Low Cost Activism

by Sandy L on October 24, 2011

Last week I wrote an article on Feminism that spurred quite a lot of comments. If you like you could go back to the original article and read it, but the jist of the message was this.  I stand up for myself, I lead by example, but I do not call out sexism for what it is when I see it happening.   I consider myself a non-verbal feminist and use other means to get my message across.

Kellen and Donna Freedman had some of the best comments refuting my stance saying that the women who were trailblazers and verbal paved the way for our opportunities today and if we don’t continue to be vigilant about maintaining our rights, they’ll be taken away inch by inch.  Often these same women who were asking for basic rights like voting were vilified as well.  That being a minority of any kind means you have the responsibility and duty to continue to pave the way for future generations and keep the various -isms that are lurking around every corner at bay. If we let them creep back into our lives and culture we have failed the future generations.  I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I think that was the general tone from a few of the commenters.

Here’s the deal though.  Perhaps I’m a coward, but standing up and calling someone a racist or a sexist is just not my style.  When you do that in a work setting, you get labeled and your colleagues get on edge around you. I’ve personally known a woman who seemed to run into sexual harassment and was sue happy at every place she went.   There is a stigma when you’re vocal about those things and it sometimes will cost you career opportunities and damage relationships.   In addition to that, I live in one of the most liberal parts of the most liberal states in the US (MA).  Here, when you accuse someone of being some kind of -ist, they think you’re nuts. “How could you assume someone as liberal and enlightened as them could be so backwards in their thinking? Obviously you’re the one with the problem.”  Now, some of the trailblazers who’ve been there and done that say that the abuse and vilification is just part of the territory.  If that’s just something you can’t stomach, I think there are many other ways you can be an activist without the high cost of being labeled as “that activist person.”

Here are some of the things I think anyone can do to help do their part:

Join an Affinity Group or Start One

Back in the 90’s, I worked for a fortune 100 company that was put on the front page of the New York times because their entire leadership staff was white men.  There was a picture of all of them right there on the cover.  It caused loads of bad press.  After that, this company took steps to change it’s image and started affinity groups at all the divisions. I was the hub leader for several years at my headquarters location.   I’ll tell you from personal experience that affinity groups are a safe and acceptable forum for promoting diversity within organizations and they are effective.

Companies like affinity groups because it’s a very visible and measurable way to show the outside world they promote diversity in their organizations. They can say “Hey look, I’m promoting diversity…see, I have this affinity group and it has x members.”   In my opinion, leadership also likes it because the ideas and changes you implement are led by a relatively small group of people.  It’s a proactive way to drive change in a very controlled manner.  Companies don’t like to react to people running around guns a blazing accusing the corporation of discrimination and demanding change.  And to top it off, talking about a problem is only a teeny tiny part of driving change.   (On a side note, I think that if there are specific things going on in your work life that are bothering you, you should feel safe to go to your manager, HR or ombudsman.  My use of affinity groups was more of a tool for broad sweeping change.)

I could write for hours about this, but having something like a glass ceiling doesn’t get broken by just promoting someone into that position.  It has to start at the very beginning with recruiting more diverse talent at the entry level and retaining that talent so that when you get to that executive level there is actually a pool of diverse applicants to choose from.  It takes years to implement.

Mentoring

Pairing up a diverse candidate with a executive band mentor has been very successful as well. In my experience if both parties have to be engaged and the chemistry between the two people has to be right.  I’ve had good mentors and bad mentors.  Also, you’re never too young to mentor someone yourself. It can be through an organization like big brother big sister, or it can be more informal.

I’ve had a variety of informal mentors as well. Usually they came in the form of former managers.  They knew me well enough to give me good advice, but I felt more comfortable confiding in them once I no longer worked directly for them.  Most of the time, people like to be asked for advice. It makes them feel like their opinion is important and they are respected, so don’t be afraid that they are too busy.  Most people want to think of themselves as good managers and there’s no better proof than a former employee coming to you and asking advice.

Lastly, if someone new starts at your company, make sure you reach out to them and let them know you’re there if they want to ask you dumb questions that they are too embarrassed to ask of their manager. (Every new employee always has a few and it’s good for them to know they have a safe place to go and ask.)  I’ve been told that’s made a big difference in people getting settled at a new place.

Leading By Example

This is an obvious one.  Don’t just talk about how you can do anything, actually do it.   This starts in the home.  Don’t label things as boy jobs and girl jobs.  Everyone in the household should be able to do all tasks. My boys help me cook and clean, but so does my husband.   No task is off limits.  I hope the next generation of kids grows up a bit more gender neutral than the last.

Guys can be nurses, women can be engineers or construction workers.  For example, I love how home depot caters to women now. I think they “get” that women make a lot of the household financial decisions and they’ve made it a female friendly place for women to shop. At first I laughed at their “tiling for women” classes because I didn’t think the technique changes by gender, but I can totally see the approach to teaching that class be different for females who may not be scared to admit they don’t know how to hold a trowel.  Plus, what woman can tell me that they don’t enjoy a good dose of HGTV once in a while.  It’s pretty cool to know that we can redesign something ourselves without the need to hire someone or beg for our partners to work on their honey-do list.

Stand up For Yourself

I’d be a liar if I told you I’ve been lucky enough to not run into some sort of sexism in my job over the years.   I’ve always worked at global companies, so I’ve been fortunate to work with a very diverse group of people from all around the world.   Sometimes, there are cultural differences in a man’s perception of a woman’s role that they take with them to the states.   I’ve actually had to deal with this a couple of times.  You don’t actually have to tell the person they are being sexist to confront them on their silly behavior.  If someone does not agree with a decision you have made based solely on your gender, then ask them to explain why the decision was the wrong one and debate what would be better.   If someone makes a career choice based on some assumptions about your family life that is not true, then make sure you let them know otherwise.   If you are passed over for a promotion that you thought you were more qualified for, make sure you make an appointment with the hiring manager and ask for specific feedback on what you could work on that would make you a more suitable candidate the next time that job comes around.   Obviously the hiring manager or HR can’t say to go get a sex change operation, so if they give you constructive feedback and you act on it, then you’ll be in a better position to get that job the next time around.   Lastly, if you don’t think you can get ahead at your current organization but have the ability to take another job elsewhere, then there’s no stronger message than quitting.  It’s costly to hire and retrain people.  If retention becomes an issue because of a companies workplace environment, then eventually they will have to do something about it, otherwise it’s money out of their pocket.

Believe in Yourself

I probably should have put this one at the very top.   Harvard Business Review recently posted 4 ways women unintentionally stunt their careers.  It’s a good article and you should read it, but in a nutshell, it’s all about self confidence.  If you’re insecure by nature, then fake it.   I’m about the most self conscious person in the world, but other female colleagues often say that I’m very confident when I give talks to groups.  Oh my, it didn’t always used to be like that.  One of my first public speaking gigs in college was an absolute train wreck. I’ve also stopped using phrases like “I may be able to do that” or “I don’t know if it’s possible” to terms like “Yes, you absolutely can do that provided that x, y, and z aren’t roadblocks.  I’ll start right away and let you know the status.”     Or if someone gives you an impossible task for the time you have allotted…don’t say it’s impossible, say it’s possible but you’ll need an extra body to help you with it, or some stuff taken off your plate.  Don’t admit defeat before a task has even started.

Getting in over your head is a way to grow yourself as a person and grow your career.   It can be a means to make big jumps in your career and pay if your company is willing to bet on your success and put you in a stretch role.  Also, it’s okay to feel like an idiot the first 3 months of a new job.  Dive in head first and after 3 months take a look back and appreciate all the new stuff you’ve learned.  After personally doing this a 1/2 dozen times, I got to the point where I believed that nothing is rocket science and no job is too difficult for me to do.  If you put the time in to learn, you’re capable of anything.   Heck, one of my engineer colleagues even told me you can learn to be creative and you don’t have to be born with it.  It’s true, you can.

Although there are people with certain gifts that make them great athletes, inventors or business people, don’t let it discourage you that you’re not the “best” at something right off the bat.  You don’t need to be the best to be successful. You just need to be able to achieve your goals.   Sure we all have doubts in ourselves, but if you just tell your brain to shut up and focus on the tasks it’ll take to move your goal forward, you’ll live with fewer regrets.

Big Thanks

So in closing, I’d like to thank all the lady baby boomers out there that have broken down the barriers in the workplace so that these types of actions are possible for me as a woman in a male dominated industry.  Although I believe that a more subtle approach can still achieve similar results without damaging your own career prospects, it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the great ladies who came before me.

One lady comes to mind on my team and I love listening to her stories.  She used to tell me about the crazy outfits she used to have to wear to production trials at customers.  You know, those suits with the big bows and stiletto heels. She said at one point, high heels and skirts were part of the dress code, even on the shop floor..can you imagine? Others have told me that the person who helped them most along the way (back in the 80s) was often a male executive who had daughters about their age and knew what their own kids were capable of and gave them a chance. So, I’d also like to thank all you men out there who want a better place for your daughters to grow up in as well.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.  Did I miss any big actions that are really activism under a different name?

 

 

 

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