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7 ways your workplace is sending women all the wrong messages

These subtle (and not so subtle) signals from men make their female counterparts feel unwelcome, this tech CEO says.

7 ways your workplace is sending women all the wrong messages
[Source photo: Image Source/Getty Images]

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with two quite senior leaders—white men who are well regarded, inclusive leaders at their large tech company. Somehow, the conversation came around to all the signals workplaces send women that add up to one glaring message: You don’t belong here.

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These were smart, educated men who are allies. And yet they were still surprised by some examples I shared of the micro and macro messages I receive as I assess a workplace. So I committed to writing down the top red flags that wave for me—and how some men, even well-intentioned ones, enable bias. Here we go:

Invitations for casual gatherings go to men more often

Would you invite a 25-year-old woman to a drink at 5 p.m.? Never, you say? Do you invite 25-year-old men for a beer after work? Always…? Well, that says it.

Going out with colleagues to grab drinks after work, or golf, or do CrossFit? Look around and see who routinely comes. If it’s only (or even largely) male teammates, that’s a problem. Relationships feed career success and progression—and the forging of those connections frequently occurs in casual settings. Make sure you’re inclusive in your invitations—and broaden the types of activities so they rely less on booze and male-dominated sports.

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Oh, and don’t pull any of that “In a #MeToo era, I just don’t want to misstep with female colleagues” nonsense. You know how to do this. Don’t hit on them. Don’t be creepy. Just be a friend—and maybe even an ally. And it won’t be a problem.

You think women-only networks are sufficient—or even preferred!

Data shows that the power in companies sits with leaders—who are mainly men. (Just 8.1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, an absolutely pathetic showing.) So why would you just have gatherings for women while the men with power are gathering elsewhere? 

Yes, it’s great to have forums where women can connect and bond over experiences and concerns unique to them. But if you’re not connecting junior women with the mentoring of good senior men, you’re not helping to create a network that’s fully useful and supportive to furthering their aspirations and perspectives. The most powerful networks—the ones that really help propel careers and coach with meaningful impact—are fully representative of both men and women. Personally speaking, my best mentors and advocates have been men.

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Also let’s be honest: If mentoring is only confined to senior women, it’s going to be a small network that’s already overworked. The reality is that in most organizations, there is still not enough female representation at more senior levels. And they’re doing enough already.

Culture clearly isn’t parent-friendly

Look, not all women want to be mothers. And even mothers don’t want “being a mom” to be their entire identity—but if you’re a professional woman between the ages of 25 and 50, you’ll likely have to face the idea of being a parent. Part of working through that choice is assessing where you work and how that may fit.

Have daily stand-ups that start at 7:30 a.m.? Congratulations, that’s prime get-out-the-door time where most working parents are grabbing backpacks and hustling dawdling kids to school. Prefer those 5 p.m. meeting slots? Maybe it’s okay once in a while but remember—daycares and aftercare often charge by the minute for late pick-ups. That late meeting can literally cost your employees big bucks, especially if you factor in a gnarly commute. And while dads can and do pick-ups and drop-offs, research shows it’s still mostly mothers that take care of these logistical responsibilities. Require meetings to be on video—and call people out on it? Maybe someone’s breastfeeding their infant while the nanny takes a break. Orient less toward face time and meetings for meetings’ sake and more toward valuing actual work.

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“Pipeline problem” is a commonly used phrase—and excuse

Is it really a pipeline problem for your recruiting—or are you not trying hard enough? There are plenty of ways to find qualified women candidates. Are you promoting your job postings to women’s networks online? Sharing with industry groups? Deliberately recruiting women 1:1? Asking your best employees, male and female, in similar job functions to do recruiting? 

It’s disingenuous and lazy to fall back on “Oh, there just aren’t any female candidates out there.” There are women candidates, they’re good, and you can benefit from hiring them, period. In fact, women will continue to outnumber men as rising professionals—nearly 60% of incoming college first year students this year were women. But yes, to find good people, you have to do some work. Go do the work!

Your hiring panels are all men 

If your goal is to hire more women, do you think a wall of men in *every* interview says, “Hey, you belong here?”  

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It’s time to look at who is in the mix in the interview process. Do you have female leaders and coworkers ready to talk to candidates about why this is a good place to work? Women are looking to see if your workplace is one that routinely hires and elevates women, if they even value women, if they stick around, and how they seem to feel about the company. Because if they like it, odds are I might too.

Seeing this representation is good for male candidates too, by the way, as it normalizes a balanced workplace. Plus, women hiring committee members are attuned to the differences between male candidates who are truly supportive of women in the workplace and those who will add to a bro culture. They can help weed out those men who will not connect or operate well in a balanced environment. 

Pregnancy is something of a dirty word

A few years ago, I was waiting for the formal offer for a COO job I was extremely excited about; the verbal had been given, we’d talked terms, and the offer letter was a formality. The CEO I was going to work with suggested we go out for drinks to get into the details of getting started. I agreed and in the course of our conversation, I mentioned I was pregnant. His face and demeanor changed instantly.

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Did I get that offer letter? No, I did not. It was a brutal reminder that for many male leaders, pregnancy is the third rail that instantly kills their perception of you as capable, focused and dedicated. For that CEO, in his eyes, it turned me from the competent, exceptional leader I am to a “mommy” who wouldn’t be able to perform and work hard. Of course, nothing was further from the truth.

You may not be someone who thinks women are incapable of doing work when they’re pregnant. But if you’ve ever said, “Oh, let’s ask someone else to do the challenging project because she’s pregnant,” or “Maybe we should bring someone else to that conference because she just had a baby,” stop. STOP! Your female employees are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves if they are in a place to take those things on—especially if you give them options and make it clear there is no penalty for choosing to prioritize their families at that moment.

And if she does go to that conference, pay for her to ship her breast milk back, offer to reimburse the ticket for a caregiver to come with so her nursing infant can go too, and think about other ways to support her so she can feel and do her best.

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Women are diminished, their concerns dismissed

Early in my career, I was at a conference when a sales guy groped me—twice—even though I told him clearly to stop. At the time, I worked for the CEO and I told him about it. It’s okay, he said. He makes his numbers.

What I heard: I don’t matter. Misconduct is okay if someone brings in revenue.

What would have been better: A formal sexual misconduct policy and process that is taken seriously.

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Another time, I wasn’t even a month into my job and one of my male colleagues said to me and a male coworker, I have the funniest video to show you. It was how all women fall onto the “hot/crazy matrix”—in other words, the hotter women are, the crazier they become. I remember thinking, Am I being punked? Do they not know I’m a woman? Is this normal here?

What I heard: It’s okay to stereotype in this company. Making fun of women is acceptable.

What would have been better: No jokes that rely on stereotypes.

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I could go on—and on and on. Keeping this piece to seven signals was really just getting me started. We didn’t even cover the bias that judges women more harshly for showing emotion or even asserting an opinion! But the bottom line is this: be empathetic, look at normal events and work practices and see if women are represented, identify ways to actively support them, and know that even the smallest details can send positive or negative messages about women’s ability to truly feel like they belong in your workplace.


Amanda Richardson is the CEO of CoderPad, a leading software platform for evaluating technical talent. With nearly 2,000 customers, Amanda has led her company to consistently expand features, add new customers and improve retention. She has extensive experience in product management and strategy, having helped to scale multiple technology startups to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.  


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