Last week we launched Seattle HR Collective’s first official MeetUp. Mikaela Kiner, CEO and Founder of uniquelyHR, kicked off the night to introduce the purpose and function of the Collective. uniquely HR and Recruiting Bandwidth have teamed up to create a new forum for Seattle area HR leaders to develop new skills while building community. We are passionate about helping continue to transform the HR/People function, by supporting local HR leaders. The Seattle HR Collective is a startup-friendly HR community that provides professional development beyond the basics of HR including networking opportunities and sharing of best practices, with the help of local business and HR leaders as guest speakers.
Last week’s participants (professionals hailing from local startups such as Igneous Systems, Pluto VR, and Fjuri among others) braved the winter drizzle to attend the event. They all gathered for one important reason: a discussion on the importance of gender diversity in leadership teams.
CEO and founder of Recruiting Bandwidth, Jennie Ellis, brought her HR and leadership experience to the event as she interviewed and reminisced with Kristin Toth Smith, COO of Dolly, about the pains and opportunities of female leadership in a male dominated industry. Being the only woman on a leadership team (or any work team, for that matter) can be tricky to navigate. And when we say tricky, we actually mean ‘sailing the seas with a broken compass, half a mast, and a ripped sail’ tricky. Add an unfamiliar network of constellations and next-to-no deckhands and you pretty much get the picture. This isn’t easy.
Conflict with Peers? Walk it Out
In a successful attempt to steer the evening away from the negative energy of a Happy Hour dish session, Jennie and Kristin led a conversation that delved into workplace gender politics, He-peating (the equally-wretched cousin of Mansplaining), and the problematic “Us vs. Them” mentality that holds all genders back from healthy collaboration and teamwork. Kristin brought her own crisp sense of humor to the debate, sharing personal stories of contention in leadership as well as some keen insight on how to effectively navigate problems as they arise, while keeping the long view in mind. Hint: it’s ok to pick your battles, you don’t have to fight them all.
Kristin touched on her most vivid experiences with unconscious bias but also shed some much needed light on examples of successful collaboration and dispute resolution of gender-sensitive leadership issues. Too often we hear nothing but tales of injustice and adversity when it comes to workplace sexism because they exist, but there’s also a flip-side: the success stories. Kristin shared an oddly heartwarming story of an adversarial professional relationship that turned into something healthy, collaborative, and safe for both parties. It can be done! Kristin and her colleague managed to resolve their issues to the benefit of their work product, their company’s success, and themselves as leaders.
It went a little something like this—with a measure of mutual respect fueling the contentious quality of their relationship, Kristin and her colleague found themselves caught in a bad cycle of professional aggression and arguments. Deciding enough was enough, Kristin took it upon herself to redefine their relationship, starting with the very location they met. By discussing their problem over walks and coffee meetings instead of stuffed up in their offices, the two (almost literally) created a new space for their relationship to grow less contentious and more collaborative. In time the relationship grew safe enough for the two of them to learn from each other and become true coworkers instead of co-arguers. She now has an ally in leadership meetings, a man strong enough to remind the He-peaters, “Hey, yeah, Kristin already said that.”
Lack of Diversity Hurts Everyone, Even Your Customers
The thing is, diversity (gender or otherwise) affects a company’s bottomline in ways more profound than simply because ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Diversity in leadership breeds diversity of thought, opinion, and approach which keeps us from the deadly flat-lining and innovation-killing effects of groupthink. Leadership demographics that reflect the actual marketplace tend to do better for that marketplace. Then there’s the fact that inequity in pay ends up costing organizations more than they bargained for when such inequity is brought to light— loyal leaders and team members lose heart, loyalty, and productivity when they find they have not been treated and compensated fairly.
But what do you do in such situations? Bringing it up can lead to blow-ups, but stewing silently cannot change anything for ourselves or for future generations. There are nuances to maneuver, and the unique nature of diversity problems don’t make the navigation of workplace politics any easier. In the Q&A session some tough questions were asked.t probably helped that the MeetUp was conducted in a closed-doors, no cameras, no social media environment, creating a safe space for the honesty this topic deserves.
Collaboration Means Taking (Not Giving Up) Power
An interesting point was raised by Halley Bock, business strategist and author of the Amazon Bestseller, Life, Incorporated. Halley wanted to clarify how the word collaboration was being used. That collaboration doesn’t imply weakness, deference, being complicit, or giving power away. It was an important point: effective collaboration is a powerful means to navigate often rough waters. When you clear your head and seek to understand the background story and learn the perspectives of the people involved, while understanding your own needs, you’ll get farther vs.remaining silent, appeasing, or blowing up.
It’s important to be curious, to poke and prod and figure out what’s going on. Once you know more about the whole story it becomes much easier to embrace alternative perspectives and understand each side of the problem. Kristin confirmed that often the collaborative, empathetic approach is ultimately more effective when you’re searching for long-term changes. Yes, the short-lived adrenaline high that comes from expelling your anger might feel deserved, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
There were a lot of powerful takeaways from the night:
- If you find out a male peer is making more than you, turn to inquiry. Ask why. Don’t swallow the anger and let it fester.
- Don’t shut down or simply walk away. Use your voice, and use it effectively to ask good questions.
- Get curious. Listen to understand. Have the conversation.
- Find others who will advocate for you. Then make your decision.
The Us vs. Them mentality is perhaps the most detrimental to advancing the cause of gender diversity in leadership positions. While there are circumstances that involve egregious transgressions of values or morals (and in those times real decisions have to be made, and it’s often to seek our next adventure), there are many situations where people may mean well and don’t know what to do, how to behave or how to resolve existing or perceived inequities.
We cannot work together if we’re at odds—two forces that exert equal energy onto the other don’t actually make progress.
Progress looks like diversified leadership teams, like boards and companies that reflect the actual demography of the consumer base. Progress looks like honesty, empathy, respectful difference of opinion. Progress is more than trying to change attitudes, it’s redefining them, it’s creating new spaces for partnership and collaboration.
It’s a two-way conversation, not a fist fight