Hi, could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi! My name is Siri Chilazi and I’m a gender and organizations researcher at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. My life’s work is to advance gender equality in the workplace and to move us toward a world where all women have the freedom and opportunity to achieve their fullest potential. My work consists of generating new research insights and communicating those insights directly to people in organizations through talks, trainings and workshops.

What are you working on?

I’m finalizing several articles about things like the evidence behind setting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals; women’s career negotiations; and gender inequality awareness. My colleagues and I are also hard at work on identifying new and more effective ways to share evidence-based insights on de-biasing workplaces with the broader public.

What are the biggest myths/misconceptions around gender equality in the workplace?

The one thing I really wish people understood is that while unconscious bias is baked into human brains – bias is simply a fact of the human condition – it is also baked into the systems and environments we humans have designed. Oftentimes, when we talk about advancing gender equality, we focus on the individual level by, for example, telling women to emulate men to get ahead in organizations. But the real action is at the system level. If the workplace were a truly level playing field that valued diversity and provided equal opportunity for all, there would be no need for women to behave like men to be valued, would there?

Photo Credit:Aldo Soligno

Are things getting better?

The optimist in me says yes. We are making steady but slow progress on things like the gender pay gap and women’s representation in the workforce, in organizational leadership, and in decision-making positions in government. We are also becoming more attuned to gender inequality as a society, and more adept at having nuanced conversations about it. That said, this progress is uneven – for example, women of color are still paid way less than white women, on average – and the coronavirus pandemic has set us back in many ways. So it’s important for us not to get complacent with the progress that has been achieved, but to continue to push for more. We have such a long way to go to full equality.

What challenges and successes have you faced in your career? I feel incredibly fortunate that I have found my mission in life, and a nurturing workplace where I can live out that mission surrounded by incredible colleagues. But getting here wasn’t a linear path. While I’ve always been very interested in gender equality issues, at the outset of my career, I didn’t know that one could do this type of work for a living. I simply had never met anyone who worked on gender equality issues as their full-time job, and it’s very hard to imagine something that you’ve never seen. So it took me three years of management consulting and another three years of graduate school to finally carve out this path.

What does the research say about levelling the playing field?

The research suggests that to level the playing field, we should focus on de-biasing organizational systems and processes rather than individual brains. For example, if you want to minimize unconscious bias in hiring, it would be better to institute structured interviews (where all candidates get asked the same questions in the same order, so that their answers can be compared in a fair, apples-to-apples way) as a small process change rather than put all interviewers through unconscious bias training. While these types of trainings do raise awareness and increase people’s knowledge about unconscious bias, the evidence suggests that they don’t lead to actual behavior change, i.e., less biased behaviors. But when we instead make small tweaks to our existing processes, we can get our inherently biased brains to make better decisions. This approach is how symphony orchestras in the U.S. have dramatically gender diversified their ranks, for example. Beginning in the early 1970s, they started auditioning new musicians behind a curtain so that evaluators could only judge the quality of the music (and not the demographic characteristics of the people playing the music), and over the next 40 or so years, the proportion of women in these orchestras increased from about 5% to nearly 40% today.

What could tech do to better foster female talent?

My recommendation to any organization would be to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion in the same way they approach any other business challenge: first, be serious about it, and second, manage it in a data-driven, evidence-based way. Each company should analyze its own workforce data to uncover where the gender gaps are and what organizational structures or processes therefore need to be tweaked. For example, your company might be doing well on representation in the sense that you have gender parity in your workforce, but you might discover that women, on average, get lower performance ratings than men, which in turns impacts their promotion rates and compensation negatively. This is a clue that you should examine your performance evaluation process for fairness and equity. Are the evaluation criteria written in a way that unwittingly advantages men? Is unconscious bias seeping into managers’ evaluations and not caught in calibration? Are performance scores based on people’s self-assessments (research shows that women and people of color self-evaluate more conservatively than men)? This type of data-driven inquiry should come especially naturally to tech, which already is a very data-driven and analytical industry.

What can we as individuals do to promote equality in the workplace?

Become a microsponsor for your colleagues. Microsponsorship is the small, everyday actions of support and affirmation that we provide to fellow humans. It’s things like interrupting an interrupter in a meeting; making sure that people get proper credit for their ideas; recommending deserving colleagues for advancement opportunities or stretch assignments; and speaking up when you hear inappropriate jokes and comments. Each of us is responsible for creating and maintaining the kind of culture that we want to see in our workplaces. So as a microsponsor, next time you see someone being interrupted in a meeting, I invite you to jump in and say, “Actually, I’d really like to hear [interrupted colleague] finish their point, please.”

What advice would you give people getting into your field?

In academia, it’s incredibly important to know the “literature”, i.e., the existing research in your field. There are no short-cuts to becoming an expert: you have to read and read and read; ask questions; and know your stuff. This advice applies to any field and any job, really. There is always more to learn and more to know, and I actually find it liberating to think of myself as an eternal student. I regularly build in time into my schedule to read gender-related research that colleagues around the world are publishing to stay up-to-date on the latest knowledge and to expand my thinking.

Do you have a mentor?

Absolutely – several mentors, in fact, from various stages of my life and career. The funny thing is, I’ve never formally “asked” anyone to be my mentor. All of my mentors are people whom I’ve worked with in some form or another and whom I’ve clicked with such that I’ve really wanted to stay in touch with them. Those relationships have evolved organically over time, and sometimes I’ve even been able to help my mentors with their challenges. It’s very rewarding when mentorship relationships blossom from a one-way to a two-way street.

Do you mentor anybody?

Yes! I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back since so many people over the years have been incredibly generous with me with their time, support, and counsel. I really want to pay that forward, so as much as time allows, I try to say yes when people seek my advice.

How can we support/keep up with what you’re doing? Follow the Women and Public Policy Program (@wapppHKS) on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, or check out my latest work.

Main Photo Credit:8Salamander