In a recent survey by LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey, 60% of male managers said they’re uncomfortable participating in a common work activity — such as working one on one, mentoring or socializing — with women. Not only is that number startling, but it’s also a 1% jump from last year’s survey.
Conversations around gender can be difficult, particularly within the context of a workplace setting, and it’s an especially sensitive topic in today’s cultural climate. Your organization has most likely implemented policies and training to promote diversity and inclusion, but even they may seem like they’re getting lost in the larger tension between the genders.
So, where can you start to create internal change in your own organization?
Instead of men and women living in fear or mistrust, or companies living in terror of a harassment or discrimination claim, a more effective and productive approach is creating a space for both genders to feel safe to speak up. It serves no one — not the employees or the company — to pretend these fears and tensions don’t exist. By bringing those conversations into the open, and addressing fears instead of letting them fester, you can help ease tensions and encourage trust and psychological safety between the genders.
For example, Google implemented weekly town hall meetings to start giving team members the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about hot-button items in the news. When movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are trending, Google has a space for people to talk about them out in the open, sharing feelings and asking questions instead of instilling fear.
Creating an environment of equity and open expression helps employees feel safe and confident. When women feel confident in expressing their ideas, their boundaries, their needs, their doubts and their concerns, just as their male colleagues would, that atmosphere of open communication leads to better collaboration and greater outcomes.
Creating a culture that doesn’t merely accept women’s input but enthusiastically embraces it and, further, fosters a safe and open space for communication, is no easy feat. I’ve interviewed and surveyed hundreds of different women to hear their firsthand accounts of how they found their unique voices. I’ve “tried on” these tactics myself to see how effective I found them personally, and over time, I’ve developed a list of key lessons that organizations can use to create workplaces that are inclusive of all voices and help alleviate the fear and tension between the genders.
The goal of communication training in general is learning the art of choosing when and how to speak in certain situations. Opening up to people who are different may feel uncomfortable or difficult at first, but understanding the value that these critical conversations can bring to your workplace should be an incentive to help foster these spaces, even if it disrupts more short-term productivity. That means remembering to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, come from a positive place and start with the intention of open sharing.
No matter your position or gender, knowing when to speak and when to listen is a critical skill. It will almost always serve you well to listen before speaking. Create training exercises for your employees to ask themselves questions like these before they speak:
- What is my role in this situation?
- Why do I want to speak up right now?
- Will I add value with the comment or feedback I am about to share?
- Is the communication I want to share helping better execute a mission, advance a project, save money or otherwise add value to the team?
This skill is particularly important for employees to remember during situations where they might be heated or emotionally charged. Instead of jumping in immediately, it’s OK to say, “I have feedback, but I would like to think through it more before sharing.”
We have heard lots of anecdotal evidence that women typically do not speak up when it’s time to take credit, whereas men easily demonstrate confidence and move up because of an innate “go-getter” attitude. I once heard the expression, “A woman’s brain is like an eight-lane highway, and a man’s brain is a two-lane highway.”
Women often sit and ruminate over ideas and scenarios before taking action, which may look like a lack of confidence. But confidence isn’t an entirely gendered issue. Many people could benefit from consciously retraining their brains to acknowledge their accomplishments and from understanding that ideas don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of sharing.
“Teamwork makes the dream work” isn’t just a slogan on your coffee mug; it’s true, and even more so when the team is diverse and inclusive of all perspectives and opinions. When diverse teams collaborate on a task, they gain practical understanding of the importance of everyone’s input — a lesson that sinks in over time. Have teams with differing backgrounds collaborate as a regular practice, and it will help create that comfortable and accepting space that you all need to be productive and efficient.
Knowing Your Value
This one can be hard for anyone, of any gender, in any context. There are any number of situations that can make people doubt themselves at work, and it isn’t always easy to maintain a high self-worth. So, as part of your training and your workflow, find ways to reaffirm that employees and their ideas are valued equally. You can do so through individual feedback and public praise or using a system that constantly asks employees for their input and then follows through on implementing it.
Ultimately, knowing your value is what gives you the confidence to speak up. Feeling valued at work is a benefit that transcends gender. When it comes to expressing information, ideas, needs, concerns, problems (or anything else), make sure every person feels safe and confident, and the great work can flow from there.