International Women’s Day is a day to recognize the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It’s also a day that stands as a call to action for women’s equality, because there is still progress to be made. Since International Women’s Day also coincides with Women’s History Month, at Cisco we are running a series of blogs on this very important topic throughout March. Let’s all #BreakTheBias together.
Bias is real and is often unconscious or sub-conscious
The first step to overcoming a problem is acknowledging it’s there in the first place. Bias is real, whether explicit or unconscious. Earlier in my career journey, I managed a team of strategy consultants. One senior client in particular directed all of his questions to one of my direct reports, who was male, never addressing me or the other women on the team directly. Eventually, my male team member spoke up and told the client, “She is my manager, you should be speaking to her about this.” The client was taken aback- he actually did not realize he was doing it.
I was initially very upset about this client’s overt bias against women, but on the advice of my manager, I focused my attention on supporting the client. I was diligent, collaborative, and outcome oriented, which lead to a recommendation that saved his company a great deal of money. And at the end of the project, he commended me directly in front of my team and his.
My advice to other women is to not over rotate and obsess over bias against them because that is a waste of energy. Instead, focus your energy on delivering – through actions, collaboration, inclusivity and results – to break through bias.
The types of bias
On the surface it can seem like bias is simple (e.g., “She is a woman and therefore less capable”). But in my experience, there are usually two types of assumptions in the internal narrative of a biased person. It often goes, “Women are too nice. Therefore, they lack the fortitude to get the job done.” In this case, there are two assumptions that are potentially wrong. Rather than worry about disproving one or the other, the entire statement is disproven just by getting the job done spectacularly. Bonus points if you get it done while being “too nice” 😊.
Your energy should be spent delivering the outcome and not the trappings of being able to deliver the outcome by someone else’s standards. We have to collectively insist that how we measure performance is the actual business outcome we are looking for. For example, I’ve had colleagues insinuate that someone could not possibly be capable of delivering because she had to spend time taking care of a sick child when, in fact, this person was able to deliver on time a bullet proof recommendation based on data with a detailed structured plan.
Embrace who you are
Throughout my career, I have often encountered people who underestimated what I was capable of. Unfortunately, I think this is true for many women. Traits traditionally associated with women – kindness, collaboration, listening, compassion – have not always been valued as high-performance leadership skills, which are often based on male standards. Now, it’s important to note that perceptions of effective leadership have shifted noticeably in the past 18 months due to the pandemic and the changing way we work. Research shows when managers move from a “take charge” to a “take care” approach, they improve psychological safety and trust, which encourages risk-taking and innovation.
I’m also an introvert, which doesn’t fit the stereotype of a senior leader. A customer once mistook me for an assistant because I did not burst into the room as if I owned it. However, later, when I delivered a talk on how Cisco uses Machine Learning in our products, he seemed to understand that a knowledgeable executive could look and act like me. By embracing who you are and using your unique strengths, you can break the chain of thought about what a capable performer looks like.
Find (and be) a mentor, coach, and advocate
This is how you will accelerate your success. Women who are mentored are more satisfied at work and more likely to have successful careers. In fact, 25 percent of employees who participated in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5 percent of the workers who did not participate.
I like to think of myself as an apprentice in these relationships – seeking feedback and guidance to fully understand how to get the job done and maximize my capabilities. By asking the right questions, you start to understand what it takes to be excellent and where you stack up. You might hit the jackpot and find someone who is a mentor, coach, and advocate all-in-one.
No sure how to seek out a mentor? Look for someone you admire or who has a professional skill set you want to develop—then ask that individual. It can be as simple as approaching this person and saying, “I admire the way you work. Would you be willing to mentor me? There is much I could learn from you.” And be willing to help out your mentor too.
Here’s what to look for as you’re seeking guidance:
- Mentors— A good mentor will give you feedback, unbiased perspective, and they will tell you what capable looks like. Some people are mentors out of the goodness of their heart or because you helped them get something done. That has been the case a lot of the times in my career.
- Coaches—A coach actually helps you figure out how to do those things. For example, public speaking, writing a presentation, etc. Sometimes my coaches are my managers. It makes sense- if I become more capable, knowledgeable, skilled at something, I help them achieve what they are trying to achieve more effectively.
- Advocates—An advocate is someone who has worked closely with you, can attest to your capabilities, and will champion you when you are not in the room. They will say, “Julia is ready for this assignment.”
I am grateful to have had all of these throughout my career—men and women. And it is important to pay this forward. I now mentor, coach, and advocate in my professional life.
We are getting there
We have done a lot to #BreaktheBias in the past 10 years. I have witnessed less tolerance for overt bias. I hear team members pulling other team members into conversations and making space for them. And the pandemic, for all it’s tragedy, was a great equalizer in so many ways. People now have more appreciation for others’ personal lives, commitments and preferences after getting an unedited window into their lives through Webex meetings. We gained an appreciation for the flexibility people need to do great work and also achieve whatever else is important in their lives. For me, it’s participating in activities with my kids. When they can nurture their full selves, they perform their best.
My best advice for overcoming bias is to perform well, be collaborative and inclusive, and lift up the women in front of you. Document your outcomes, achievements, and progress at regular intervals in objective terms to increase awareness. Will it take more work? Yes! But in the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”
To #BreakTheBias is some of the most important work we can do.
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