Reinventing the Game v. Playing the Game: Women and Minorities in Corporate America
I spoke at our Remote Year Junction, a monthly gathering of Remotes, RY citizens, RY staff and locals. This event creates a space for locals, remotes, entrepreneurs, etc. to engage in "Ted" talks that align with the overall theme for the month. Past junction events address topics such as challenges in the work space, issues in our personal lives, and innovative and creative ways of solving common problems and furthering all of our own path to discovering our unique identities and purpose.
I had questions about the choice of speakers in the past, especially one in Prague who particularly offended me and was a complete misogynist and narcissist, so I was inspired to speak about something that seems obvious but is often a struggle with a group of people: tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance.
I want this post to stand on its own as many people were not able to listen to my talk and I want to share my experiences with friends and even strangers who face the common challenges we as women face in male-dominated Corporate environment. I also wanted to share my personal struggle as a kid in the Midwest trying to find my own identity in a world where other people were trying to mold you into a package, a package that made me feel unauthentic and even further ostracized.
On a separate note, I am not a natural public speaker. I joke around a lot, but get nervous in big crowds. I was proud of myself by channeling some Chelsea Handler to get me through the half smiles and disinterest in the crowd at times. Anything for that smile of approval.
Below is my script along with some GIFs from the slide show. You know everyone loves their GIFS.
MY SCRIPT and DECK
Hey everyone, most of you know me as one of your fellow remotes, But what you haven’t really seen is that until a few months ago, my norm for the last 10 years of my life was working 80 hour a week, flying Sunday-Thursday every week to a client site, and ultimately losing my soul to Status (otherwise known as airline and hotel points). Yes, it was exhausting, and yes even more-so as a woman and minority.
Today I’m going to talk about my experiences, challenges, and lessons learned from working in an environment that wasn’t inclusive, and how I chose to change the game, rather than playing the game. As you can see there are two very different "Janaki's."
BACKGROUND: "Being Brown in a Small Town"
Okay, so St. Louis isn’t a small town, it’s a major metropolitan city. However, it is smack dab in the middle of the country, and when I was growing up, the only races that people acknowledged or were aware of was black and white due to the industrial revolution racial tensions that still continue to divide the city.
I wasn’t black; nor was I white, and in turn, I had no identity. I learned at a very young age to reject any uniqueness and to assimilate and become a chameleon. Bleach my face, highlight my hair, reject my heritage.
However, no matter how hard I tried to be like everyone else: I was different. This became clear as I was incessantly tortured by this kid, let’s call him Derek. (Okay, his real name is Derek). There was this guy who would consistently bully me. It started with words, and then it became more incessant. We rode the same bus home from school and he would cross off sections that Indians couldn’t sit in. He would come up with hand claps that included racial and sexually offensive slurs and encourage the whole bus to sing along. Teachers heard it, and did nothing. Bus drivers heard it and did nothing. My peers and friends heard it and did nothing. And so, I would cover my face, trying hard not to cry, close my eyes and place myself somewhere else.
So, let’s bring some levity to this tale….
My father is a character: and he always told me that if any anybody ever attacked me or tried to hurt me (his context was probably a kidnapper), then I should, without flinching, (were his exact words), poke him in the eyes.
Well, I’m sure you can see where this story is going, the next time Derek came up to me, and this time tried to “hock a loogie” on me, I had enough. I took my fingers, and “without flinching,” as my dad instructed, I jabbed him hard in both eyes.
Now, I am not advocating violence, but… he never messed with me again. As you may predict, my parents got called to the principal’s office, and I was the one facing discipline. However, when the story came to light, I could see a frown turn into a small grin on my dad’s face. I honestly don’t think I ever saw my dad so proud.
When we arrived home, my dad sat me down and gave me the talk: (No, not that talk). The other one: "You know, I don't have a son, so I'm raising you to be like a man."
Huh, Dad What does it Mean to be Raised as a Man?
At the time, those words didn’t resonate with me. But now those words carry so much weight and irony. What does it mean to raise me like a man? For my dad: that meant being self-sufficient, having my own career, to stand up for myself, being physical strong, and being mentally strong. Well, if that’s the case, what does raising a woman entail? Are we a juxtaposition to all those aforementioned characteristics?
From University to Corporate America: the "Real World" Janaki Edition.
As I described earlier, my childhood and formative years led me to a crossroads. Do I blend in, or accept that I stand out? Do I stay silent or stand up for myself? What makes me more likeable? When I entered the workforce, and realized that most of my coworkers were homogenous, (I worked in technology, so there weren’t a lot of women), I was ill prepared for a dynamic that I had left in high school. Keep in mind that I was an English and Political Science major at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), so college really prepared me for a false reality. My safe college bubble of equality, diversity, and inclusion burst, and I got blown away by the “real world.”
Step 1: Objectification
Boys will Be Boys
To Wear or not to Wear
I began my career as a Management Consultant, traveling with teams of, well dudes, from city to city every week. Early in my career, I worked with government clients. One in particular, an ex-marine, would make comments about the way I dressed and rate me in front of his colleagues. “She’s a high 7, but she could maybe make it to an 8 with some surgery.”
“Good thing you’re so small, he said to me, or otherwise he would confiscate my lunch for man-kind.” (I was eating a sandwich, which apparently wasn’t healthy enough for all of mankind). One day his historical prowess and cultural sophistication was put on full display, when he thought he was complementing me by saying, “You’re too pretty to be completely Indian. There must be some European in you. I’ve met a lot of Indians, I would know.”
When I brought my concerns to my project manager, he just laughed, and said, “Welcome to working with government clients. Don’t be so sensitive.”
I'm sure some of you in the audience or at home have similar stories. Further, I'm sure most of you were told is so many words to suck it up and not take it too seriously. So, I remained silent because I was afraid of not being put on projects because I was "unadaptable" and not "flexible." Boys will be boys, they told me as I lost my voice to a company that set the tone of valuing new engagements over its own employee's rights, especially those of women.
Step 2: Normalization
Don't Stand up to Authority
Be Demure, Yet Sexy
Be soft spoken
Rules made by somebody, somewhere, on some other planet
And so, Playing the Game Led me to This:
Step 3: So, I'm a BITCH so now what?
You say, I'm a BITCH like it's a bad thing
You say I’m a Bitch, like it’s a bad thing. After all of this silence, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t hold my tongue anymore and might have freaked out like Amy Poehler in the above slide. So, I started to own the words I was afraid to be labeled as. Being a Bitch isn’t a bad thing. It makes me unapologetic for being professional, standing up for myself, and believing in myself. You want to call me bossy, call me bossy. You want to call me a nag, well I nagged and got something accomplished. I started to let go of the negativity of the words, and I found the boldness, the tenacity, and the call to action in what these words can one day represent.
Imagine this: a male walks into a room. He is giving a presentation and everyone sits and listens politely. He gets respect upon first notice. He doesn’t have to earn anything. And so, he begins to give an important presentation and notices that people are distracted (texting, on the phone), and he calls them out with force and a little harsh. “Hey, this is important can we put down our cell phones and focus?” People put down their cell phones, and at the end of the speech, he’s like “hey anyone want a beer?” Everyone nods their head and heads out to grab a beer. He’s still cool.
Now imagine this scenario with me. I walk in front of the audience. Much like now. There is likely lack of respect or a lot of judgement. I have to prove myself. I say, “Hey, I’ve taken the time to prepare this presentation can we please politely put your cell phones away and listen?” Everyone looks at me with judgement and roles their eyes. At the end of the presentation, I too say “Hey, want to grab a beer, and everyone looks at me like, bye Felicia. No way do they want to spend their evening with someone who exerted power a few minutes earlier. Because those weren’t the rules I was supposed to abide by. How dare she? Who is she? Judgement.
How many of you have used the term Bitch, to categorize a woman for exerting what is deemed as male behavior? Don’t be too quick. If I see zero hands raised, I know you aren’t being honest. Women, you can raise your hands too. I’m raising my hand.
[As a side note: I had a dive instructor tell me there are two types of people in the world, those who pee in their wet suits and those who lie about it.]
I'm Bored. Let's Reinvent this Antiquated Game. (New Rules)
Demand a Seat at the Table
Ask for More (Salaries, Responsibilities, etc.
Look inwards for approval and self-worth
Mentor and support fellow women and minorities
Reevaluate your current job and move to a job/role that supports an inclusive environment
Don't laugh at jokes to seem cute or accepted
After experiencing objectification, and then normalizing that behavior myself, I began my own sort of rebellion and ultimately rejected the game. I would lead meetings with confidence rather than fear of stepping on someone’s toes. My likability factor might have decreased, but the respect I received from my clients and peers exponentially increased. I remember one time in particular when I was training a new ex-military staff member that happened to be much older than me. I coached him on calls and gave him constructive feedback. In response, he sent me a nasty, degrading email, and was inappropriate on a call I was on with a client that made the client uncomfortable. The client, who happened to be a male, advocated for me and called my boss, and well suffice to say, we let him go.
In reinventing the game let’s start to do the following:
- Demand a seat at the table: I’ve walked into many rooms that had limited seating and I would go to the back and let senior leadership or other men sit in front. I started to adopt the method first come first serve. If I’m early, I get a good seat. There are also instances where I wasn’t invited to boy’s nights out with our partners as they didn’t want the stress of behaving around a woman. That was often a missed opportunity to get visibility with senior leadership, so I started to invite myself. If a partner was in town, I’d ask so where are we going tonight? I made myself a part of the conversation rather than allowing the conversation come to me later.
- Ask for more: There are so many studies surrounding how women don’t negotiate salary; don’t ask for raises; don’t apply for jobs they aren’t fully qualified for; they don’t ask for more.
- Don’t rely on someone else to tell you what to do and how to do it. Look inwards. Make your own rules; validate yourself.
- Mentor and support women and minorities: This is so important. The game won’t change unless we all support one another. This includes men. In my career, I’ve had so many instances where women were fighting other women. We aren’t in competition with each other. The more the merrier.
- Reevaluate your job/make moves: You will only be content if your work environment supports your values. Look for companies that have a high percentage of women or minority executives.
- Don't further any more of those normalized behaviors. If a joke is offensive, don't laugh.
The definition or social constraints need to be redefined
Men need to be advocates
Men, we can’t do this alone. We need you. We need you to hire women, we need you to promote women, we need you to recognize and reject discriminatory behavior, and stand up for women. Let me tell you, there is nothing more attractive than a man who respects women and advocates on their behalf. That’s a sign of maturity and security. We need to reject that masculinity aligns with the loudest voice, the vulgar, the unconstrained. Thought and reason and humility are traits that all of us should acquire.
Women/minorities need to find their voice (Silence perpetuates stereotypes: "us" vs. "them" mentality
Find your voice, please. Start small. Speak up, when you have an opinion. Express your ideas with senior leadership, even when intimidated. The more you play into normalized behavior the more power you give to that behavior, and it makes it that much harder to get out of it.
There is no expiration date on speaking up
We need to support one another (i.e. mentorship)
Activity: Deconstruct Cafeteria Room Bias
One of the most analogous scenarios to segregation and lack of inclusion in the workplace is the Cafeteria. You guys all know what I’m talking about. You walk around with your tray. The tables are full, and you’re looking out for your people. Where are your people? You can’t find them, so what do you do? SIT AT ANOTHER TABLE.
I consulted with a FINTECH company in the bay area and I would go to their cafeteria, which had every type of food that you could imagine: Indian, Asian, Italian, sandwiches, American, etc. There was so much diversity in food and employees, But, when you glanced around the cafeteria, the entire cafeteria was segregated by race and even gender.
You would sit at the table and everyone would be eating Indian food, and you looked up and everyone was Indian. You saw all of the senior executives with their deli sandwiches. It was so predictable, yet telling of the corporate culture. You can fill all of the quotas you need, but if you aren't inviting everyone to sit at the table with you, then who really has a seat at the table?
- Stand up and sit by somebody who you don't typically talk to. Walk across the room.
- Start a conversation and ask engaging questions.
- Questions to avoid: Where are you from? How old are you? What do you?
- Types of questions to ask: What was your life like before you joined Remote Year? Tell me about a time when you experienced something difficult?
I hope this resonates with you and we continue to talk about how we can navigate this world of assigned roles and responsibilities to ultimately have the freedom to create our own selves, one that can't be rewritten by the oppressor. I hope this conversation moves from the lunchroom to the board room.