Software Manager? Here’s How You Can Make Sure Your New Hire Onboards Onto a Bias-Aware Environment
Mentoring others has always been my passion. On my first year as a software developer, I mentored high school girls, in a program which was designed to make computer science and engineering related fields more accessible to girls. This program started because the numbers of girls who attended computer science and software engineering faculties were low (further reading in Hebrew — למה נשים לא לומדות מדעי המחשב). In this program I would go to different schools and talk to girls about computer science. I would explain about computer science courses and what my day to day looks like, as a software engineer in the high-tech industry.
This one time I came to talk to a group of high school girls. This was almost six years ago, but it was such an important encounter for me that I remember it vividly to this day. There, I talked about how very few women go to computer science and engineering faculties, and that the numbers are low mostly because of conscious and unconscious gender tracking (here’s a short video in Hebrew — כיצד מתחיל להתהוות אי שוויון מגדרי). The girls had a hard time during this part. They said they didn’t feel any different than the boys. They said they make their own decisions and they don’t care what society says. At one point, one of the girls even compared this talk to a similar talk they had in class concerning racism. The girl said that the talk about racism left them all in shock, because prior to that talk — they never even knew they should consider looking at colour or race. They said that creating spaces for girls only — that’s what creates a deeper rift between the genders. Their teacher, who sat with us the whole time, also said that only once we stop paying attention to the issue of gender — there will be equality.
This talk went down slightly different than I’d expected, but this was a very important discussion and it was even more important because of what had happened next.
The last part of my presentation was a short video on how engineering affects all of our lives. This last part is meant for both boys and girls. This part’s purpose is to make computer science and software engineering more accessible to everyone, since there’s always demand for more engineers. The boys, who were waiting outside up until that moment came back to the class for the video. Usually, after the short video I would ask the class some follow up questions and allow the kids to lead a free discussion.
Before the boys came in, all the girls were talking freely, raising their hands and having a passionate discussion with each other and with me. Once the boys came into class — not even one hand was raised in the air. Not even one of those girls spoke up. I really wanted to believe the things they said earlier — that they feel their voice is heard, that they can safely state their views and that their behaviour isn’t influenced by the boys in their class. But that wasn’t the case. They felt uncomfortable to raise their hands, uncomfortable to say anything that the boys might mock and uncomfortable sharing any of their thoughts in front of the boys.
We can hope for equality and inclusion and expect it to just occur. Unfortunately, it won’t occur out of nowhere. There are behaviours and biases we have, which are deeply assimilated within us. When we are aware of these behaviours and biases, that’s when we can really make a difference. Awareness is key, and awareness can only be raised when we actively talk about these topics in the open.
So that was six years ago, haven’t a lot of things changed since then?
Some years have passed, I’ve worked in various roles, with different atmospheres, different peers and under different managements. I’m now an engineering manager. Kept mentoring women in high school, in university and in the high-tech industry. And this week, almost six years after the difficult conversation with the school kids, I found myself in the middle of the same discussion — only this time, similar things were being said by experienced female software developers.
There is a Facebook group I participate in, meant for women in various roles in the high-tech industry. This week a deputy executive officer in one of the startup companies in Israel posted a question. She asked if other group members have reading materials for managers to read, because they’re onboarding the first female developer to one of their teams.
As a relatively practical question requesting a practical answer, she was aiming to get access to specific materials. What actually happened was a very wide discussion which can be summarised in a short question — “should we even be asking this question in 2020?”.
So how do we onboard a new member?
The onboarding process is not easy on anyone. Not for the existing team, not for the new team member’s manager and especially not for the new team members themselves. In a short period of time, the new team member is required to be able to bring professional value and become an impactful member on the one hand, and on the other hand — to be an integral part of the team’s and the company’s culture.
When I onboard a new team member, I need to create an atmosphere to make this person feel they’re a part of the team. Making them feel that they belong is not an easy task. The team has adjustments to do, the management needs to adjust and the new developer of course has a whole lot of adjusting to do.
Why is it different when the new member is the only one of its gender on the team?
Being the sole men on a team of women is a different situation than being an only woman on a team of men, as can be seen here — Gender bias in the workplace. Since I’ve had experience with being the only woman on various teams of men most of the time, this is the angle I will present here.
The topic of gender is generally a topic we avoid addressing at work, but once a new developer joins the team and they’re from a different gender, it’s something that needs addressing. There are many things that can be lost in translation, because of biases and stigmas we carry around with us, sometimes unconsciously. For example, certain behaviours or figures of speech might be interpreted as offensive, or unconscious biases can sometimes affect promotions.
For those of you who wish to learn more about these, I’ve collected some reading and viewing materials. These materials could be helpful for managers who wish to learn more on inclusive and bias aware work environments.
What should I read and watch when I’m a manager who wants to create a safe and supportive atmosphere for my team?
1. “Brotopia”, by Emily Chang.
2. “Lean In”, by Sheryl Sandberg.
3. “How Women Rise”, by Sally Helgesen.
- “Women in the Workplace”, a study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey.
- “How Performance Reviews are Reinforcing Gender Bias: 5 Steps to Fight Agains it”, by Impraise.
- “Math is Hard!” — The effect of gender priming on women’s attitudes, by Jennifer R. Steele and Nalini Ambady.
- “7 Examples of Benevolent Sexism”, by Suzannah Weiss.
- איך לא להיות חרא לנשים בהייטק (Hebrew), by Avgad Yavor.
1. Purl, by Pixar.
2. Addressing Unconscious Bias, by McKinsey.
3. Why we have too few women leaders, by Sheryl Sandberg.
4. How to be an inclusive leader (Hebrew), by Moran Weber.
Suggested online course:
1. Diversity, inclusion and belonging (linkedin learning online course).
Here are 4 tips for managers who want to create a more pleasant and inclusive work environment:
- Be aware of unconscious gender biases when you’re thinking of who to promote.
- When giving feedback, or writing the annual performance review — be aware of what you base your review or feedback on. We sometimes follow social stereotypes and unconscious stigmas, such as: “He speaks up — he’s so assertive” vs. “she speaks up — she’s so aggressive”, or “he’s interrupting the other person while their presenting — he must have a strong opinion” vs. “she doesn’t interrupt any of the discussions — this must mean she doesn’t have a strong opinion, and doesn’t speak her mind”.
- Take into consideration how you divide tasks and try to avoid social stereotypes, for example: Sally, the software engineer, should organise the company’s activities. This is fine when everyone was considered equally, and the decision is made based on the person’s skillset, and not gender stereotypes.
- Work life balance is not a question only women need to ask themselves — as Ruth Bader Ginsburg said:
“When fathers are equal parents to their children, only then will women truly be free”
It’s important to be an inclusive leader, but even more important is remember why we do it. We, as software managers, need to be able to create a great work environment for the people on our teams. The many examples I’ve brought here, are meant to show how unconscious biases and social stigmas might escalate situations to places we never intended them to escalate. It’s on us to create good work environments which are good for everyone.
I hope this article helps understand both why awareness of these topics is so important, and how, as software managers, we can create and keep an inclusive and bias aware environment.