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Winning at the Starting Line

Countless articles and books have been written about the gender balance problems that continue to plague the tech industry. I’ve been passionate about outreach at the K-12 level for years, but what of those of us already in the workplace? A recent article that got me thinking about the topic once again in great detail was circulated a few weeks ago – Josh Bersin’s “The Important Topic of Women in Business: What Men Can Do”. But even this article focuses on mind shifts at home and in life, without a great deal of actionable advice.

So you’re a leader in a company that’s got a gender diversity problem, and you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’ll just direct HR to hire female candidates – easy enough, right? Assuming you can get past unconscious bias, which is another issue entirely. A shining example of unconscious bias was just in the news, when Google’s Eric Schmidt got publicly called out for aggressively interrupting the sole woman on a panel about diversity – that woman being the Chief Technology Officer of the United States Government.

But for today – rather than focusing on blindly pushing to hire individual women into existing teams, I’d like to propose focusing on a different point in the process of moving towards gender balance: the creation of teams.

A few months ago, a wonderful simulation made the rounds demonstrating the challenges in trying to get people of diverse ethnic backgrounds to live near each other without sliding backward into ethnically grouped neighborhoods. Called “Parable of the Polygons”, it gives you the power to try and engineer a well-balanced neighborhood.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to play with this tool, take a moment to click here and read their excellent work. Now, instead of looking at it through the lens of ethnic diversity (which is in itself an important problem), now look at it through the lens of gender. What if the triangles were women and the squares were men? Once we’ve looked at the problem through this lens, we can try and move the triangles and squares around manually – but if they don’t start out well-mixed, they don’t stay well-mixed.

The key, then, is to do as much as possible to ensure that teams are reasonably well-balanced in gender at their inception. If a team starts out with a good mix of women and men, then the more toxic cultural norms that tend to develop in unbalanced teams don’t have a chance to develop at all. The team’s culture can be shaped in a way that welcomes both genders and communication styles.

I’ve been on the other side of this equation, the only woman – or the second woman – in a mostly male-dominated environment. As the first woman in a male-dominated environment, in most cases I’ve found things to be largely tolerable, though I felt self-created pressure to minimize any attention drawn to my gender (ie, T-shirts and jeans instead of dresses, etc.) I’ve also heard about terrible experiences from solo women on teams in other companies, so it is a bit of a crapshoot.

Things get particularly challenging-and interesting- when you introduce a second woman to an unbalanced team. I’ve been there too, as the first woman, and I was stunned when I realized how much my instincts originally told me to compete with that newcomer. That small part of me was convinced that my value to the team was tied up in my role as the only woman; if this were true the arrival of the second woman could be seen as the road to being replaced. Of course, this is nonsense, and a company that only had room for one woman per team would not be a place I’d want to work. I believe that instinct to compete was coming from a very subconscious place, but one that can be overridden with a little conscious effort. What’s harder to control is the external perception – joking or otherwise – that women on a small team might have the need to compete. And the effort has to come from all parties – I’ve also been the recipient of unwanted cruelty from women in a gender-imbalanced environment, and it was soul-crushing. It took me years to stop making decisions based on that experience.

If we assume for a moment that other women have suffered from these competitive instincts when introduced onto an unbalanced team, we can follow that logic to see why it’s so hard to get traction when trying to rectify an existing gender imbalance. Those all-important new arrivals might even be more likely to find a toxic environment than if they had been introduced as the first woman on an all-male team. But these competitive problems might become inconsequential if the team never has a time to codify that “solo woman” role into their team culture.

I’m not saying that we should stop hiring women into existing teams – far from it; hire the right person for the job at all times. And there are certainly many, many examples of women thriving in male-dominated teams. But there’s no denying that a problem still exists, and just telling people to change culture overnight is a losing gamble most of the time. How can we solve the problem at its root?

Myself in the lower right, along with senior leaders and a number of greatly talented technical women from Microsoft's Server group (now C+E) and their Women's Leadership Council
Myself in the lower right, along with senior leaders and a number of greatly talented technical women from Microsoft’s Server group (now C+E) and their Women’s Leadership Council

In short, a more targeted approach would focus most of our energy on the gender balance when a team is created. At a large corporation, like my past employer Microsoft or my current employer Amazon, culture can vary drastically from team to team. Take advantage of this phenomenon and allow new bubbles of gender balanced culture to float amongst the prevailing culture. Over time, those individuals will break out and spread the best practices they learned to the rest of the company, with the ability to point to their successful projects as the evidence supporting larger culture change.

I believe I’m watching this principle in action right now on my project team at Amazon. Our team was created by a strong female VP, and is led by both a woman and a man in key project management roles. The rest of the team, myself included, is almost split 50/50 on gender lines – and in my humble opinion, it’s a great environment to work in. Once the project runs its course, we can scatter and hopefully influence the culture on other teams in a way more inclusive to both genders.

Though it may be largely anecdotal, I believe there’s a disproportionate benefit from ensuring a balanced team at project inception. It’s one manageable way to take a step towards more widespread gender inclusion in your organization without becoming overwhelmed by boiling the ocean all at once. There are certainly other methods available for teams that are already established, but for startups and large companies with many projects, this is a simple and effective way to build better culture from the ground up.

Next time you’re launching a new project, just ask yourself: who’s on YOUR starting line?

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