These days, many companies are progressive enough to treat their female and male employees equally, but this is sadly not the case in all workplaces. Even when a company makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, unconscious bias can play a role in decision-making and which ideas are primarily considered by upper management. While the burden of equalizing the workplace between genders ultimately falls on employers, there are some tactics that women who find themselves in situations of bias—unconscious or otherwise—can employ to make sure people pay attention to their viewpoints and positions.
1. Make yourself known.
One of the most important things you can do is resist any urge to blend into the background, says Cristina Lara, an HR & diversity consultant for startups who served as the National Diversity Manager for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and has managed global diversity programs at Amazon and Cisco. “When you go to a meeting and don't know everybody there, introduce yourself,” she says. It sounds simple, but sometimes women forget that they have just as much of a right to be in that meeting, be heard, and be known as everyone else. “Walk towards each new person you meet, shake their hand, and remember their names,” Lara advises. This is particularly important for women who are just starting out. “My advice for women who are early in their career, in any industry, is that they ought to make themselves known and introduce themselves every chance they get. I worry that women in the workplace have been conditioned to do what is asked of them and oblige.” While it’s important to follow through on your tasks and goals, it’s equally important to show that you deserve a seat at the table just as much as anyone else does.
2. Take up space.
“I always tell women to take up space,” says Lara. “Have you ever gone to a meeting and you see men sitting with their legs wide open, with their arm casually over the chair next to them? Or leaning forward at the table? Rather than making ourselves smaller—with our legs perfectly crossed, attempting to accommodate others in the room—I encourage women to physically take up space.” In fact, Lara says that before you do anything else, you should take note of your current physical behaviors in meetings and then work on developing your body language to give yourself more of an executive presence. “Lean in at the table, not just in the Sheryl Sandberg way, but literally lean in,” she suggests.
3. Find a mentor.
Having friends in high places can certainly help you understand the bigger picture of what’s going on at your company, as well as which actions on your part are more likely to be effective and recognized by others. “To be heard at all levels of a company, it is important to find someone in the organization that you can establish as a coach or mentor to you,” says Emily Key, Director of Operations at Bench, a startup that takes a new approach to bookkeeping. “This a great step toward understanding how to navigate the maze that the workplace can sometimes be.” Don’t be afraid to go straight to the top, either. In order to find someone who is a good fit, “you may have to step out of your comfort zone to engage various levels of management,” she notes.
4. Listen to what’s going on around you and show off your expertise.
“To be heard, you have first stop to listen. And listen hard,” says Key. In order to understand how you can contribute, you need to evaluate the needs and dynamics at your company. Where do they need help? Where can they improve? Once you’ve done that, it’s time to speak up. “Establish yourself as a subject matter expert, or as a very curious, productive, and invested stakeholder,” she says. “You must summon all of the confidence you can muster, and be prepared to present your ideas to the right audience via the appropriate platform.” By showing that you have an authoritative voice on one or more areas of expertise or a passion for a particular issue, people will be more likely to automatically start coming to you for your ideas and input when that topic comes up.
5. Get involved with a like-minded community and hold your company accountable.
It’s tough to make big changes to how women are seen in the workplace without help from others. “Form a powerful coalition of men and women who are actively addressing this in your workplace or your industry,” Key suggests. From this network, you’ll be able to get more details on the gender-specific struggles others in your company or industry are facing and how they’re dealing with them. Then, “find out what your company is doing to keep these issues top of mind.” Don’t give up on this endeavor even when it gets tough, because it definitely won’t be easy. “Be sure to remain productive in addressing this issue because I assure you that you’ll feel defeated,” Key explains. “The stats don’t lie and this has been a long-standing issue that is yet to be resolved, particularly in the STEM fields. But be empowered that you are joining a very loud, very active chorus of thousands of men and women who are working to change the numbers. As a result of this, and in an effort to be more transparent and accountable, many large companies now publish their diversity numbers.”
Not all companies are advanced in this sense, and sometimes it’s necessary for employees to point out the need for diversity programs. “At Bench, we openly discuss diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and always make time for employees to voice concerns to or ask questions of the leadership team at our monthly company-wide meetings. You could suggest similar openness and transparency within your own workplace, or inquire with your HR group about diversity statistics at your company,” suggests Key.
6. Know when it’s time to move on.
Though it should be treated as a last resort, it’s important to know that you do always have the option of leaving if your company culture is not promoting equality or allowing women to take equal part in company business. Lara says that she doesn’t like to encourage women to leave because of unconscious bias (after all, how will it change if women don’t stay in male-dominated companies?), but “you should leave the moment you feel that the company will not support your internal career progression,” she says. “While we want businesses and management to be aware of the many ways sexism can subtly creep into meetings, emails, and promotions, ultimately it's not your responsibility to do that education.” That’s right. Though there are some things you can do to help fight gender stereotypes and discrimination at work, it’s ultimately up to human resources to reshape negative or biased work cultures. “HR and diversity consultants exist to educate workplaces, to design diversity interventions, and to really promote progressive change among upper levels of management. Women should feel supported at work, and if you don't, it's time to leave.” She adds that if you do make an exit, it’s absolutely okay to productively and respectfully explain why you’re leaving. “You can absolutely educate on your way out the door,” she says.