The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are casting light on problems of gender inequality and sexual harassment in many industries, including tech. At many companies, good guys – that is, most of them – are asking themselves: What can I do to help? What steps can men take to contribute to a positive work environment for women?
As VP of global talent for Battery Ventures, I can see senior executives (mostly male) thinking this through more. Great leaders realize workplace gender equality isn’t merely about firming up HR policies. It’s about the sometimes-subtle signals employees send and receive about who’s valued and who’s not.
It’s easy for leaders, male and female, to send more of the right signals if they become attuned to them. Here are six tips to achieve a more female-friendly workplace. (Note: These tips can also help you achieve workplace equality for everyone – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability or other factors.)
1. Set the right tone at meetings. Start by watching meeting dynamics: do male voices dominate? How often do female team members take the floor? Men can be more likely to take credit for their accomplishments, and women more likely to share credit. (That imbalance plays out in online conversations, too. Slack will soon help companies flag “mansplaining” on its platform.) As a leader, make sure you give credit to women who deserve it. Solicit opinions from less-outspoken employees and make sure the definitive voice isn’t just the loudest one.
2. Take stock of your behaviors. Leaders, male and female, who take full parental leave signal it’s fine for rank-and-file employees to do the same. A boss I had earlier in my career didn’t take one day off when his baby was born, since he believed “there was nothing for him to do at the hospital”. That sent a strong negative signal to the troops that it’s not okay to be present for your spouse and family after childbirth.
If you’re a male executive who leaves early to pick your kids up from school when they’re sick, saying that publicly is powerful. Make it clear that work-life balance is a priority you respect. When working moms leave the office early, their commitment is often questioned, whereas dads who do the same are celebrated as “great dads”. Don’t reinforce that double standard.
3. Speak up. Comments need not be outright-awful to make women feel uncomfortable. I was once in an office looking for the engineering department at a new company. I asked a male colleague for directions, which he supplied, then added: “I should’ve know you’d need directions, because we don’t have anyone in engineering at this company who looks like you.” Translation: young females can’t possibly be engineers here – a telling and offensive remark.
Men, do your female colleagues a solid and speak up when you hear comments like these. It’s exhausting – and often ineffective – to police minor comments, so women let them go. One male CTO I know has adopted a great habit. When he overhears such remarks, he pulls the male colleague aside and explains how that may’ve sounded to a woman. It removes the burden of explanation from female colleagues, gives the male colleague constructive advice, and puts some C-level, good-guy pressure on the need to act differently. Set a good example and make it clear you expect others to do the same.
What if you say a weird thing by mistake? Simple: just apologize, correct your mistake, and move on.
4. Re-evaluate team activities. Are your team-building activities fun for everyone, or do they skew towards “bro-friendly” activities that women aren’t interested in? It’s not difficult to find out – just ask the women.
Are office events convenient for working parents? Office happy hour can conflict with daycare pick-up times. Vary the times when events occur, or provide childcare during after-hours events. Similarly, women have different safety considerations when they travel late at night. Alleviate these concerns by reimbursing cab rides home when office events go past a certain hour. Or change the event venue to one more convenient to public transit. And if you’re reimbursing cabfares, do it for all employees – not just women.
5. You can mentor a woman. Male execs may hesitate to mentor young women because of “how it might look”. Don’t let optics become an obstacle. Keep the meetings professional: hold it at the office conference room, over lunch, or at a coffee shop, during business hours. Don’t do drinks or dinner, at least at first. Taking alcohol and mood lighting out of the equation sets a clearly professional tone.
6. Take a hard look at your recruiting process. In a previous post, I blogged about how you can’t achieve gender balance in the C-suite overnight – but you can get closer by improving your recruiting process and company culture. Every aspect of the recruiting process is a potential signal, and all signals matter. Ask female recruits how they felt about the process. They might say: “Well, it was fine, but everyone I met was a guy.” Or “Your culture emphasizes grabbing beers at sports bars, and that’s not my thing.” Debrief your recruiter if you’re using one – often they’ll hear feedback directly from candidates that could prove instructive for you.
Recruiting is a branding opportunity for your company, good or bad. We’ve all interviewed at companies where the process was terrible, and we trash the company privately later. Don’t undermine your own efforts to recruit top female talent.
Achieving gender equality starts with assuming you have something to learn. True, some feedback may make you squirm, but consider it a valuable opportunity to learn and improve. Ask questions respectfully if you don’t understand the issue, and dial into the answers. A learning mindset can take you very far.