We’ve heard just about everything when it comes to the perceptions of women’s initiatives within organizations. We’ve seen organizations where all employees are bought-in—they see the value, and they have both men and women participating in driving equality in the workplace. But, we’ve also seen organizations where there is women’s initiative pushback, or a lack of understanding on what the purpose of the initiative is and the goals it is trying to reach.
We know from our deep dives on unconscious bias that each person in an organization is coming from a different worldview. They have had different experiences before joining the company that impact their perceptions, and they may have been at the company long enough to form certain opinions based on the way things were, as opposed to the way things are or might be. Rather than dismiss this perceptions, we think it is important to respond to them—in an effective and professional way, of course!
How to Respond to Women’s Initiative Pushback from Naysayers*
*All naysayers inspired by true events—names changed to protect privacy
Identifying Quote: “I hate to interrupt the tupperware party.”
Perception: Mr. Tupperware assumes that any gathering of 2 or more women is automatically a tupperware party—once we get together, the functional part of our brains shuts off and we all become fixated on keeping food fresh in the hippest way possible.
- Diagnosis: Mr. Tupperware’s only crime is a lack of understanding. Perhaps there is something in Mr. Tupperware’s past that has created an association in his mind, and that association needs to be challenged.
- Response: “Hi, Mr. Tupperware. Our women’s initiative is focused on developing gender balance across the organization. Our typical meetings focus on discussion and ideation on how to make our company, and the individuals within it, more effective. Our goal is to engage employees on a personal and professional level to ensure that they are bringing their best to work each day. We value diversity across the company and in our meetings as well—after all, the best ideas and decisions come from diverse groups! We’d love for you to attend our next meeting and encourage you to bring a few other men from your team to check it out as well.”
Identifying Quote: “I didn’t have a women’s initiative when I was climbing the ladder—why do they need one now?”
Perception: Ms. I-Got-Here-On-My-Own believes that the best way to confront the challenges of gender bias is to go it alone. Keeping her head down, working hard, and powering through worked for her.
- Diagnosis: While the ‘go it alone’ method worked for her, it isn’t true for everyone. Beyond her own experience, Ms. I-Got-Here-On-My-Own may have been told along the way that she would be penalized for acknowledging the challenges that come with gender, and she’s stuck in her mindset that keeping her blinders up is the only way forward. Giving more of herself isn’t a priority because she doesn’t see the value in what she would receive in return.
- Response: “Hi, Ms. I-Got-Here-On-My-Own. As a leader of the women’s initiative, I’ve been so impressed by your success here at [Company] and I would love to sit down with you to learn more about your path. I know others in the organization would also benefit greatly from getting to know you as well. We certainly don’t expect you to be a mentor to everyone, but it has been proven that women typically have less access to senior leaders in the workplace. In fact, just seeing another woman at your level of leadership can outline a career path for others and avoid drop off at critical times in a woman’s career. Can we talk about some of the concerns you have with getting involved in the initiative?”
- Identifying Quote: “We’ve made it a priority to hire equal numbers of men and women. I have daughters.”
- Perception: Mr. Aren’t-We-Above-This? has taken significant steps to remove bias from hiring practices. He doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment. He believes that the organization is no longer facing any type of inequality, so he doesn’t see the value in investing time and money into a women’s initiative.
- Diagnosis: Mr. Aren’t-We-Above-This? is well-intentioned. He knows what overt sexism looks like and he is doing all of the right things to address it. He really asks himself the question, “how would I want someone to treat my daughters?” when making big business decisions. Where Mr. Aren’t-We-Above-This? falls short is in understanding the more subtle nuances of gender bias—or “Second Generation Gender Bias,” which can be hard to define and harder to address from a top-down perspective.
- Response: “Hi, Mr. Aren’t-We-Above-This?. As a team, we’ve begun working on a case to create a women’s initiative here at [Company]. I know that you’ve been a champion for addressing gender bias here, and would love to have you on board as a champion for the women’s initiative as well. We’ve developed a several objectives for the first year of the initiative based on feedback from employees. With your approval, we’d like to collect more formal feedback to further shape our plans. Our expectation is that while many overt forms of bias are no longer present in the organization, there may be more subtle barriers that are standing in the way of developing all employees to their fullest capability. Are you open to sitting down for a meeting to discuss further? I can send some of the resources we’ll reference for you to review in advance.”
All naysayers are different, with different perceptions, opinions, and buttons to push. Finding the objection is the first step in understanding how to bring someone on board—in most cases, it is just an opportunity for open discussion and education. The most important thing to remember when encountering a naysayer is that it is an opportunity for you to learn as well. If we don’t listen to each other’s pushback, we’ll never make any progress. The best you can do is come prepared with ideas, solutions, and resources for support.
Have you encountered women’s initiative pushback? A naysayer? Tell us your stories on how you responded below!