A more inclusive world necessitates transforming how we behave and how we #choosetochallenge not just systemic inequalities but our own biases too. Driving societal change and challenging the status quo is never easy — cultural shifts do not happen overnight, but the best part about any change is that it can begin with one person at a time and that one person can be you.
Here are some ways you can hold yourself accountable.
To expand your cross-cultural awareness, reach out to people outside your circle and engage with them on a personal level. When you belong to a privileged or powerful group, you do not need to draw attention to yourself as a specific entity because you have status. What’s more, others perceive you as the standard versus an outlier.
But when you belong to a underrepresented group, the "usual" dynamics shift — be wary of those dynamics, also make an effort to be cognizant with issues impacting underrepresented groups and how these challenges may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. After all, you cannot change or address what you are not aware of.
Question your bias.
We must acknowledge that despite our best intentions, we can all be biased — what is important is how we self-scrutinize our prejudices on an ongoing basis. You can ask yourself the following questions:
Is this belief/assumption always true?
Am I making any assumptions on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, faith, age, or ability?
Is my belief based on limited and incomplete knowledge?
What proof/evidence is there to support my belief or negate it?
Who says things should be this way?
How else might I view this situation?
Am I not accepting responsibility for something which is my fault or within my control?
What could be a more enabling belief?
What could be the impact of what I say or do?
Questioning yourself in this manner can distance you from debilitating biases and enable you to view situations objectively.
Don’t make assumptions.
Most of us mature with gender rules and stereotypes fully entrenched in our psyches, and although this maybe unconscious, this profoundly impacts our habits, assumptions, and beliefs about how we work, interact, and socialize.
It is not uncommon for women to receive pushback from others who think they are stepping outside of gender norms and this indirectly torpedoes progress for those aspiring to ascend leadership positions.
To counter this, avoid making assumptions about habits, preferences, choices, and aptitude based solely on gender. This can be tested by flipping your comment/question to see if you would still say it or ask it if you weren’t addressing a woman.
Refrain from comments that may unintentionally feed into pigeon-holed narratives. Instead seek to understand unique experiences and identities; acknowledge that your advice or questions may not be suited for women of color or other marginalized groups, so offering one-size-fits-all solutions may not be feasible.
Finally, avoid offering unwarranted advice — ask yourself if an explanation, comment or question is even needed or relevant to the conversation.
The only way to become an ally "in the know" is to ask the right questions and to pay attention. It is impossible to anticipate everyone’s needs and expectations, but by asking respectful questions, you are better equipped to provide support.
That said, how you ask is as important as what you ask. You do not want to sound intrusive or repetitive or cross personal boundaries. Thoughtful questions can often clarify what others have already said. That entails paraphrasing “Are you saying…?” or prompting, “Do you mean…?” or “So if I understand you correctly…”
Here are some open-ended questions that seek to respectfully gather information:
What’s one thing I can do to remove obstacles to your advancement?
What do you think we can do about this?
Would it be helpful if I…?
When listening, ensure you are making a conscious effort and decision to understand the message while being mindful of the non-verbal aspects of the conversation. But do bear in mind some women may already be sensitive about over sharing personal information or grievances as it exposes their vulnerability and they fear judgement. Thus inauthentic actions and any appearance of superciliousness may be triggering and backfire.
Prepare to be uncomfortable.
When you ask questions with the intention to improve, there will be unexpected feedback which could be awkward, even unpleasant. Preparing yourself in advance, especially before engaging in difficult conversations, will lessen the sting.
As human beings, we are wired to react when attacked, but don’t give in to that urge. When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep peace.
However, don’t dismiss, get defensive, or make excuses. When someone calls out harassment, avoid minimizing or creating a positive spin by saying:
I am sure he didn’t mean it!
Women’s complaints are often dismissed or not taken seriously. Defending perpetrators, assuming positive intent, and validating improper behavior can adversely impact a woman’s psychological safety.
When opinions vary, emotions can run high, but it is the perfect time to refocus your brain and find your bearings. Self-awareness, but more importantly, self-control, is important to develop gender empathy.
Acknowledge your responsibility.
When you step out of your comfort zone, or enter conversations that make you uneasy, that may involve a gaffe or two. Don’t be critical of yourself for not knowing the perfect answers — learn as you go, but most importantly, be prepared to take action and improve.
And if there's any miscommunication, be quick to rectify and apologize — people will acknowledge genuine intent more than a half-hearted cover-up. Here are some thought starters on how to respond to constructive criticism:
I appreciate the trust you have shown by giving me this candid feedback.
I apologize for this slip-up, I am going to do better.
I recognize that I need to learn/do more.
I am going to take time to reflect on this.
I appreciate that I should have said something earlier.
I sometimes get excited and tend to interrupt, but that isn’t an excuse – I will be more respectful next time.
Everyone occasionally commits a faux pas in the workplace, but what matters most is admitting your mistake and learning from it. If you are open to being challenged, consider apologizing, too.