September 16, 2016

SERENDIPITY | A Societal Necessity: Women’s Diversity Programs

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Courtesy of Business Computing World

As an Asian male, it’s quite safe to say that my peers and I get the shortest end of the recruitment stick. It’s no secret that we’re perceived as the meek and subservient types that belong in the professional friend-zone. I’m not complaining — simply framing. What I mean by this, is that based on what I face when it comes to finding jobs, I should be incredibly angry at the world of diversity programs. When thinking of white males getting the inherent recruitment benefits stemming back from the pilgrimage days and women and underrepresented minorities getting the recruitment benefits of decades worth of guilt, I was formerly angry. Amidst my mound of salt, I never really stopped to empathize and examine the other side of things. So, freshman year was spent glowering in a corner with edgy opinions regarding equality and other sorts of things. Not a pretty sight.

I wouldn’t be writing this article if my opinions had not shifted. When sophomore year rolled around and I was a fresh transfer into Cornell, I started recognizing the subtle discrimination flying around the high-performing business/STEM community that I didn’t quite notice before. The Wall Street “bro talk” so articulately detailed by this New York Times article had managed to quietly infiltrate the ranks of an Ivy League school, a supposed bastion of social progress. Initially, I passed all the instances off as anomalies. Factors such as rewarding girls access to organizations based on looks, the modified standards a girl pursuing STEM must face when dealing with her male colleagues, and the wealth of people on campus denying that such inequalities exist were factors I never thought would be issues. Yet they are.

Unfortunately, empathy is incredibly difficult here; I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand how it feels to be limited by the metaphorical glass ceiling because of traits completely out of my control. So, I interviewed some of the most successful undergraduate women in business/STEM on campus to get their insights on the problem. For me, these were eye-opening interviews. The first common link between all my interviewees was a striking one: women either feel or see that they must significantly prove themselves in order to be recognized or in order to succeed. Erica Demond, a senior working at the Boston Consulting Group after graduation, mentioned that “they [men] subconsciously withhold opportunities for females to prove themselves.” This statement may come across as unwarranted to some; it’s hard to prove this kind of subtle discrimination. However, upon examining my other responses, I found several other anecdotes to support Erica’s point. Other interviewees, such as Janaki Narayanan (a former investment banking intern at Guggenheim Partners), felt that she “had to to excel and perform better than some of my male peers in order to be considered on par with them. This is because in a predominantly male environment, it is harder to ‘gel’ with some of the directors/connect with them. I have to differentiate myself/be noticed in some way, which required extra effort in trying to connect socially with my peers, as well as effort with my work.” This sentiment is further supported by Archana Choudhary (who has worked at E&Y and Anthos Partners). Archana has noticed that “the conversations I have with people, specially those who are in higher positions, are much more formal. So, it takes much more time to be in a comfortable position to speak my mind. In general, the work culture ends up being surrounded by more male-dominated conversations, and that makes the lack of social comfort very prominent.”

These statements are all emblematic of a deeply systemic issue. The question to ask now is: why do these individuals feel that they are unable to connect with male managers and other co-workers in a seamless manner? Well, Erica’s comment can help us drill down to the issue. Her remark indicates that males withhold opportunities from females.  This means a few things. The high-level issue is that a prevailing theme exists in which high-performing males do not give high-performing females the time of day. Either the individuals I’ve interviewed are unpleasant (which I am most certainly sure they are not), or males feel as if they are tacitly higher up in whatever anachronic hierarchy our society abides by. The latter is most likely, as this would represent the byproduct of decades worth of males pigeonholing females into non-essential and non-intellectual roles. These are unfortunate side effects that are difficult to eliminate. Subtle discrimination is one of the greatest challenges we face today. No legislation, no matter how stringent, can eradicate this malignant social tumor.

What does all this stipulation mean in the context of diversity programs? Well, Tiffany Wong, a recently graduated STEM major at Microsoft, told me this: “I hold myself to a different standard. I’ve noticed over time that if I’m the minority in the room, I subconsciously put pressure on myself to establish my credibility, to prove that I belong there just as much as the other people do.  It’s something I didn’t notice at first, but definitely felt over time and as I talked to more people.” Clearly, her feelings can be partially explained by the abundant evidence of a female-to-male disconnect in conjunction with a plethora of other discriminatory pressures. This translates into a status quo that forces women to work “x” amount of times harder than males. They have to overcome several pressures at every level. When recruitment season comes around, being female will make it more difficult to pass resume screens because of the modified standards, excel in the interview due to biases, and thrive beyond entry-level roles because of all of the above.

To some of you, this may sound obvious, but I’m not so sure if that’s the case for everyone. I was talking to one of my friends about equality in the workplace over some Okenshields pad thai a couple weeks ago. We came to the conclusion that males should wholly embrace diversity programs and structural implementations that support women and minorities. A male, sitting nearby, angrily interjected. He insinuated his intellectual superiority by simply stating “oh so you’re saying we have to be unequal to be equal?” with a sarcastic scoff. I can see why he thought what he did at the time, and hope he will read this for a clarification. My friend and I were talking about being equal to be equal. The reason why diversity programs are an absolute necessity is because they, albeit imperfectly, adjust for the underlying inequality in the workplace. By giving themselves hiring targets and diversity goals, firms are boosting their employee diversity. Magnified diversity normalizes women in previously homogeneous offices. This effect provides more opportunities for women to rise to the occasion and achieve positions of power, further pushing back on the highly unjust pressures.

Think about it like this: there are two stretchy ladders. Men, whom are generally taller than women, were able to access their ladder first because of traits completely out of their control. For centuries, men climbing up their ladder have made it even easier for other men to climb — additional climbing means the ladder stretches closer to the ground. On the flipside, women, whom are statistically shorter than men, have had a tougher time accessing the ladder (again, due to uncontrollable factors) and therefore have not stretched it out as much. Unfortunately, because of this dissonance, men eventually started viewing women as inferior because women could not reach their own ladder. Diversity programs for women level the playing field by reducing the unfair gap resulting from circumstance. It’s a little bit like putting a small stepping stool underneath the unstretched ladder. It will allow capable women, who have developed their skills via their own intellect and ambition to access the same opportunities. Eventually, after repeated use, the ladder will be accessible without assistance, and again, normalize women in the workplace. The normalization process is positively recursive. A higher density of women in the workforce will eventually lead to more female leaders by virtue of larger numbers. This gradual push towards normalization also means females will feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their concerns about inequalities. The end result of this is heightened awareness and more conscious efforts to equally distribute the gender mix in high-performing industries. What comes after that? More women in roles that have a high potential to transform the present. Then, inequalities will begin to fade; how can the basis for discrimination continue to exist when there’s no longer evidence to support it?

This will be a long process, and even if it means certain groups of males will have a tougher time getting their jobs, it’s a burden we must carry. Because even if I am slightly shorter and find it tougher to reach the first rung of the male ladder, I know that somewhere else, my female counterpart is finding it difficult to even see it. Secondarily, empathizing with the discriminated is challenging. Controversially, it might be easier for our society to align with social progress if more people understand what it feels like to have to work harder for a goal despite other people expending less effort with potentially less skill. The pragmatic way of learning empathy is to undergo the same or similar circumstances as a group you are trying to empathize with. Then, you can understand the complex human emotions and thoughts that result from said circumstances. Even if diversity programs somehow significantly disadvantage men, it doesn’t matter: we need to feel the struggle. Perhaps if we do, we will know the frustrations involved with asymmetrical standards. Then, we can accelerate the movement towards functional equality. How do we feel the struggle? In some ways, we are. When companies give females opportunities over males, the collective frustration emanating from males is precisely what our gender needs. Wow, being denied the opportunity on the basis of gender? Something we can’t control?! What a travesty! Presto — in the best case scenario, empathy starts to grow. In the worst case, we begin a necessary discourse that may drive change in the future. Short-term backlash is to be expected, but that is the nature of fundamental change.

Finally, as a digression, I believe that if our society can’t solve discrimination between the most basic natural divide between us (gender), we will never come close to tackling the nuanced discrimination between races, sexual orientation, cultures, body types, and more. It’s disappointing that we need policies, regulations, and laws to solve this. But historically, without this type of guidance, the patriarchal environment still weighs in many times heavier.

Males, please support diversity programs. Support the strong and capable women around you and leverage your inherent privilege to bring others up to speed. Understand that with your societally given advantage, you can turn around and make a positive change by identifying discrimination when it occurs and combat it. Society can’t change the status quo unless we, as perpetrators, fight it too.