By Jill Mari Embry CEO/Founder of Balance Innovation Center.
Recently I was listening to an NPR segment on the American Women’s’ Soccer Team and the abuses, including sexual, physical and emotional, that occur in the league. It brings to mind all the other athletic organizations that have had to face the realities in their sports that plague women and/or minorities (where applicable). As a black female engineer, I empathize, and often see my career mirrored in some of their experiences. Included in the mirror is the silence or repercussions that occurred when I dared to speak up.
As industries that are focused on STEM professionals explore increasing diversity, they must also address their history of retention issues that are endemic among women and minorities in STEM professions. Something that human resource and talent acquisition professionals have to understand is that they have been a part of the problem. Many incidents that occur are not the blatant, easy to define or label as discriminatory. They are mindsets based on years of cultivation in our society. The history of abuses and bigotry issues that are part of the experience of women and minorities, in a white male dominated professions have been ignored, in ways similar to those in athletic organizations. In addition, those that dare to speak up are similarly afforded no resolution and often fired and blackballed.
Webinars and panel discussions set up to discuss the issues that exist for women and minorities are often just sugar coated attempts to give us a virtual hug, indicating an attempt to tell us, we hear you. The women or minorities’ on panels give pep talks about how companies are taking action to improve diversity, inclusion and equity, but there is no real talk about what occurs in their companies and potential solutions. Cultural pot lucks, mentorship programs and outreach to HCBUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and ethnic engineering societies for hiring seem to be the solution added on top of the diversity training, which we have had for years. These panels and webinars, do not address my experiences and those of so many others.
It is understandable that as employees of a company, human resources, have the best interest of the company as their priority. From an employee that would seek out resolution to an issue, this means protecting the company from legal disputes. It also translates to, the higher up the offender is, the stronger their protection. This prevents an employee from reporting behavior from a manager that is inappropriate. It may also be why those leading webinars and panelists on diversity/inclusion/equity do not give honest accounts of the challenges of women and minorities in their organizations.
Another safeguard in place, for employers, is the non-disclosure agreements that prevent employees and former employees from disclosing any experiences they may have had once they leave a company. This censoring prevents the employee from answering the common question of, “why did you leave your previous position” honestly. The verbal gymnastics that are required to answer that question does nothing more than raise suspicions in those that are looking to potentially hire a woman or minority STEM talent. And despite the issues with retention in STEM industries, talent acquisition professionals are quick to move the resume with short and/or frequent tenures to the trash pile. Although if allowed to get past HR, this ay not have much of an impact since an interview would still raise the question and the talent would have to fudge an answer. If allowed to, and disclosed the truth, the talent runs the risk of being seen as a trouble maker or legal risk.
Much of the above is based on my own personal experiences. But as I mentioned, they mirror those of women that have spoken out in other professions. When first starting Balance Innovation Center, my male minority partners and I were sharing experiences. Both voiced surprise at how much worse it was for a woman (unable to separate that I am a black woman) than it was for a man. I can not speak for the white women in the profession, but I have read the stories of some, and they are similar. These experiences are the reason for my working independent of companies large and small, as an employee. The size of the company has not mattered. I have been told by a hiring manager of a large company that he didn’t like hiring women because they fell in love and left. At a small company, a hiring manager has said to me, “I don’t know how the guys will take reporting to you” When interviewing for a position at a startup, the CEO told me that, “we are a like a family, so we don’t know how you will fit in.’ In all of these instances, there is no resource to us, as women or minorities to go to with these dormitory comments. The offenders honestly believe what they are saying and do not understand that these are discimilatory. As job seekers, there is no outlet for us to address the biases. And as a company, looking to diversify, these beliefs voiced by hiring manager, go unnoticed, and it is difficult to address problems that you don’t know exist. In addition, with these comments coming from the top leadership of companies, it raises concerns about the overall culture and acceptance of biases within it.
The above a just at the interview stage of employment, and just a small sample of things I have heard. In positions I have had, there have been, at every company, examples of challenges. The most frequent and damaging is having direct reports that refuse to take direction from you. In one company, an employee would yell at me whenever I reviewed his documents and had any comments/redlines. The solution to this for management was to put another, technically unqualified, manager between us. In one instance, under this arrangement, the other manager cancelled a trip the employee was to take. In a room full of cubicles, the employee began screaming at me, even though I was not responsible for the cancellation. In another position, the employees that reported to me refused to follow direction. When things were not completed, my boss would yell at me. If I attempted to explain their ignoring directions, he would tell me, “I don’t want to hear your excuses”. He did not address the fact that they reported to me, and thus were to follow direction from me. Some of the direction was for basic things, like writing protocols, writing requests for purchases, etc. The simpler challenges are things like bot being heard in meetings (having to tell the coworker next to you what to say for you), getting the worst projects that tend to always be cancelled, having bosses stand over you and yell. When the yelling boss is in a larger company, the response from HR has been to figure out a way to get rid of you. I have asked to have meetings with someone else in the room or record the meeting, in one instance. This was unacceptable. When your boss is the CEO, there is no resolution. In addition, I have had co-workers make racist or bigoted comments directly to me. The response is often, to down play it as, “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” or acknowledge the comment without addressing it, “I can see where he could be a chauvinist”. One of the worst examples of discrimination I have experienced was when I had made a comment in a meeting, stating that on the project, the software was the critical path. No on commented on it at the time. A couple of days later, my boss came in early and stood over me telling me I had said that the calculations were the critical path. When I repeated what I had said, my boss began to yell at me, standing over me, telling me that “my inability to admit that was wrong was wearing thin”. When I pointed to the calculations required on the white board above my desk, indicating that they had been there for over a week, he continued to focus on what the other co-worker had said and my not admitting that I had said that the calculations were the critical path. Although this made no sense for me to have said, my boss chose to believe the male co-worker over me. A “performance review” was scheduled. In that review, I was presented with a strange scenario in which the attempt was to push me to admit that I did not admit when I was wrong. Nothing about my actual performance was addressed. Although this was not the first performance review in which the areas pointed out as issues were not relevant to my job performance, it was the most blatant discrimatory incident. When I share these examples with my friends, who are industry or medical professionals, their response is often anger at the level of misogamy that still exists. And yet, these have been incidents that have lost me my job or made it impossible for me to stay in a position.
As an independent contractor/consultant, the biases and negative behaviors still exist, but I can fire clients that are disrespectful. I can choose not to take on a client that doesn’t take me seriously. My experiences are also the reason for Balance Innovation Center. I want to ensure that women and minorities can come to work in a career they are passionate about and do their job in a safe environment. I do this not out of bitterness or anger, but out of a love and passion for developing innovative medical devices.
I also want to encourage human resource and talent acquisition professionals to reach out to those of us that have left your organizations to learn the truth. Also do some reflection on experiences you have had with those of us who have spoken up. Ask yourself, could something different have been done to address the situation that would have protected the employee and created a more hospitable environment. In addition, it would be helpful for there to be a means for our colleagues, who are allies to speak up, whether it is anonymous or not, with no fear of repercussions. There have been instances where I have had my colleagues voice concerns. In one position, several of my colleagues told me I was being discriminated against, based on the projects I was getting, the fact that I was the only one in my position in a cubicle, and several other indicators. They should have been able to voice concerns to resolve the issues, instead of just noting it to me. IN another instance, at a sales conferences, seated at a table with several of my peers, and my supervisor, a physician at the table was attempting to grope me under the table. After dinner, my peers commented to me that they “felt bad for me”. None of them, however, felt comfortable speaking up or reporting the incident.
In order to truly embrace diversity and inclusion in the STEM profession, there must be a clear understanding of the problems that have created the disparities and retention issues. There have been qualified women and minorities in STEM for decades. But our ability to thrive has remained a problem that education and hiring, alone, can not solve. We have been educated. We have been hired. But we leave or never reach our full potential. In order for change to happen, we must be heard and there must be an honest effort, based on the real issues, to solve the problems, not from a human resource or talent acquisition perspective, but from a minority and/woman working in a predominately white male environment perspective. And this is not just the macro aggressions, such as groping, inappropriate touching, standing over us and yelling, but also the micro aggressions of not being listened to, constantly having our abilities and skills questioned, those that report to us refusing to take direction from us, and all the others. Don’t take this wrong HR professionals, but we don’t come to you when these things happen. And if they happen enough, we leave. And that is what you have to address if you are truly committed to a diverse, inclusive work environment for STEM professionals.