Supporting gender diversity in a male dominated workplace is hard. No matter how many facts and figures you know about the topic, it never prepares you for how to respond to people who do not support it.
If you can relate, I’ve written this especially for you. By the end of this article you’ll know what I wish I knew years ago – how to promote gender equality the right way.
I was preaching to the choir
I’ve given countless talks about the benefits of gender equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). I’d teach the audience why STEM is still in a dismal position when it comes to gender balance and what everyone could do to help the cause.
I quickly realised that the people who attended my talks were already on board with gender equality. Based on their questions, what they really wanted was to be equipped with enough knowledge to face those who weren’t yet convinced.
My failed attempts at promoting gender equality
It got me thinking back to my own experiences as a female engineer. Each time my engineering companies put on International Womens’ Day events or special workshops just for women, I’d be excited to attend, but dreaded facing the comments from people who chose not to.
In the past, I’ve been asked:
“Why is it ok to have women’s events but not men’s events?”
“How come we don’t dedicate a day to celebrate men in our workplace?”
“Isn’t it discriminatory against men that women get access to extra training?”
I never knew what the correct response was. I’d either laugh it off, make a joke about it or worse, pretend to agree with them. It felt wrong to respond this way, but I also didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t know how to respond without causing conflict.
How to educate those who don’t feel they need it
The people who asked these questions weren’t necessarily against gender equality, they just didn’t know enough about it. It didn’t seem important enough for them to spend an hour listening to someone talk about the topic.
It’s no wonder that the women who came to hear me speak were left feeling disappointed and a little overwhelmed. I also wondered how many men and women chose not to attend in order to avoid this post-talk confrontation.
My hope is that the three simple steps below can encourage more positive conversations in the workplace about gender equality.
1. Welcome Objections
Yes, that’s right. Hearing an argument against diversity in the workplace is a good thing. This person has just started the conversation for you! However, it’s how you choose to respond to the objection that matters.
A natural knee-jerk reaction when you hear an objection to something you believe in is to defend yourself. It feels like this person has attacked you personally because you identify with the cause. This is likely to cause an argument which will make the other person feel even more strongly towards their opinion. Letting your emotions do the talking will not help the other party understand the benefits of gender diversity in the workplace.
The other common reaction is to brush the comment off like it was a joke or ignore it all together. This is what I used to do because I wanted to avoid confrontation. It was important for me to maintain good working relationships with my colleagues. The problem with this reaction was that I didn’t take the opportunity to share valuable information. I let them say something that bothered me and probably those around me – I’d feel guilty about it for months.
The best way to respond is…
2. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This is one of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Remember that if you feel strongly about your opinion, the other person has the right to feel just as strongly about theirs. If you want them to listen to you, you must first listen to them. But listen with your whole body.
The words that come out of their mouth is only one part of the story. You might sense from their body language that there is something else about gender equality in the workplace that concerns them. You might hear from the tone of their voice that they’re a little nervous talking about their argument. If you are busy defending yourself or wanting to run away from the situation, you won’t have the bandwidth to pick up on the subtleties of their communication.
Get curious and ask questions. Try to step into their shoes and understand their point of view in full. They might have information to share that you can learn from. Or they might have been in a situation where the gender diversity conversation disadvantaged them.
Once you’ve fully understood their view and you are ready to explain yours, keep it factual and share some case studies or true stories. Think about it as sharing information rather than getting your point across.
3. Let go of things outside of your control
Your words and your actions are completely within your control. Other people’s words and actions are not.
Try not to get upset when you come across people who don’t support gender equality yet. They might come around to it eventually, or they might not. Most people need to hear the message multiple times in different ways before it starts to stick. Some will turn around quicker than others. Others feel the need to grill you for a long period of time before they agree with your points.
The most helpful thing you can do is to remain level-headed, listen to their views and concerns and educate them on the facts you have. Be honest when you don’t have all the answers right away. This is a great chance to increase your own knowledge and come back to them with more information.
The right way to promote gender equality
I believe that we will only reach gender equality by making everyone feel heard, not by arguing with those who don’t yet support the cause.
While it’s still important to educate yourself about the facts and benefits of gender equality, following my 3 steps will take the pressure off you. You can assume a position of listening and learning, rather than having to know all the statistics in order to defend yourself.
Learn to be ok with hearing comments against gender equality. This is a great chance for you to ask questions and understand why this person holds a certain view. Listen to them with a view to completely understand their position, before sharing your own thoughts based on facts and case studies. Finally, remember that other people’s words and actions are outside of your control. They are not a result of you failing to say the right thing.
Need a hand?
If you feel alone in your quest for gender equality within your organisation, I would love to support you.
Contact me at www.tiffanydawson.co