Beyond Diversity Training: Break These Habits for a Better Workplace

Joan Williams gives companies and individuals practical tools to short-circuit discrimination

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It’s not news that women engineers face biases in many workplaces. However, traditional workplace-mandated diversity training doesn’t make things better. Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, wants to change that. Last year, Williams launched Bias Interrupters, a free set of tools for managers and organizations to correct discriminatory practices—and, hopefully, hire and retain a diverse engineering workplace. She spoke with Katherine Bourzac for IEEE Spectrum:

Katherine Bourzac: What kinds of bias do women engineers experience at work?

Joan Williams: In our 2016 study, women engineers reported feeling disadvantaged by virtually every workplace process. Women work more and get paid less, get less honest feedback, and were less likely than white men to report they had equal access to networking, or that their performance evaluations were fair. A narrower range of behavior is accepted from women than from men, and we’ve also found pretty marked differences by race.

The same behavior may be seen as admirably assertive in a man but lamentably aggressive or abrasive in a woman. Women tend to get larger loads of what we call “office housework,” tasks like finding a time when everyone can meet, taking notes, and planning office parties. They get less of what we call the “glamour work,” so that twice as many women as men reported pressures to let others take the lead.

K.B.: Do traditional diversity trainings help?

J.W.: No, they’ve been shown to be quite ineffective. Giving a one-shot bias training, having a “women’s initiative”—all those things are good ideas. But if you have gender and racial bias being constantly transmitted day after day through your basic business systems, having an employee resource group is not going to solve that problem.

K.B.: What can organizations do?

J.W.: We have developed a set of evidence-based tools at Biasinterrupters.org that can be used to interrupt bias in hiring, performance evaluations, and assignments. Tools for compensation are coming.

We’ve tried to make it really easy. You start out with an assessment. There are tools online that tell you what exactly to measure. The second step is to interrupt the bias if you find it, which you probably will.

For example, we have an office-housework survey that an organization can use to find out who is doing the office housework in their environment and a protocol to find out who is getting the glamour work. We have tools to help managers allocate this work fairly.

K.B.: What if the company is not on board? What can individuals do?

J.W.: We have tools that individual managers can use, for example during performance reviews. We offer a worksheet [PDF] you can hand out to anyone who’s required to do a self-evaluation, explaining that she needs to tell about everything awesome that she’s done! Women, Asian-Americans, and professionals who are first-generation college graduates are predictably going to give a modest self-evaluation. These groups have been brought up, or sense in their environment, that a modesty mandate applies to them. That’s going to systematically disadvantage them.

Workers who are experiencing bias should get my book What Works for Women at Work [NYU Press, 2014]. It has strategies that successful women have used to navigate subtle forms of gender bias. For example, research shows that people who engage in self-promotion get further than people who don’t. Yet research also shows that women who engage in self-promotion encounter pushback because women are expected to be self-effacing and nice. How do you thread that needle? One of the strategies savvy women use is the posse. Develop an alliance with people about at your level or one notch above and celebrate and promote each other’s successes. That is not only going to not hurt you, it probably will help you. It will be a way of getting your accomplishments known, and also enhance your reputation as being a good team player—which is what the “good woman” is required to be.

This article appears in the May 2018 print issue as “Break These Habits for a Better Workplace.”

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