Cracking up with laughter, I was recounting a story that had happened to me early in my career to a mentor of mine. The story really got me thinking about diversity, embracing differences and how, especially in some industries, there can be the issue of assumptions and biases hindering the amazingness that can come from a diversity of thought.
First, let me tell you what happened...
I was attending a meeting at an Executive Briefing Center. My role was to present on a topic to the attendees so that they could think differently about business strategy using Experience Design, as I was at that time the organization’s thought leader on the topic and the Manager for the Experience Design team. People were arriving for the meeting, and I am naturally a person who does things like open doors for people, so I opened the door for one of the executives who had just arrived. As he passed me, he put his hand on my shoulder and with a smile said, “When you get a chance, I’ll take a coffee.” Obviously, he didn’t see the coffee at the back of the room for the attendees, or, maybe he didn’t know how to pour it -those buttons can certainly be confusing! ;-)
I looked at him, smiled, and said, “Would you like sugar or cream with that?” “No, no. Black’s fine,” he responded.
I got him his coffee. Then, as the meeting was starting I took my seat. The organizer stood up, kicked off the meeting, and introduced me as a thought leader. I stood up, looked around the room saying hello to everyone, fixed my eyes directly on the “coffee-guys” face, who, at this point had his cup in hand and mouth wide open, and I said, “How’s that coffee; do you need anything else? Maybe I can get you some biscuits to go with that?” I smiled, then proceeded with my presentation. Now, mostly that’s just my kind of humor, but I have never forgotten the moment. The look on his face was priceless. Reflecting on this moment, got us talking about diversity and my thoughts as a woman in this line of business.
My mentor asked me, “How were you not angry that he totally assumed that you were not an attendee at the meeting? How were you able to get him the coffee and not tell him to get it himself?” I said quite simply, “Because I have 3 key beliefs in my arsenal against such biases: knowledge, understanding and confidence, and I work hard to continuously develop them all.”
In case it might be helpful to any other person that battles an industry that can suffer from assumptions, here are some things I have found incredibly helpful.
Know your stuff better than most other people. This is hard. It means constantly learning, challenging yourself and hanging around with people that are way better than you so that you can absorb more. It is a never-ending journey. Fear of the unknown, fear of questions, or fear of looking stupid is stifling. Knowledge gives you the ability to be unafraid. The ability to walk into a meeting and know why you are there, know the value you bring without hesitation, and, know that you can converse and answer any questions that may arise. The people that have assumptions or demonstrate bias will come to respect your knowledge. This can take time depending on the person. Have patience; just because you do something great, or answer a question really well doesn’t mean that they suddenly can leave all their preconceptions behind. Just persevere, keep consistently demonstrating true knowledge, the real value you bring, your passion, and your drive. Keep providing that value to the business, and no one can question that. This doesn’t mean keep talking about the value you bring, or your amount of knowledge - it should be obvious from what you do, say and demonstrably show. They will see, believe, and likely become real advocates over time.
It takes commitment to invest the time required to continuously learn your craft(s), but this is crucial. I have found that making sure you find something you are passionate about and excited to learn more about, goes a long way in creating an interest that drives the behavior.
Take the time to understand the individual people you interact with. Recognize and embrace the differences in patterns of behavior types. Most importantly, understand how to communicate to others so that they can truly hear and internalize what you say. Be open and aware of the fact that this may differ from your own style of communication.
I believe, to solve the problems we face in the matter of diversity, we must not do this by segregation but by understanding each other and our differences in styles, beliefs, behaviors and mindsets. Yes, we all need the comfort, advice, and safety of like people that may be going through similar issues, but this alone, without the coming together of the different groups, I don’t believe is as effective. Combined, both avenues together are incredibly powerful. So make sure your organization’s initiatives enable people to get advice and comfort from people they feel understand them and are like them, but don’t forget to bring others into the conversation as a core part of any program, so that true connections and understanding can grow and be applied.
This is my third pillar. Work on being truly confident. There is something unstated and beautifully powerful about a truly confident person -not arrogant, nor pretending to be, but truly confident. It means you can say “I don’t know”, it means you can be emotionally aware, it means that you don’t respond to comments, or other people by feeling threatened or responding defensively. Being truly confident gives you the ability to build, grow and demonstrate your best self. There are so many factors to being confident; it is essential to genuinely understand who you are, dig deep inside yourself, and be honest. Then, you can start working on the areas you need to improve on step-by-step. Maybe you need to start accepting more challenging work, maybe you need to focus on your communication style, maybe you need to work on accepting your own weaknesses. Ultimately, it is a journey.
Like anything, it takes purposeful steps and hard work. The first step in any journey is learning where you are (really accepting where you are) and understanding what you need to work on to bring about mindset and behavior changes.
Changing the Landscape
Again, these are my own beliefs on how we can help tackle the situation, based on what works for me. To really get at change, however, we may need to start earlier in the employment trajectory. To begin with, there is less diversity coming into our workforce. We need enough different people entering various fields of industry to enable more diversity to grow throughout the pipeline. Let’s think about women in technology. When I studied (and we have made some progress since then with awareness and initiatives), I was something like 1 of 5 pursuing my Computer Science degree, and the only girl I remember seeing in my Master’s focus area of Artificial Intelligence. Sometimes I think when you are young, you can be easily afraid of entering an industry that is seen as a particular group’s “world” such as a man’s world or woman’s world. I think we can help our youth to pick whatever they want to as a subject, a career or an aspiration by enabling them with the arsenal early. Enable them with a true thirst for learning, inspire them with curiosity, encourage them to follow their passion, and equip them with the tools and development needed so that their confidence can flourish.
Collectively we can support each other to grow our individual confidence, and, collectively we will reap the benefits of a more trusting, connected environment where ideas can thrive, and where confidence to execute and take risks can lead to great discoveries and innovations.
So, here is to the power of knowledge, understanding and confidence creating a future where diversity thrives and enables fresh perspectives.