September 16, 2010
So I was reading MsPhD the other day and thinking about what's not often talked about: methods to improve equality for men, women and minorities. I've written on here often about women in the workplace or feminism or women in science and engineering. Usually pointing out new studies or commenting on articles or providing my own flavored anecdotal evidence. But I thought I'd try a different strategy today, what can be done.
I am peon, have no power or authority, what can I possibly do?
- Mention your minority colleagues favorably. When someone is discussing a shortage of labor and trying to figure out how to get a project done, don't be afraid to talk positively about somebody who you know does a good job and doesn't always get a fair shake. Attribute positive qualities to them that they have, but are counterinuitive to how their minority is generally perceived, "oh Elizabeth? She's really an excellent leader and has great technical skills in the x-program. Nobody knows that hardware like she does."
- Make people think. When you hear them bring up TheUsualSuspect for a job (you know, the guy who went to the same college as the boss) ask why he's being suggested and again point out some minority candidate you know isn't being favorably mentioned. You'll probably accomplish nothing, but those positive words will build with whatever good work that person is doing and that can't hurt.
- Work with your minority colleagues. Your bosses will often try to keep them out of the loop on projects. They may task you with something and suggest you work with TheUsualSuspect. Ask if you can work with so-and-so instead, stating their strengths. Also just keeping people in the loop on things can give them an advantage. If they know what projects are coming up, or more about the political climate, they'll have an easier time navigating the game. And maybe they'll give you information you don't have. Knowledge is power.
- Don't be afraid to be your stereotype. Of course we all know women like shoes and Asians are good at math. That doesn't mean you can't show an interest in the things that you enjoy, even if it matches up with a stereotype. It's not your responsibility to be a counter example to everything.
- Talk up your strengths. Most women and minorities are not good self promoters. Don't be afraid to stress the things you are good at, especially if you know those things matter to your boss. By merely saying "yes I have experience in that software, I'm pretty comfortable with it" you'll plant an idea in people's heads that you are good at something. You likely don't have to prove it on the spot. This is The Good Ol' Boys have been doing things for years. Take their cue. Don't be modest. Sell yourself to everybody, your boss, your colleagues, and people you don't even know. If you're an expert in something tell them. This isn't being arrogant if it's something you're very good at and you're not claiming to be perfect in everything.
- Don't dwell on failures. When bad stuff happens, take responsibility in a quick, non-specific way. Don't say "yeah I let that thing blow up because I didn't know the hardware very well and should have better known what I was doing." Say "I reconigze the mistakes that were made when it blew up and I feel like I've learned from that to not only prevent future incidents but also lessons that will help us develop this project better." TheUsualSuspect doesn't whine and cry every time he screws up. Don't deny, but frame it in a way that takes blame off you and moves quickly to what you and the team will do next time. You'll look like a problem solver with experience rather than a failure.
- Don't complain. Bosses don't like complainers. Especially don't mention if you think you've been treated fairly based on your gender or minority status or perception. You will become a pariah. But even when TheUsualSuspect complains he is fairly ignored as well. You can still mention problems, but make sure not to frame it in a personal way.
- Shame your colleagues, tease your boss. If your colleagues say something hateful, stay calm. Ask them what they really meant by something. If you can, ask loudly. People don't like to appear prejudiced in front of others. If they use a racially offensive saying and try to cover that it's just a saying, or they don't mean it that way be patient and ask them why they would say it if they don't mean it that way. Or what kind of impression someone just listening would get. Don't get mean, but feel free to use the public atmosphere to shame them from repeating or to at least think twice about what they said. If it's your boss, don't shame him. Pretend he was making a joke, "I'm sure you didn't mean that, as that's a pretty racist sentiment, let's talk about these budget numbers" or "you know that's not true, what is this, Nazi Germany? I'm sure you're joking so let's get back to this schedule." Don't let him get away with it, but let him know you have his back and will not shame him or report him. If you call him out he'll turn against you, but staying quiet isn't always comfortable for those of us with a conscience.
- Refer minority candidates. I've heard supervisors complain they never hired a woman because they never saw a resume from a woman. Your referral might mean nothing to get the candidate an interview, or even in the door. But just exposing the interviewers to a more diverse pool can't hurt. Then they can't claim they've never had applicants of x-background before.
- Be kind to superstars who are underappreciated. In the workplace you often end up helping new hires or new team members. They don't know the ropes and maybe you do, you know who in HR they can call and who in IT will get them the program they need. Minority candidates are often further behind from people who are used to having a network in place. Not every minority candidate is a competent one, but this is where if you see these underappreciated people you have the opportunity to reach out to them.
So that's it for your line workers, you infantry in the front. I'll post again if you're lucky enough to be in a more powerful position.