As I write this, it is Martin Luther King Day. On this holiday (schools closed, no mail), I generally give some thought to what Dr. King did. I may tune into a radio interview or see a documentary. This year I gave more thought to what he did. I had picked up my five-year-old granddaughter from kindergarten and was starting out on a long drive with her and her two-year old brother. She began telling him about “Dr. Martin Luther King” and Coretta Scott King.
When I asked her what his work was, she hesitated. I prompted her that it was about equal rights for people with brown skin. Refreshed, she told her brother that people with brown skin used to be treated differently than people with white skin. They used to have to sit in the back of a bus!
I told her that my mother experienced those times – and that I had seen them myself. She asked me if my mother had white skin (she hasn’t studied genetics yet). She reflected on her classmates with brown skin. It was clearly news to her that they might be treated or viewed differently from her own family.
I was impressed with the child’s comprehension– and moved. As a result, I listened with renewed admiration to clips of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. He dreamed that his children would be judged, not on the color of their skin, but on their character. I reflected on how far we have come (from Jim Crow) – and on how far we have to go.
I work primarily in the area of gender diversity and inclusion. Even in 2015, there continue to be unconscious mind-sets and barriers based on gender. That is why achieving gender diversity in leadership is so slow in coming. Unconscious (and conscious) bias surely creates even greater obstacles for people of color – obstacles that are lower than they once were but still very real.
I have a dream, too! My vision is of a world where leadership and success are based on talent and contribution, not on how we look or on gendered definitions of leadership. My work is to help people see and acknowledge our deeply rooted but (generally) unconscious biases so we can uproot them.
Thanks to my granddaughter, I reflected more deeply than usual on the contributions of Dr. King. I am renewed in my commitment to make a difference in lowering the biases that still block the way for many.
It continues to happen. Women offering good ideas in meetings are not heard or get talked over. Women recognize this scenario. A woman offers an idea; there is no response; within minutes a man (likely white) says the same thing and gets accolades – and credit. This can make a woman less likely to offer her ideas next time.
One reason this happens is women’s tendency to express ideas as questions or to use disclaimers or hedge language. This communication style makes a woman sound less confident or like she doesn’t much believe in the strength of her own idea. But coaching women to speak more confidently (more like men) is not the solution.
The second part of the current four-part New York Times series by Sharyl Sandberg and Adam Grant explores this problem. Titled “Speaking While Female,” the piece points to the key reason women are less likely to speak up (or be heard?) in meetings – the “double bind.” This is the “tightrope” that women, but not men, must walk to succeed at work. If they don’t speak up, hold the floor and speak with confidence, they are not heard or seen as leaders. If they do, they are seen as aggressive (called the “B-word”).
Sandberg and Grant cite three studies confirming the double bind problem. One of the studies is by Yale professor Victoria Brescoll. It, sadly, finds that if men speak more in meetings, their ratings as being competent go up; women’s go down. (In another, they stayed the same.)
Solutions? Pointing to how orchestras got more women musicians – by having blind auditions – they suggest that organizations create ways to make the source of an idea or work product anonymous. Recognizing this has limited application, they suggest organizations adopt a “no interruptions rule.” And they suggest hopefully that, when there are more women in leadership, the tightrope will be less an issue.
Joanne Lipman addresses the issue of women not being heard in meetings in her recent WSJ piece, “Women at Work: a Guide for Men.” Her advice to men is to ask women for their ideas. That is fine – but the idea solicited may run right into that double bind.
I told my boss that women often experience having their idea “stolen” by a man. He denied this ever happened – until it did in the next staff meeting. I opened his eyes; I believe he will always see it now. If men are aware of the double bind – really see it happen – they can do more. They can stop and give the woman credit, acknowledging that the man agreed with her great idea. They can “endorse” a woman’s idea when it is expressed. They can override any knee jerk thought about how aggressive a woman is who spoke up! And they can educate others to remove this tightrope!