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How Gender Imbalance Can Impact Your Organization

genericRecently, I was on a business trip to visit one of my client’s sites. The client was holding a large meeting for everyone on the program to introduce some changes that were going to be implemented. I got to the meeting early and sat in the back corner to observe and provide support to my customer.

As people entered the room, you could sense the uneasiness and anticipation of the message that was going to be delivered. My focus shifted from reading facial expressions of members of the crowd to counting the number of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the room. Soon after, I started feeling uneasy; I realized that I was one of 3 women in a room of more than 40 people, and I was 1 of 4 non-Caucasian people.

If you do the math, the numbers do not look too good. And the sad thing is I am being conservative with the number of people in the room. Being in that environment, I started to feel anxious and uneasy about speaking, and imagined the perceived judgement that I would receive if I was not “perfect.”

I turned to my male counterpart and said, “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of women here. Why do you think there is such a lack of diversity?” He gave me a classic rebuttal, saying “There probably aren’t a lot of women who live in this area who are in the technology field.”

Way back in 1977, Rosabeth Moss Kanter published research in the American Journal of Sociology which showed how the imbalance of majority and minority groups in the workplace has a profound impact on the social dynamics and perceived diversity problems among an organization. In layman's terms, if the environment has a majority of men, the majority of men will not think there is a problem with diversity. And if the majority does not think there is an issue to address, the issue will get ignored and be left unresolved. Not much has evolved in 40 years.

A 2018 Pew Research Center study, Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity, expanded on Kanter’s research. They found that about half (48%) of women in the technology field who work with mostly men say their gender has made it harder for them to succeed in their job. When women in more gender equitable environments were asked the same question, only 14% responded the same way.

What can we classify as harder? I have never thought of myself as an insecure person, but in the situation I described earlier, I felt smaller and smaller as the room continued to fill with more white men. In return, I felt I had one of two options: either shrink away and fade into the background or take command and control and dominate the room. I felt I no longer had the luxury to just be.

The chasm between those two options had a direct correlation to the imbalance of the majority and minority groups in the room. And I know that I am not alone in this situation.

So, I want to put a challenge out in the universe for both women and men. For women, we need to support each other through mentorship and sponsorship. If there is only one woman at the table, advocate that there should be three. We are not a monolithic voice, and the more diverse the voices are at the table, the better the overall solution will be. We are our biggest cheerleaders. We cannot assume that our male counterparts recognize the issue of diversity as easily as we do.

For men, pay attention. If more men start paying attention and speaking up when there is underrepresentation in the room, then change will actually happen.

This article was originally published in HDI.

Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, and educator with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. Dr. Miller considers herself a relationship counselor between development and IT operations teams. Her consulting company, AC Miller Consulting , provides services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. Connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.