In the spirit of this year’s theme for International Women’s Day – choose to challenge – I’m going to do just that. When it comes to supporting gender equality in the workplace, challenging is no longer a choice; it’s a responsibility.
As a woman of color, challenging the status quo in the earliest years of my career was the only path to finding my voice. I had to create my own narrative and be transparent about my goals. Now, as a leader, it’s my responsibility to help others find their voices and to choose themselves in similarly intentional ways, including my peers in leadership. The responsibility to challenge belongs to all of us.
The First Conversation Is the Hardest
I credit a micromanaging boss with one of my earliest experiences advocating for myself. In my first step up the corporate ladder, I was promoted to manager, and my new boss was talented, well-respected and an inveterate helicopter boss, frequently hovering and often unable to delegate. Like many micromanagers, he saw his management style as positive, even empowering. I saw it differently. I knew the constant oversight would rob me of my voice.
So I made a plan. After working for him for several months and giving him time to understand me and my capabilities, I approached him and launched the topic: Was it his vision for him to make decisions, and for me to execute, or did he want my input? He was open enough so that we were able to have a conversation about his micromanagement style. He started to look at how he communicated with others on the team.
Developing that awareness was critical to changing his leadership dynamic. The experience was like a springboard for me. It reinforced the value of challenging workplace norms, of speaking up.
The Nature of Challenge
Challenge isn’t always about moving the needle of progress forward. Sometimes it’s about delivering the reality check no one wants to hear, such as the analysis that a proposed plan isn’t feasible. Other times, it’s about choosing silence and then speaking up at a later moment.
Challenge isn’t comfortable. When an idea receives an enthusiastic thumbs-up from everyone, it’s a sign that it may need rethinking. If everyone is comfortable with an idea, it’s often an indication that we need to stretch more.
And challenge can be fickle. It’s something you have to practice over and over until it becomes a habit, like muscle memory. The metaphor for me is swinging a golf club: When I’ve waited too long in between trips to the driving range, it’s like starting over each time. Challenge needs to be similarly intentional. If you want to get better at it, you have to practice.
Gender Equality in the Pandemic
As the global head of diversity and inclusion at Cognizant, it’s my job to inspire all of us to ask hard questions, especially around the formation of inclusive teams that support diversity of thought and representation. My office is home to many uncomfortable conversations related to gender equality. Are we being thoughtful about assembling diverse teams? How can we champion and embolden people to do the right things?
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our answers to these questions. Women’s careers have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, instilling an urgency to discuss women’s role in the workplace. At the height of the pandemic last summer, one in five working mothers surveyed were considering dropping out of the workforce at least temporarily, compared with 11% of fathers.
That reality has spurred us to challenge not only how work is structured but also how the workplace can better accommodate individuals. For example, in 2020, Cognizant took advantage of the remote environment to expand our Propel program, our global flagship initiative for accelerating women into leadership. By switching to the virtual model mandated by the pandemic, we expanded participation by 110%, graduating more than 550 women from the program.
A New Way to Lead
It’s right about here that we’d usually add a throwaway line to the effect that leaders are an important part of the effort. The truth is, choosing to challenge morphs into a very different task for leaders. It’s our responsibility to not only ask others the hard questions about gender bias and inequity, but also to pose these questions to ourselves. Am I showing an affinity bias for my circle of trust? Am I assuming a woman wouldn’t want a role because it’s too demanding or intense? Unconscious bias is still bias.
My toughest challenge right now is prioritization. Achieving gender equality is a process, and the clear structure and approach that it demands is the easy part. The patience it requires is the hard part. I can see what we can achieve, and I want to get there as fast as possible. But making that happen requires meeting people where they are and taking responsibility for ensuring diversity expands and grows, one conversation at a time.
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