers) from important goings-on.

What you can do. Pay attention to patterns. Starting noticing who’s always got the boss’ ear, who always seems to be ‘in the know,’ who hangs out together on off-hours. If you see demographic patterns, implicit bias may be at work. Beware the inner circle; challenge yourself to create a bigger welcome mat.

Expression. Watch to see if certain people or subgroups in your organization have greater latitude than others to express themselves freely. Are some folks allowed to expound on their ideas, while others are frequently interrupted? Are some folks forgiven when they misspeak or show emotion, where others are penalized for it?   These are signs of expression bias.

What does that look like on a practical level? I hear this all the time: that a man can forcefully speak his mind and be seen as passionate. whereas a woman who speak vigorously will be labeled as bitchy, shrill or angry. To avoid getting stuck with those career-limiting labels, women may mute their strong opinions, only to receive performance feedback that they are not perceived as a leader because they don’t speak up enough. It’s a maddening catch-22 that ties women and minorities in knots – while largely escaping the majority’s awareness.

What you can do. Notice patterns in how you interpret others’ behavior. Watch your thoughts when a woman speaks directly vs. when a man does. Watch who gets the airtime in your meetings. Are the members of one particular demographic group “just quiet,” while others are more vocal? If you see these signs of expression bias, build in processes and norms that encourage everyone to speak and to be heard. If someone says that you don’t listen to her, resist the urge to label her a whiner or oversensitive. Consider that she may be accurately describing a reality of which you’re unaware.  Say thank you, explore it and act on it.

Influence. Do some people or groups regularly sway decisions and conversations, while others’ ideas routinely go “splat” on the conference room table?  If there’s a pattern to who influences and who doesn’t, there may be some form of implicit bias in action. One of my favorite satirical cartoons sums up what this looks like in practice:

Miss Triggs










What you can do: Meetings are a great place to notice influence bias. You can keep written track of who gets the group’s attention; who changes the direction of the conversation; whose ideas get adopted. And whose don’t. If you’re too “in the mix” to do this kind of tracking, pull in an organization development consultant to do it for you. You’ll learn a lot.

One of the most powerful things you can do to even the influence playing field is to actively acknowledge the input of the unheard. Like this: “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the point that Peggy made.” or “Bill, thanks for restating Carlos’ earlier suggestion. Like you, I support his idea.” Folks will follow your lead and start paying more attention to the people they’ve overlooked.

Opportunity. Opportunity bias can show up in a lot of ways. Maybe there’s a well-respected woman in your organization whose career is progressing more slowly than male counterparts’. Maybe white employees tend to get the reputation for being “high performing” after one successful project, whereas women and minorities have to mount a series of successes before they’re similarly regarded. Maybe the boss has a couple of “go-to” people for quick-turnaround or high-visibility projects. If the go-to folks share traits in common with the boss, there may be implicit bias at play.

What you can do. Go back over the special tasks and projects you’ve assigned over the last year. Who got them and who didn’t? Pay attention to how long it takes you to trust your male employees vs. the females; whites vs. people of color, straights vs. gays. If you notice that there are groups or individuals that you’ve overlooked, make a development plan to get as many of them as possible into your go-to group.

Updraft. Updraft refers to the phenomenon of ‘privilege’. In nature, an updraft is a warm current of air that lifts and carries something in flight, such that it rises and coasts with minimal effort. Updrafts occur in cultures too, where certain groups enjoy the ease of policies, structures and resources that were constructed with them in mind. Those who are placed into those cushy currents don’t even see their advantage – it’s just how things are. But have you ever heard women or minorities say, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far”?  That sums up life in the headwinds.

Historically, groups in the U.S. updraft have been whites, men, heterosexuals and the wealthy. And although the currents are shifting, these are still the groups that fly with the greatest relative ease.

What you can do: The question isn’t, “Is there an updraft?” The answer to that is yes. Rather, we need to ask, “How can those of us riding the updraft make more room?” “What systems can we reinvent so others may join the warm currents of favor?” Last, and perhaps most important, “How do we in the updraft tolerate the discomfort we may feel when our position in the current is shared by others?”

Addressing implicit bias takes commitment and persistence. And yes – to eliminate the impact of implicit bias is a massive personal and collective effort. Yet there is so much we can do to reduce bias harmful effects on people, productivity and organizational health. And it starts with each of us. Simple as A,E,I,O,U.


Bias, Bias Everywhere

I love the Olympics. The competition is (mostly) clean; facts determine the outcome; bitter rivals embrace out of deep respect. When the Games started last Friday, I was so happy. And then we started talking about them. Ugh. The media commentary has been a parade of unconscious bias; now I’m feeling cranky.

Here are a couple of primo headlines:

“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” – Chicago Tribune

“Was Gabby Douglas’s National Anthem Stance a Silent Black Lives Matter Protest?” – Vulture Entertainment News (a division of New York Magazine)

And some charming commentary:

“Baker, a Team USA swimmer, lost the earring Sunday during a preliminary swim. Scuba divers later found it in Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool and gave it back. A video of the dive can be viewed here.  The 19-year-old North Carolina native won silver Monday in the 100-meter backstroke.” – United Press International

“They look like they could be standing in a mall.” (of the competition-crushing US Women’s Gymnastics team)  – NBC News

“And there’s the man responsible.” (of gold medalist and world record swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband and coach) – NBC News

And that was just in the first four days.

Unfortunately, these sports writers and commentators are simply airing the biases we all walk around with. Most of us live in cultures that minimize women’s achievements. We downplay and disbelieve their excellence. We obscure women’s merits by fixating on their appearance, fashion choices and roles in the home.

And we pay women less – a lot less. The members of the US Women’s Olympic Soccer Team are each paid $1,350 for every game they win. Their counterparts on the men’s Olympic soccer team receive $9,375 each for a win, $6,250 for a tie, and $5,000 for a loss. Forbes’ columnist Bill Conerly recently wrote an article outlining the economic justification for this compensation scheme. While some of his points may have been valid, his final summation was this:

“Some of the men might not bother to show up for paltry pay, but the women are likely to be less particular—because their regular jobs pay so little.”

Seriously, Bill?

Most of our brains are riddled with prejudicial “mind bugs” (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Banaji and Greenwald) that drive our thinking without our awareness. Mind bugs are partly an adaptive function of the brain and partly a result of cultural messaging. So I’m not surprised that Olympic commentators have biases. What amazes me is how unaware of them they seem to be. Statements like those above shouldn’t be let out of the house unsupervised, much less televised to the worldwide millions.

To be clear, this isn’t only happening in the media. It’s happening every day in our workplaces, communities, families and in our own heads. And women are most certainly not the only targets of bias. The bottom line is that most of us are good people who are acting on slanted perceptions: partial world views that are invisible to us but harmful and hurtful to others. None of us is immune.

So what’s a well-meaning, “mind bugged” person to do? Here are five simple but demanding ideas:

  1. Own your “stuff.” Claim your place in the human race and acknowledge that biases operate in you. If you want to see what your biases may be, you can take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. There are multiple tests, measuring the presence and degree of your biases on dimensions such as race, gender, age, weight and religion.
  2. Be on the lookout for biases in your actions and words. Listen to the language and metaphors you use, because they’ll reveal a lot about your thinking. The more aware of our inherited mind bugs we become, the more we’ll be able to stop them from backseat-driving our words and actions.
  3. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. “Women aren’t as competitive as men.” “African Americans commit more crimes than whites.” If you find yourself ascribing to generalities like these, do a little research and test your assumptions against objective reality.
  4. Switch it around. That thing you’re about write or say – would you express it that way about a member of another group? If not, check yourself. To quote the “Babe” blog, if you wouldn’t write the headline, “Fiance of former Miss California scoops his 25th Olympic medal,” then don’t write that headline that says, “Cory Cogdale, wife of Bears Lineman, wins bronze.”  If you wouldn’t describe a white person as “articulate” or “uppity,” then don’t describe your African American colleague that way. Call her by her truer names: “compelling” or “principled.”
  5. Raise your speaking standards. The Buddhists have a wonderful concept called “wise speech.” For speech to be “wise,” it must meet three criteria:
    • True. Almost by definition, bias does not reflect a holistic view of reality. So facts are the great mindbug antidote. Whoever you’re judging isn’t as bad as you’re making out to be. Whoever you’re praising probably isn’t as awesome, either.
    • Useful or necessary. If we think something disparaging about someone, we can ask ourselves whether saying it adds any real value to ourselves or others.
    • Kind. Oral sniper fire can be so satisfying in the moment. But is it really what you want? If you invest the energy to enact the principle of ‘wise speech,’ you’ll be a more effective and sensitive communicator. And the world will be a quieter place, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What about you?

  1. What are the mind bugs that your culture and upbringing have embedded in you?
  2. What or who do those mind bugs prevent you from seeing fairly or objectively?
  3. How do you monitor your own biases? How do you get feedback?
  4. What are three steps you could take to reduce or better manage your blindspots?


Seriously, Secretary?

Last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright revived her memorable quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other.” She said it at a political rally in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

At one level, I agree with Secretary Albright. There’s no excuse for women who sabotage each other in organizational or community life. I think that women should take an active role in each other’s success. But I bristle at the inference that women owe Clinton (or any female candidate) our vote simply because she’s a woman. Reducing our choice to a matter of gender loyalty devalues the electoral process, disrespects women voters,  and tokenizes women candidates.

As we continue to evolve our mindsets with regard to gender and leadership, we struggle with an ongoing question: How do we keep pushing to equalize access to the halls of influence without whittling our leaders – and our decisions about them – down to their DNA?

February 13th update. In a recent NY Times article, Albright subsequently apologized for her comments.  While she reiterated the importance of women actively supporting each other, she acknowledged that an election was not the right place for her battle cry. So, “Thank you, Secretary.”


“I Like Him, But You Scare Me”

When it comes to achieving equity – gender or otherwise – in the workplace, we all have a role to play.

Two of my coaching clients, Anne and Richard, work in the same company. They recently scheduled a meeting with Jeff, one of their corporate lawyers, to hammer out a contract. As Richard and Anne entered Jeff’s office for the meeting, Jeff looked up and said jovially: “Richard, I like you. But Anne, you scare me.”

Taken aback, Anne asked Jeff why. His response? “Because you have a reputation for knowing what you want and not settling for less.” She laughed it off, but it irked her.

A bit of background here: Richard is a smart, driven and opinionated guy. Not one to fret about hurting people’s feelings in pursuit of his goals, he’s “grit” all the way. While Anne is also confident and driven, she is fundamentally a grace-based person. She cares about relationships and works hard at them. She’s miserable if she offends someone, and will do whatever she can to make things right. When it comes to relationships, Richard is a lot more “scorched earth” than Anne will ever be.

But it was Anne that made Jeff nervous, which left her wondering: Why is a woman with clarity and confidence considered fearsome, while a man with those same qualities is considered awesome?  

Sadly, this is not a new question. What’s amazing to me is that we’re still having to ask it; I hear these stories all the time from my female clients. Most of the time, the scenarios play out unconsciously, which is what makes them so hard to address. Often without knowing it, we (men and women alike) hold different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior. As a result, we unconsciously fling out bias-ridden feedback. We also respond to these drive-by bias moments in a variety of unhelpful and unconscious ways: retreating, ignoring, blaming, or demurely sucking it up.

With greater self-awareness and small acts of change, everyone’s got an opportunity to step up to workplace equality. Taking Anne’s interaction with Richard and Jeff as a case study… here are some of the opportunities before us:

  1. For the person levying the criticism (Jeff)
    Jeff’s not a bad guy; he was just acting unconsciously. But unconsciousness itself is the problem, because it’s the engine of implicit bias and it has a powerful impact. So there’s an opening for Jeff to do some soul-searching here. Did he even notice the surprise on Anne’s face, which signaled that he had misstepped? What biases did his greeting reveal? How might those biases be affecting the success of this specific interaction, his behavior more widely, or his effectiveness with other women clients? And if he did have some legitimate feedback for Anne, how could he have delivered that in a way that she could actually hear and learn from? In other words, Jeff’s got a responsibility to examine whether his biases are getting in the way of his own or others’ effectiveness, as well as a responsibility to deliver feedback in a responsible, actionable manner.
  2. For the bystander (Richard)
    Richard did what a lot of folks do when someone ridicules a woman: nothing. In staying quiet, he missed the chance to restore the tone of respect toward Anne. He could have said something like, “Anne knows her own mind, and I respect that about her. And I’ve never worked with a more collaborative, competent colleague.” By staying silent, Richard tacitly gave Jeff the green light for his offhanded comment.  By speaking up, he could have sent a clear message and changed the dynamic significantly.
  3. For the woman (Anne)
    Anne’s instinct was to dismiss the feedback by labeling Jeff a jerk. But it’s possible for Jeff to be speaking from bias (implicit or explicit) AND for Anne to do some self-reflection. Might she legitimately be doing something to get in the way of the collaborative relationships she really wants? From the other angle, was she too demure?  Should she have confronted his behavior more directly? I’m not saying that Anne should accept responsibility for someone else’s bias; I’m saying that she should ask herself whether there’s a growth opportunity embedded in the feedback.

If we want a workplace in which everyone is treated even-handedly, we all have a role to play.

What about you?

  • How often are you willing to courageously question potential bias: in yourself, in others and in the organization’s norms, systems and practices?
  • What stops you from doing that more?
  • What’s one small “practice” you could undertake today to watch for and confront bias to a greater degree?


Women’s Equality: Blame Won’t Get Us There

Today is Women’s Equality Day. I’m glad that this day exists. It commemorates the game-changing moment, 95 years ago today, when women gained the constitutional right to vote in the US.  It’s important to celebrate that and to remember that there are still many women in the world without a political voice.

But I’m also sad that there’s a Women’s Equality Day, because it confirms that true gender equality still eludes us. Whether it’s a moral issue or a business issue for you, equality matters. And it’s painful to confront the distance we have yet to travel.

As we connect with our disappointment, it’s tempting to assign blame for why things are the way they are. But in my experience, blame doesn’t get us anywhere we really want. Why? Because it slams shut the possibility for change. While blamers are finding fault, blamees are attacking back or running for cover. Meanwhile, nobody’s learning. And if nobody’s learning, nothing’s changing. As one male client, who cares very much about women’s equality, said to me:

I live in fear of saying the wrong thing and being labeled an insensitive jerk. So I disengage; I stay quiet instead of speaking up; I play it safe and keep my distance.

Even this man, a staunch believer in women’s equality, shuts down for fear of incurring the blame blowback of ‘getting it wrong.’ That means that he doesn’t engage, doesn’t grow and doesn’t work for change.

How do we confront bias against women (and other so-called minority groups) in such a way that opens up mutual understanding, accountability and action? I think we start by changing how we relate to bias itself: not so much as someone’s fault, but rather as a shared phenomenon in which we’re all participating. It’s not that there isn’t fault to find; it’s just that fault-finding doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.

Bias is the result of a convergence of both personal and systemic influences:

  1. individual beliefs and values
  2. individual behavior
  3. culture: collective values, mindsets and patterns of behavior
  4. structures: the policies, laws, physical and organizational structures, media, etc. that we build to carry out what the culture values

These influences interact dynamically, continually affecting and being affected by each other.  After years of history and habit, these influences weave tightly together to form very solid social patterns. Some of us benefit from those social patterns and strive, consciously or unconsciously, to keep them intact. Others of us aren’t well served by the patterns and we rail against them. And as we’re protecting or railing, it’s natural to fault each other for being oppressors or malcontents.

… As if the mud-slinging will help. As if the problem lies only in our personal shortcomings. As if the solution were that one-dimensional.

In the quest for gender equity in organizational life, the questions are larger than “Whose fault is it?” And the stocktaking needs to be done by men and women alike. Based on the four influences above, here are some questions that we can engage in together to examine and shift the complicated phenomenon of bias.

Personal beliefs

  • Are there certain behaviors that I tolerate in men that I recoil at in women? Or vice versa? What do those differing reactions tell me about what I deem “OK” and “not OK” from each gender?
  • How does that impact my openness to people as they are?
  • Do I ever expect more or less from women than I do from men? If so, what assumptions are driving the difference in my expectations?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of my beliefs and assumptions most inhibit a fuller openness to women, and how can I start challenging those beliefs?  

Personal actions

  • Are there women that I could or should be advocating for that I don’t? Why don’t I?
  • Have I ever shied away from giving a woman feedback that might have helped her succeed? And if I did give feedback, was it specific and behavioral enough to enable her to take clear action?
  • Who tends to sway my opinions and thinking most often? Is there a gender dimension to who I listen to and don’t?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two things can I start or stop doing to more actively support the women I live and work with?  


  •  Are there customs, events or practices in our organization that women don’t seem to attend or fully participate in? Might that indicate that these practices are exclusionary in some way?
  • Do we use language or ways of communicating that might exclude women or make them feel uncomfortable? How would we know?
  • When women have raised concerns about how they’re treated, how quickly or consistently have we taken action to address them? Have we given negative labels to women who have expressed their discontent?
  • Who are the formal leaders and informal power brokers in our organization? If women are sparse there, what might that tell us about the exclusive nature of our culture’s values?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two of our patterns of collective behavior most work against a level playing field for men and women?  What new patterns do we want to establish?  How will we hold ourselves and each other accountable?  


  • Do any of our employment, promotion, performance management or development practices make it harder for women than men to excel or advance?
  • Have we established mechanisms to measure whether men and women experience this organization differently?
  • Are more women than men leaving the organization? If so, what do they tell us in their exit interviews? If they say it’s “Too late” to give feedback, what were the signals that we missed along the way?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of our practices and policies seem to create barriers to women’s success? How should we update those practices to support an equality agenda? How do we ensure that our structures are continually updated to reflect our changing cultural values? 

Blame is the quickest way I know to stop the journey toward equality. By looking at bias as a shared phenomenon, rather than as someone’s fault, we can step out of the fray and get curious about our patterns of interaction. Perhaps then we can look at bias together, without finding fault, and martial our collective creativity toward the equality that most of us really want.




Women As Commodities: The Underbelly of the Gender-For-Profit Motive

“When more women lead, performance improves. Firms with more women in top management are more profitable; companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits.”    – Sheryl Sandberg

“Data analyzed by Catalyst reveals that…companies with the highest percentage of women directors outperformed companies…with the lowest percentage by 26% (measured by return on invested capital).”
~ Forbes 

It’s terrific that we can now quantify women’s positive impact on the bottom line. It verifies what we know intuitively: that diversity is good for business. That’s something to celebrate.

But there’s an underbelly to quantifying human value in monetary terms. It supports a mindset of women as a commodity, as a thing to be used for shareholders’ benefit. This doesn’t feel like progress to me; it feels like regression.

Are we really comfortable with measuring human value in such utilitarian terms? Let’s say this actually works for women, that their profit potential affords them greater access to the top ranks. Does this then become the burden of proof for other groups who have been traditionally excluded? Do we give people a place at the table only when they can prove themselves profitable to those already seated there?

Women are not commodities. They are neither a “strategic imperative” nor a means to an end. I’m not saying that there’s no role for an economic case for gender equality. But at best, it’s a partial measure of value; at worst, it’s an immoral one.



Are Compensation And Hearing Connected?

I first saw this Punch cartoon in the 1980’s. Yet in her recent NY Times article, “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg tells us what women already know from direct experience: that even today, organizations continue to muffle women’s voices in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The fact that organizations pay for talent and then silence it absolutely dumbfounds me. Why would you not want to get every bit of value from your salary dollars? But then it occurred to me – maybe organizations are doing just that. After all, women are paid just 78¢ on every dollar paid to a man, and maybe that has relational consequences as well as financial ones. For if a salary is a valuation of someone’s worth, then why would we want to listen to the person who’s 22% less valuable?

I know that the road to true equity – where no one group is inherently advantaged or disadvantaged – is a long and complicated one. But I wonder whether compensation parity might actually help shift the way we listen to women. If we paid women what we paid men, might we pay similar attention to them as well? And wouldn’t that go a long way to helping women bridge the confidence gap?  

What’s your own sense of this?  Do you think that if organizations’ checkbooks were as open to women as to men, that their minds and ears might follow suit – even a little?