Fostering an Inclusive Workplace

One year ago, the VMworld Women of Purpose event celebrated its fifth anniversary and inaugurated a partnership with VMware’s newly minted company-wide VMwomen initiative. The focus of the organization is to create business outcomes by driving systemic change to further women’s careers.

One year in, the annual event, now renamed VMwomen, is going strong, as is the corporate initiative that led to the name change. Brandon Sweeney, vice president of VMware’s U.S. Commercial Business Unit and Americas executive sponsor for VMwomen, gave the 400 attendees an overview of the year’s activities, highlighting the focus on unconscious bias, and on inclusive leadership training.

“It’s a journey, not an event,” he said. “It started as a gender discussion, it’s now about culture.”

VMworld Women of Purpose event

VMworld Women of Purpose event

So far, he said, VMware has trained more than 40 percent of its managers to recognize and address their unconscious biases (and we all have them–how many parents do you hear telling their kids that boys or girls “don’t do” something or other). He said that more than 90 percent of attendees found the training valuable, and left with a commitment to action. And, in the spirit of inclusiveness, for the first time, men attending VMworld were invited to the VMwomen event.

Continuing the theme, Sweeney introduced the keynote speaker, Lori Mackenzie, executive director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, who spoke about her research on how unconscious bias can cause bad decisions in hiring. She also offered best practices around leadership models and tips on how to master the language of leadership.

Unconscious bias, she said, is the implicit foundation of our thoughts and feelings, based on shared cultural beliefs, and there’s often an organizational function. Job descriptions, interview questions, even who gets to sit at the table during meetings, are all affected by unconscious biases.

Social scientists define bias as an error in decision making, and it’s not necessarily restricted to gender. Bias is generated by stereotypes created as cognitive shortcuts to help us process our world. They affect the standards used to judge an individual.

In the 1980s, for example, women comprised just five percent of orchestras. As an experiment, musicians were placed behind a screen during auditions, and suddenly the number of women selected to move to the next round increased by 50 percent. It was the evaluators’ preconceptions about what men and women could do that was affecting the selections, not necessarily the skill of the player.

Similarly, other experiments showed that identical resumes where only the candidate’s name was changed from male to female created completely different outcomes; the resumes with male names were considered worthy of consideration by 79 percent of evaluators, while only 49 percent of those with women’s names got a thumbs-up.

When asked for their reasons, evaluators said they needed more proof of women’s qualifications. This is known as a higher bar. And gay men were less likely to get callbacks for jobs requiring male-dominated tasks (except in California, where there was no difference). Biases unconsciously shifted decision criteria.

“The most common way to transmit and maintain culture is through language,” Mackenzie said. There are two ways to describe people:

  1. Communal: involves descriptions such as “team player”, “helpful”, and “supportive”
  2. Agentic: uses words like “confident”, “ambitious”, and “assertive”

If asked to choose the traits of a leader, most people pick agentic language, even though in reality they’d prefer a mix of the two sets of traits. It’s stereotypes in action again.

Mackenzie advised focusing on accomplishments, not character traits, for those who want to be perceived as leaders. Women, she said, tend to use more communal terms, and that hurts their credibility. Yet, paradoxically, the more competent a woman is, the less likeable she is considered. This “Likeability Penalty” does not apply to men. However, women who learn how to trade off between appearing likeable and competent are more successful than assertive men.

Mackenzie concluded with a language toolkit for leaders consisting of three rules:

  1. Strategically use agentic and communal language
  2. Separate personality from feedback and focus on accomplishments
  3. Block undue criticism of women’s working style

“I believe that being better at empowering women and creating inclusive workplaces is a great way to drive innovation,” she said.

Following her talk, Mackenzie was joined by E. Renee Zaugg, VP, IT Infrastructure and Development Services at Aetna; Sheryl Chamberlain, Group Vice President, Global Partner Executive at Capgemini; Paul Strong, CTO, Global Field, VMware; and facilitator, Robin Matlock, CMO of VMware, to discuss inclusive leadership.

Panelists agreed that being inclusive means offering equal opportunities to everyone, pointing out that studies have shown that innovation strongly correlates with diversity. They urged the audience to base decisions on fact.

Zaugg summarized, “It’s about results, not character.”

Sage advice: Look at the whole picture and be aware of your blind spots. Inclusivity, and the acknowledgement of ‘difference as a strength’ build stronger and more productive organizations.