I had the privilege to attend the Society of Women Engineers conference WE19 in Anaheim, CA last week. I left inspired and optimistic.
Speakers and panelists relayed their experiences over the previous decades. These women had been denied entrance into engineering schools, marginalized in the workplace, and forced to become ‘one of the guys’ to be accepted among their peers.
We’ve come a long way. It’s never been a better time to enter the workforce as a woman/person of color/LGBTQ/etc. Diversity in the workforce and leadership of engineering companies is on the rise, barriers are falling, and the value of diversity is being recognized. And yet, we still have so far to go.
We recognize that diversity is good for business 1 and companies are actively recruiting more diverse talent. Our organizational cultures are still adapting to this diversity. In many ways, we still expect all employees to conform to the existing culture, rather than proactively shape the inclusive culture we desire.
A great example is the “confidence gap” theory for why men are more successful in the workplace. Writing in The Atlantic in 2014, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain that “compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”
Jayshree Seth‘s WE19 closing keynote combated the confidence gap with a catchy “confidence rap”. I was excited to share it with you in a gender-neutral post about combating imposter syndrome. In researching this post, I learned that the “confidence gap” is symptom, not a cause. Telling women to be more confident won’t close the gap because our workplace cultures are often biased against women who display confidence.
Thank you #WE19 for the opportunity! All the best to the amazing #WomenInSTEM. May you all be trailblazers in your own right! Own it! Take ACTION and don’t forget the “Confidence Rap” ? #CelebrateScience #ImprovingLives https://t.co/7PzblE8HN8— Jayshree Seth (@jseth2) November 10, 2019
Jayshree Seth countered the “confidence gap” with the “confidence rap” in an excellent keynote.
Research demonstrates that an insidious double standard2 is what’s holding women back. Women who talk up their accomplishments the same way men do are perceived as less likeable. Women who are modest are more likeable, but nobody learns of their accomplishments and they appear to lack confidence. Women can be just as confident as men, but the cultural expectations of the workplace do not allow it.
That’s not to totally dismiss the confidence gap theory. This double-standard stems partly (primarily?) from continuing societal expectations. Though gender equality has advanced significantly in recent decades, many parents continue to raise girls and boys differently3. A girl raised to be modest and display less confidence will join the workforce with the same attitude.
That’s not the whole story, of course. Our behaviors and habits continue to be shaped by the workplace culture, especially for younger employees just learning to fit in at the office. Currently most office cultures encourage confidence in men and discourage it in women.
I think this is changing slowly over time along with other aspects of gender equality. I also think that a gradual change is not good enough. We owe it to ourselves, to our female peers, and to the advancement of the profession to consciously bring gender equality in engineering more swiftly.
We should define what a gender-equal workplace looks like, identify where our cultures diverge from this ideal, and create strategies for closing that gap. As a starting point, Harvard Business Review shared some management and organizational strategies. And all of us can contribute by recognizing our own biases and by finding ways to highlight others’ accomplishments.
What does workplace gender equality mean to you? How does the culture of your office support (or not) gender equality? What strategies would you recommend for addressing bias on an individual, team, or organizational level? Post in the comments below.
- I strongly believe we should be inclusive for the sake of inclusivity, and that we shouldn’t need a business reason for it. Still, it’s helpful to have the dollar signs on our side.
- I have a feeling that this will not be surprising to most women.
- “Boys will be boys” is a terrible parenting approach. If you raise your boy to be respectful and well-behaved, they will be. If you let them run amok because “boys will be boys”, well…