Dispersing bias: break up that rabble
I remember “Tom’s” first day at work. Not because of something he did, but because of how I felt. Tom’s church had been flooding money into the hetero-religious agenda in California. Millions of dollars were going to make sure I couldn’t marry my wife, and if I did, we would not be treated the same when it came to Social Security, health care, and inheritance (just to name a few of the over 1K rights we were being denied). But I was bigger than that, right?
When I interviewed Tom, he was by far one of the brightest and professional candidates. I can’t remember how his religion came up, but I think it was around his lifestyle priorities. No matter, I thought, we’re all equal here. It’s about getting a job done with pride and fun. And Tom was a shoe-in.
Tom’s first day, though, required unanticipated adjustments in team culture. Someone on the team sent out a joke with innuendo. Because we were having a team meeting, I immediately addressed workplace discrimination: if you think something might be offensive, don’t do it. If you even think you’re feeling uncomfortable, come and talk with me and I’ll help you address the discomfort. Being a queer woman in the workplace, there were plenty of times when I wished someone said something like that to me. And here I was saying it — to everyone, sure, but especially — to our newest team member, who was outside of the cultural norm of our group.
Turned out, a Muslim woman who worked with me for years thanked me for bringing up workplace discrimination, and began to tell me about a company situation she found uncomfortable. Folks were drinking too much at a release party, and losing that nerdy inhibition. The awkwardness wasn’t discrimination, nothing to report, nothing even un-gentlemanly. But it made at least one woman not want to be stuck at an offsite with the devbros. And when I say “at least one woman,” you can bet there were more. It just takes a while to get to the scoop. But doing so uncovers possible reasons women might leave engineering.
It was an eye opener. My motley team, with all of their creative genius, was one of the most innovative, productive groups. But the strong personalities might make it hard for some to find their place. Coincidentally, the team was growing so big that I needed help on a managerial level. So we re-org’d and added a level of managers, who were sophisticated and reserved. In this way, each group was able to create its own personality and gathering everyone together was more intentional.
Later in my leadership experience, I realized I didn’t need to re-org to change up the group dynamics. I was more explicit in giving leadership roles to individuals in projects, presentations, and initiatives. This allowed different personalities, especially the shy geniuses, to set the tone for the whole group for discrete intervals. The interesting thing, here, is that mutual respect grew, building team pride, while equalizing any strong personality or ethos.
Tom’s church won that year, and we were heartbroken. But in my mind, Tom became more than just a cliché follower of a prescriptive religion. He was a sweet, smart, funny, helpful, devoted family man. And often folks on my team would say, “If only we had two Toms.”