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Fostering a Better Work Environment for Women

A set of “everyday” things you can do, starting immediately. They require a behavior change. They will make a difference.

Konstantin Chagin/Shutterstock

Recently, frequent Re/code contributor Steven Sinofsky was having a Twitter exchange with CNBC on-air editor Jon Fortt about “speaking up” in the workplace. Sinofsky was about to post this essay on the subject when discussion emerged yesterday over Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s remarks at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, being held in Arizona.

Hardly a week goes by where we fail to see further evidence of the challenges women face in the workplace, especially in our technology industry. I have been reflecting on my own efforts as a manager, and which actions have had positive results. There are actions that colleagues — particularly managers who are men — could take to foster a better environment to hire, support and promote a diverse team, especially with respect to women.

We continue to see more women in leadership and management roles in technology companies, but we know that the majority of those roles are inhabited by men today. While all managers can do more to be more inclusive for all people, this post has suggestions for actions that male managers can easily take today to create an environment more supportive of women on the team.

The following is a set of “everyday” things you can do, starting immediately. They are easy. They almost certainly require a behavior change. They will make a difference — I know they did for me.

These actions, however, are not a complete solution to the broader challenge, which is important to emphasize. There is amazing work going on, and much more and new amazing work is needed.

Know the women on your team. Seems obvious, right? When you have a startup, you know every hire. When a team is very large, it becomes impossible. But most of us are in the middle of that spectrum. It is important that, as a manager, you make an extra effort to know the women on your team. What are they working on, and are they set up for maximum potential success? Do they have the right support/mentoring opportunities? Are the work group and management environments functioning as they need to? Why or why not?

It is too easy for you to let the internal network or organization dictate whom you interact with. If more women are in part of the team that you don’t see as much, or are at a different spot in the organization that you don’t interact with often, then you won’t get to meet with them by “accident,” so you have to make an extra effort. In most tech organizations, there are fewer women than men (and fewer in leadership), so you want to be deliberate in making sure you put in the extra effort to meet them.

Measure performance on achieving goals, not on heroic work. Again, this concept probably sounds obvious. It is always the case that you want people to set goals and achieve them. One pattern I observed in the early days of Microsoft (when it was decidedly male) was how we would tend to reward the behavior pattern of “sign up for more than you can do, scramble at the end to get some of everything done, and finish up during final testing, long after things should have been done.” This doesn’t work well, even though we continued to reinforce this pattern. Why? Is this an issue for women on the team? While women can just as easily demonstrate this goal/achievement pattern, they more frequently demonstrate the pattern of signing up for the amount of work they can do, and doing it. Crazy, I know. To some this looks like sandbagging. To others, it looks simply like “promise and deliver.” I learned this from the first woman development manager (from the ’80s) that I worked with. That’s why “promise and deliver” was always how we ran our teams.

Invite women to lead team meetings, not just to do the demos or act in support. When you have a big team meeting or company event, you need to make sure those presenting represent the full diversity of the team. When you plan on this, don’t force the issue, and don’t just default to the org chart. Find a natural way to be representative and inclusive and not have obvious token representation. It isn’t so difficult. Why? A really bad thing you can do is have the women on the team play a support or secondary role to the main event or speaker. In tech, “doing the demo” is a role like that. Not participating in Q&A, for example, is the wrong signal. Doing just the introduction sends the wrong message. I made a mistake like this once in 1994 and really never lived it down. (I asked a woman on the team to draw the door prize at a user group meeting — good grief, what was I thinking?)

Ask the opinion of women in a meeting, no matter where they are sitting. Good managers always solicit opinions from other people in the room. If the room is filled with people who have no problem raising their voice or interrupting others, then people who don’t exhibit those behaviors won’t be heard. Keep in mind that the people in the room demonstrating those traits are also probably not listening all that well. So when you are running a meeting, make it a point to proactively seek out the opinions of those who were just listening. Why? Again, any person can exhibit any behavior, but far more frequently, the men in the room are doing the talking and interrupting, and the women are not. So if you want to hear the opinion of the women in the room, make sure you stop to do so.

Hire, promote and mentor women. This sounds so obvious. Your role as a manager is to lead at these things. How often have you asked recruiting to deliberately focus on hiring women for the team? Have you given them feedback on candidate slates or interview loops? How often have you personally declined the opportunity to mentor a man so you can allocate that same time to mentor a woman (everyone has finite time — how are you spending your time)? When meeting with other managers about promotions or new assignments, have you been the one to be proactive in support of women, or to hold off until there is more diversity in potential candidates? There’s risk in all of these that you will “lose” good candidates or frustrate some internally, but you do have to start somewhere. Are you? Why? Because this is the heart of the issue, and no matter what anyone says, you can do these things now.

Talk to everyone in the hallway and lunchroom, not just to people like you. Andy Grove was among the pioneers of managing by walking the hallways. The interesting thing is, who do you talk to when you walk the hallways? You should be deliberate. It is natural for everyone to talk to people they have some connection to or similarity to beyond the obvious (same team). Whether that is college, kids, hobbies, movies, TV, sports, or even which part of the food line you visit, these all contribute to the natural flow of people. Break your own patterns. Why? Do this because it might not come naturally to you, and because it is easy to do, and because it matters. There’s a natural tendency for like to seek out like. As a manager, you should do more than that. If all your conversations in the hallway are about “man sports” and “man hobbies” with other men, and people hear those, you’ll only reinforce stereotypes. Instead, make it a point to talk to women on the team in these spontaneous conversations.

Obtain feedback deliberately. All managers want and ask for feedback, but how and when you ask for feedback is just as important. Ask for feedback in 1:1 hallway conversations and direct email, for example, not just with an “any feedback?” throwaway line right at the end of a meeting or event. Why? A non-zero set of people are reluctant to share feedback in front of a group or right away. Some might believe that their feedback is unique to their situation, or that offering the feedback might single them out in a negative way. Similarly, as above, some prefer to reflect and synthesize before giving what might be visceral or of-the-moment feedback.

These are just a few things from my own experience that I’ve worked on over the years. I wasn’t always great at these, and certainly the organizations that I managed and was accountable for were far from what they needed to be. I can say that I was deliberate about these behaviors and actions. It is behaviors like these that are necessary to address the inequalities in the workplace, though not sufficient.

Former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky is a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, an adviser at Box Inc., and an executive in residence at Harvard Business School. Follow him @stevesi.

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