In case you missed it, it is International Women’s Day. As we are stumbling from one crisis into the next one, one might wonder if we would have woken up in a different situation or world if leadership was more gender-balanced and more women were in charge. I am no healthcare, political, or climate expert, so I am not going to elaborate on the outcome of that hypothesis. Neither does my layman opinion on that what-if-scenario matter (even though I am very confident it would look drastically different). However, on this International Women’s Day I would like to share an experience or two on navigating the professional world as a woman, corroborating that to make progress and potentially reap the benefits of more diverse leadership, none of us can afford to look the other way or walk away – starting with myself.
I strongly believe – and still do to this day – that we need more diversity because that is how we will come to the best solutions for the challenges we are facing. Research shows that diverse teams are more likely to anticipate changes in consumer needs and patterns of consumption – not a luxury in times of crisis. And a study that followed over 4,000 companies for two years found that companies with more women on R&D teams were more likely to effectively disrupt the market with radical new innovations. According to Harvard Business Review, this is because members of diverse teams are better equipped to keep each other in check and aware of their own potential biases – they are more likely to constantly re-examine facts and remain objective, resulting in better decision-making.
This belief has driven me ever since graduating as an engineer to invest time in encouraging other women to choose or stay in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) through presentations, keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, articles, exhibitions, etc. However, I have to admit that lately it has become harder to do that without doubt. Not at all because I believe less in the positive effect it will have on our society as a whole, but because of the price individual women will have to pay for choosing that world or not giving up. It is like a pink tax, but different.
An example… A few weeks ago, I had to send someone else to meet up with a supplier because I couldn’t make it myself. The response to that piece of information from the supplier’s contact person was: “is it a man or a woman 😉?” The wink-face emoji made me sick. (If you think that is a harmless comment, you should definitely continue reading.) Remarks like that are sadly not an anomaly, but it struck me that I had gotten to the point where I was bothered more by the guilt I felt sending another woman in that lion’s den of toxic masculinity, than by the misplaced comment itself. Not because I think other women are not strong enough to handle it themselves, but because it doesn’t make me feel good to put someone in that position – even if it comes with a professional opportunity for that woman. And it is that exact heavy and mixed feeling I get as well when encouraging the next generation to go for it.
I have been a minority in science, tech, and business for ten years now – and I am already tired. Tired of the misplaced comments. Tired of the objectification of women. Tired of fighting the stereotypes. I realize that as a Caucasian woman with no children I am probably in the best situation out of all minorities, which makes it potentially even more disheartening.
If you think working remotely improved the situation for minorities, you are wrong. It has only gotten worse. The distance and safety of hiding behind a computer screen or avatar, has made misogyny and discrimination more abundant instead of less. A survey of 3,000 people from minority groups working in tech found that more than one in four of the respondents actually experienced increased gender-based harassment when working remotely. Online communication is often characterized by more one-on-one interaction, and hence more privacy. While that allows misogynistic or sexist behavior to flourish in the first place, it often also makes the harassment* and other inappropriate behavior difficult to report and prove. Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough—it’s the workplace experience that shapes whether people remain and thrive. And that workplace is not just the company you work at, but also everyone outside that company you work with.
Should I be telling other women and minorities to choose a path in science, tech, or business when I am struggling to pay the price it comes with myself? The answer is yes. Over the last couple of years, the importance of working together for the greater good has become more clear than ever. Whether we are talking about a pandemic, war, or climate change, the bigger picture prevails over individual nuisances. And let that be true for gender imbalance as well.
To all the women out there considering to claim their place in a male-dominated environment, please do. To all the women wanting to give up because it seems like it is only getting harder, please don’t – even though I’d personally understand if you did. Most of all though, to everyone out there who thinks that we have bigger fish to fry, or it can’t be that bad, think a little harder. Not being a transgressor yourself, is the bare minimum. Maybe even try to do the exercise of imagining what the world would look like today if more women had been in charge for the past few centuries… Don’t look the other way, let’s get to work.
* Harassment, in the survey's definition, includes yelling, uncomfortable or repeated questions about identity and appearance, and requests for dates or sex.
by Katrien Herdewyn, Founder Elegnano
Photo by Karel Duerinckx