Leadership biases #MeToo

I ignored the #MeToo movement on social media. I labeled it as just another social media hype that would rise and fall in a few days. Even though I was a survivor, I rarely spoke of my experience or mentioned it to anyone. Why? Because just thinking about it brings back painful memories, and because I always thought my experience was unique and probably doesn’t apply to most other women.

But then, more and more of my friends and colleagues (even some women leaders whom I know and respect) started sharing the hashtag, opened up and told their stories. That’s when I cried to myself – This is bigger than I thought and it affects almost all women in one way or another. This realization makes me think of my role as a woman, and what being a woman means and the issues we face daily. I think a lot about gender equality in our society.

In school, I was often the only female student in my engineering classes. Later on, I was sometimes the only female engineer in my work group. Earlier in my career, there was a time when I told myself that if I have a daughter, I would advise her not to choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because I believed it’s such a lonely field for women to be in. At the time, I thought that the disproportion of women participation only occurred in STEM.

After I changed my career track and embarked on an MBA degree, again I found that I was one of the only two women in my program. In both STEM and business career tracks, I see very few women at higher management levels. The higher on the career ladder I look, the less women I find.

One day, my 4-years old daughter came home from school and asked me why woman cannot become US president. I pressed her why she asked me such question, and she replied that she spent the day studying about all past US presidents and found that none of them was a woman. This struck me! Not only that I experienced disproportionally low number of women leaders in STEM and in business, but my little daughter also discovered this in our government. This issue not only affects my generation, but it will also affect my daughter’s future.

Why do we have so few women in higher leadership positions?

1. Could it be because women are less capable than men?

As a woman who holds both graduate degrees in engineering and in business, I cannot agree with this. I was always very competitive in classes and got high marks for my education. I work hard and am extremely persevered.

As a mother to a very bright daughter (and a very bright son), I cannot agree with this. Both of them are talented and do really well in school.

I believe that women and men are equally capable.

So, why?

2. Could it be because the men in leadership positions are bad and deliberately hold back the progress of the women?

Fortunately, I know quite a few of those men who hold high leadership positions, and also I am a member of those organizations who have very few women in leadership roles (especially at senior management or executive levels). I know and can vow that the men I know and the organizations I’m with are good-hearted and well-intentioned. They carry high ideals and uphold good moral standards; they want to do their best for other people and for the society.

If women are as capable as men, and the men in leadership positions are good people, why is it that we don’t have more women in leadership roles?

As a human being, we have limited memory and brain power. To cope with vast amount of information, and to make decisions quickly, we often rely on our institution and revert back to what we are familiar with and are comfortable with. What that means is that I would naturally tend to hang out with and hire people who look like me and talk like me. As a result, male leaders tend to look for, mentor and promote men. Without recognition of this tendency and taking deliberated actions to get out of this bias, we repeatedly fall into this trap. This behavior gets repeated when the men we promoted kept delivering good results. It’s a quick easy decision that creates good returns, and so it gets repeated.

Nevertheless, over time, many researches pointed out that diversity of thoughts leads to greatness and to breakthrough results. By being trapped in our bias, we limits our ability to move our organization forward faster better.

How do you recognize that you have biases in selecting, mentoring and promoting your people?

Look around you.

Is there a large disproportion in the number of male and female workers in your work group?

Are there many more male leaders and very few (or zero) female leaders in your organization, especially as you move up the career ladder?

In the last meeting, the last discussion that you had, how many women were at the table versus how many men? Did the women speak up and were their voices heard (do you remember what they said?)?

If the answers to the above questions are lopsided, you know that you have a leadership bias in gender equality.

We all have personal biases and blind spots. I do. You do. Organizations do. There is nothing to be ashamed about it.

However, once we recognize our biases and we do nothing about it, Shame On Us.

In conclusion:

With the #MeToo movement going on around us, do you see any of your female friends/colleagues displaying that hashtag on their statuses? Does this stir an emotion in you? What can you do to help, and what can you do to promote gender equality in our society to build a better future for your daughters or nieces?

Can you reach out and mentor a woman today? Can you pay attention to the lone voice at the table when she speaks or even encourage her to speak?

I challenge you!

With loving heart,

Thanh Nguyen

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