My parents always told me and my sister that we could be anything we wanted to be. They told us, and they demonstrated it in their lives. My parents immigrated to Chicago from Lithuania as small children during World War II. They overcame the stigma of being refugees – known at that time as displaced persons, or, even more disparagingly, “DPs.” They learned the language, worked hard, made friends, blended in with the dominant culture, built a life, grew a family. They succeeded in business – my Dad as a buyer for Sears, my Mom as an entrepreneur. They sent us to private school. They went from German camps as children to a house in the suburbs as young parents.
As we grew, our parents instilled in us the belief, too, that all people are deserving of equal opportunity. The world around me did not reinforce this message. As a young girl, I witnessed the strange, crushing defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70s, and race riots in the 80s and 90s. Messages of what some of us could realistically dream to be were mixed.
Still, my parents’ encouragement and the values they instilled prepared me to believe in the possibilities. I was a serious, if willful and slightly rebellious student, pursuing what interested me, which was art and ultimately design. Looking back I recognize that I was not fully prepared for what I would encounter as a woman upon entering the professional realm in earnest. As a consultant in Human-Centered Innovation and Product Design, of course, I was often the only female in the room, and experienced everything that came along with that – the interruptions, the sometimes being mistaken for someone there to serve refreshments, the subtle signs of not being taken seriously. But I didn’t actively think much about it, to be honest. I showed up, tried my best, felt grateful for every opportunity, worked hard, messed up some, tried to make thoughtful contributions, did well. I found a career that took me around the world. I met fascinating people and worked on interesting problems. I didn’t encounter much overt discrimination. Generally speaking, I was lucky.
The times I was faced with outright discrimination, I struggled to process it. One fine morning years ago, my sister and I gave a conference talk, presenting research findings and a human-centered innovation framework to a room full of a couple hundred Credit Union Executives. At the evening’s event, a man approached me and angrily stated that he’d walked out of our talk after just a few minutes, disgusted. Ready for a lively debate, I asked what had offended him about the ideas we were sharing or the methods we used. He responded that the problem had been our outfits, and his opinion that my hair was stringy. As outraged as I was outwardly – and I was outraged! – in my heart, I blamed myself. It ate at me. I should have looked better. Next time I’ll look better. Maybe I really couldn’t be anything I wanted to be, I didn’t belong on the stage after all. This is an almost laughably minor incident, of course. But all the same, it made me feel terrible. I was shamed.
Despite being educated in feminist theory, for a long time I internalized the patterns in the workplace and incidents like this as my problem. My inner critic was screaming. Being cut off or dismissed, judged or mocked of based on appearance, having others subtly take credit for my work, managing inappropriate remarks or advances meant that I needed to do/be better and/or not dream too big. These sometimes micro- sometimes macro-actions over time diminished my view of who I was in the world and what I could achieve.
My parents were right – I could be anything I want to be. But in order to do so, I needed to fully recognize that unconscious bias, discrimination, and harassment were real, were wearing on me – and taking a much deeper toll on those who aren’t white, or straight, or without a disability. I had to face it, but I didn’t really know it.
When I joined LinkedIn in 2012 everything changed. I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who openly acknowledged the realities of bias, discrimination and injustice in the workplace. We were talking about it as an organization, at every level. We weren’t going to stand for it – we were going to lift each other up. People were organizing and working to make it safe for each us to achieve our potential on equal footing.
A couple years later, I joined WIT (Women in Tech), thanks to the invitation of Sarah Clatterbuck and encouragement of Steve Johnson. Through my involvement with WIT I started to become more deeply aware of the research and the systemic issues and injustices that women and other marginalized or underrepresented groups face, and I started to feel safe acknowledging my experiences, and talking to others about theirs. I was becoming part of the solution, working to tackle issues of social justice, within a corporation, with elbow grease and creativity, from my own unique perspective. I was awakening to the impact of creating and being part of safe spaces with each other, for each other.
A little about WIT. WIT is an executive-sponsored Employee Resource Group (ERG) run by a handful of bad-ass women who volunteer 20% of their time to promote gender equality in the workplace. Our particular focus is to advance gender balance in technical roles – Engineering, Product Management, Design, Program Management. WIT runs many revolutionary programs, but I want to call out three that highlight women helping women in different ways: Women Connect, Invest, and Grace Hopper.
This program creates a safe space for women to have open, direct conversation about sometimes tough or taboo topics. At Women Connect, about 50 people gather over dinner to discuss issues such as managing bias, work-life balance, leadership presence. A female leader or male ally kicks off the event with a personal, vulnerable keynote to set the tone as a safe place where we can be ourselves. Afterwards, over a meal, facilitators moderate a conversation around “table-topics,” we share stories, and exchange professional best practices. At the end of the evening someone from each table stands up to share the key themes from their table’s conversation.
Through the evening people forge meaningful, sometimes lasting relationships. LinkedIn’s VP of Data, Igor Peresic, is a strong ally to WIT – a great “man-bassador.” Several years ago, he gave the keynote at an event attended by an uncomfortably pregnant engineer; by the end of the evening they had become friends. Soon thereafter, she gave birth, and has since attended subsequent Women Connect events, with babe in arms. “Uncle” Igor now famously serves as baby sitter for her little one when she does.
WIT organizes Women Connect events for LinkedIn employees, as well as for women at many companies across the industry. To do this in your organization, find a gathering space, invite a bunch of interesting women, identify a speaker to share his or her story, find table facilitators to foster conversations, order some food, and let the conversation flow. The magic of Women Connect is it’s radical honesty. Thank you Liz Morgan for your leadership of this program.
Invest creates a safe space for women to learn, challenge themselves, and stretch their leadership wings together. It’s a four-month program designed to accelerate the growth of women in Engineering, Data Science, Program Management, Design, User Experience, and Product Management. The program encourages transformation through mentorship, access to tools and coaching, building relationships, and paying it forward. I was fortunate to be part of the very first Invest cohort. Invest creates a safe space for us to bond and grow as colleagues, in a way that was totally unique in my experience.
A moment that stands out for me during my time in the Invest program occurred during the kick-off workshop. Our facilitator Nikki Watkins had the 18 of us line up in two rows facing each other, look directly into the eyes of the woman across from us, and tell that woman our deepest, darkest fear. We found ourselves revealing things to each other that we’d never told another soul. There were tears. Lots of tears. Defenses were down, and the environment felt safe after that. We understood that every one of us harbored something we were striving to overcome, and that we were now in it together now to do so. No longer alone in our fear, or in our challenge.
To start a pay-it-forward initiative like this in your organization, start small. Galvanize a couple women leaders who want to grow, coach and mentor a wave of promising talent. Plan a kickoff workshop, organize bi-weekly discussion sessions around content such as executive presence, strengths, personal values, negotiating, and speaking up. Attend relevant events or watch movies together. Find interesting leaders to come in and speak with the group, either from within or outside your organization. Coach each other. Cheer for each other. Create a graduation ceremony and pay it forward. The magic of Invest is it’s intimacy. Thank you Kamini Dandapani for your leadership of this program.
Grace Hopper is a safe space at grand scale. More than a conference, it’s a movement, a platform for women and allies to accelerate our momentum towards equal opportunity, equal treatment, and a workplace free of bias and discrimination. About 100 of Grace Hopper’s 18,000 attendees will be from LinkedIn in 2017. It’s a safe space on a grand scale. In 2016, me, Elysa Stein, Kassie Chaney, and Sarah Aquino from LinkedIn’s User Experience Research team had a chance to attend Grace Hopper in Houston. We did a Research study, as Researchers will do. We sought to gather feedback on LinkedIn and discuss experiences of workplace bias. At the conference, these topics were top of mind for women—they felt comfortable sharing their experiences. The conversations were extraordinarily candid and turned intense quickly. Nearly every woman we interviewed had experienced overt workplace bias or harassment. Women were offering stories that ranged from slightly inappropriate comments to shocking incidents.
When Elysa, Sarah, Kassie and I got back together to debrief after a day of speaking to women on these topics, we were shaken. Particularly distressing was how many of these women had never told anyone of these experiences before. This is not uncommon. According to the National Women’s Law Center, only 5-15%, feel safe formally reporting problems of harassment.
We asked, “Have you ever experienced anything professionally, positive or negative, related to your background, gender, age, or race?” Some responses included:
“Haha, of course. You should hear the stuff that just gets blurted out. Comments about women needed at home to have babies, about women being too emotional. I need to be the nasty old woman in the office.”
“I work in a core engineering group and there is a boys’ club, it’s all buddy-buddy. But if I’m loud, I’m the angry black chick and being too assertive.”
“Oh, I can tell you stories! Sexual harassment is still so common. We’ve come a long way but still have work to do.”
As we told each other the stories of the women we met, we started sharing our own stories. While startled to learn that each of us also had stories that we were harboring (some of us had worked together for years at this point!), we were also relieved to be able to share in such good company, in the context of a community working to create a level playing field. We felt safe, heard, and further inspired to make change.
Read Elysa’s full blog post on our research findings here.
As we work hard as individuals, as an industry, and as a country to advance social justice — to improve diversity, inclusion, and belonging — we can help each other as individuals by looking for ways to create the safety to face uncomfortable realities, to share stories, to have sometimes painful, sometimes triumphant conversations. Being involved with WIT has taught me that by doing this, we take control of the path towards equality that generations before us paved for us. On this journey together, we can find purchase in combating systemic bias and discrimination. We can be anything we want to be, and encourage others to realize that of themselves.
At LinkedIn, WIT – along with other ERGs such as HOLA (Hispanic of LinkedIn Alliance), BIG (Black Inclusion Group), Out@In (LGBTA), Veterans & Allies, and many more – foster safe spaces for underrepresented groups groups to talk, advocate, and find allies. This work is more important than ever. As we’ve witnessed recently on a grand scale, when we are safe, when we see each other and know each other, when we know we face our challenges together, not alone, when we stick together to nurture the belief that everyone belongs, it makes it impossible for anyone, including the man who currently holds the highest office in our land, to stop our progress.