In Episode 83, Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, joins Melinda in a thoughtful discussion about how we can improve workplace diversity faster. They discuss tactics that help leaders address the roadblocks brought by the ‘Elephant-Mouse’ dynamic between dominant and non-dominant groups in organizations. Laura also addresses some of the key topics from her latest book, The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Create a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace, such as the meritocracy myth, code-switching, the risks posed by a homogeneous workforce, and the rewards of allyship. Bonus: Laura shares her research findings on what it would take for the US to have a woman President.
- Learn more about Laura Liswood
- Learn more about Laura’s work at the Council of Women World Leaders
- Read Laura’s book, “The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Create a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace”
- Read Laura’s book, “The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity While Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work”
- Read the article, “Diversity programs give illusion of corporate fairness, study shows” based on Cheryl Kaiser’s work at the University of Washington
- Read the article, “Women Are Over-Mentored (But Under-Sponsored)” based on Herminia Ibarra’s research
- Read the article, “Better Decisions Through Diversity: Heterogeneity can boost group performance” based on Katherine Phillips’s research
- Read McKinsey’s report on “Women in the Workplace 2021”
- Read Fortune’s article, “The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews” by Kieran Snyder
- Learn more about Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan’s consulting practice in Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “I think there have been both headwinds and tailwinds when it comes to diversity. The tailwinds, [which] are things that I think are speeding it up, are the growing recognition of issues around justice, around equity, across many groups… There is this recognition that organizations, almost having sort of no choice in the matter, are becoming more and more diverse because the population is becoming more and more diverse… On the headwind side of things (which is kind of what’s still slowing things down) is, of course, the fact that we unconsciously all bring ourselves to the workplace; we bring all of our unconscious beliefs, perspectives, assumptions, preferences, associations, roles, archetypes, and biases. I think that a lot of organizations still have an underlying belief that they themselves are meritocratic.”
- “Figure out a way to understand what the different sets of experiences are between dominant groups and non-dominant groups and get an understanding of what non-dominant groups are going through. Use your data. Use your statistics.”
- “I think that many organizations have too scarce resources when it comes to people analytics and data analytics… If you are a company of any decent size, you should have a people analytics person on board who knows how to create the surveys, the focus groups, and the input that will get you this kind of information. That’s what I’m talking about for improving data. Understanding exactly what’s going on within your organization… will get more to the basic concept of the elephant and the mouse, which is understanding that dominant groups don’t know much about non-dominant groups, but non-dominant groups know an enormous amount about dominant groups.”
- “What I’m trying to do through the new book is to continue to chip away at some of the things that are really hardcore resistance to acceptance. And part of that hardcore resistance is: it’s really difficult to give up our power or our centrality… You can see that with gender…, with race…, with any one of a number of things. And that slows things down because people don’t want to necessarily shift. But when they do see the benefit of it— when they do actually experience it— then people are actually pretty quick to change. And change actually goes from the unthinkable to the impossible to the inevitable.”
Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders
In August 1996, Laura Liswood co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders with President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland located at the UN Foundation in Washington, DC. Ms. Liswood is the Secretary General of the Council, which is composed of women presidents, prime ministers, and heads of government. It is the only organization of its kind globally.
From 2001 to 2016, Liswood was also named Managing Director, Global Leadership and Diversity for Goldman Sachs, and later became a senior advisor. She continues to speak to audiences globally on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Liswood holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.A. from California State University, San Diego. She holds a J.D. degree from the University of California, Davis, School of Law, and is admitted to practice law in California and Massachusetts. After the events of 9/11, she became a reserve police officer in the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department and retired as a sergeant.
Liswood is the author of four books The Loudest Duck-Moving beyond Diversity, The Elephant and the Mouse, Women World Leaders, and Serving Them Right. She is a long time participant in the World Economic Forum and is a Steward of the Forum’s Education, Gender, and Work Initiative.
She is a commissioner for the New Mexico State Personnel Review Board, a board advisor for EDGE, and a member of the Washington DC Metro Transit Police Investigative Review Panel.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalysts and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Well, hello, everyone. Today, we are talking with Laura Liswood, Secretary-General of the Council of Women World Leaders. For those who don’t know, the council is composed of powerful women—Presidents, Prime Ministers, and heads of government. She’s also the former senior adviser at Goldman Sachs and company and the author of the new book The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Create a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace. Welcome, Laura.
LAURA: Thank you very much, Melinda. It’s delightful to be here.
MELINDA: All right, so let’s start with you first. Would you tell us a bit about your story, where you grew up, and what path led you to do the work you do today?
LAURA: Well, I grew up in California. My father was a California highway patrolman. I actually lived all over the state. Went to high school in several places, went to an undergraduate school at San Diego State University, went to law school at the University of California, Davis School of Law, and then went on to, as they call it, the well known Eastern business school, the Harvard Business School in Cambridge.
I’ve always continued to have an interest in gender but also in diversity. I did have a magazine living in Seattle called Seattle Woman. I did some legal work around discrimination issues. Partly, the journey that got me to talk to you today, Melinda, is I went around the world, and I met all of the living women presidents and prime ministers in the world with the question of what would it take to have a woman president in the United States. Unfortunately, an answer we still don’t have. But in the process of meeting these heads of state and government, they had so much in common that I finally asked them if they wanted to meet, and they did.
And so, we had a summit and created a council of these women leaders. I am the secretary-general of it. It’s been around now for over 20 years. And so, any woman who is freely elected head of state or head of government in their country is invited to join the council. And so, we now have 86 members who are members of the council. It’s the only organization of its kind.
It’s really interesting because the sum of things that these women presidents and prime ministers talk about I hear every day from women. But then I also got really interested in expanding the notion of diversity because if you start talking about what happens in the dynamics for women is often the same dynamics that happen with other non-dominant groups. So, the dynamics between dominant groups and non-dominant groups. That expands your vision of diversity and inclusion and equity.
And so, that’s happened. I’ve been on. I was the managing director for global leadership and diversity for Goldman Sachs and then became a senior advisor, and I got into the way I switched to in a little while if we want, and so I’ve continued to write about this, speak about this, learn about this, and ever-evolving understanding of all of these dynamics.
MELINDA: So you’ve been working on diversity, equity, and inclusion in different ways, kind of from the top kind of looking at how women can be the most senior level person in the country. And then also working across the organizations as well.
LAURA: Yeah. Well, I’m always reminded of is that Filipino women having this saying which is, to cook rice cakes, you need heat at the top and heat at the bottom. And so, as I think about our efforts, we need both.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. There are so many things I want to talk with you about. I think we’re going to focus more on the diversity, equity, and inclusion part, but the council is such an interesting piece as well. So, around diversity, equity, and inclusion, you wrote a book ten years ago, The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity While Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work. And you’ve been doing this work for a long time.
So, when you wrote that book was about when I started doing diversity work, just by the way. I changed careers and really focused on this because I was an executive and found myself in a non-inclusive environment and realized I really wanted to create change, not just in that company but across industries. So, what would you say has changed in that time when it comes to diversity work? And then also, what hasn’t?
LAURA: Yeah, I think there have been both headwinds and tailwinds when it comes to diversity. The tailwinds are things that I think are speeding it up are the growing recognition of issues around justice around equity across many groups. We’ve seen a lot of that play out of late. I think there is this recognition that organizations, almost having sort of no choice in the matter, are becoming more and more diverse because the population is becoming more and more diverse.
And the need to ensure that everyone does feel included, you know, I won’t say that’s the case for every organization. But I think, you know, many of them feel that there is a real equity and efficacy need for diversity. What I have seen is the continual and ongoing growth of programs that organizations embrace. Be that mentorship or employee resource groups, or supplier diversity efforts. You get a lot of discussion of leadership commitment, a lot of annual reports of statements about them. You get diversity councils and Diversity Awareness weeks, diversity luncheons, and all of that kind of stuff. I see a lot of growth in these kinds of programmatic elements.
I also see it growing. I think this is important, a growing understanding of the data and a growing knowledge of data. If you don’t have the data, then a lot of what you have is just an anecdote about what’s happening within an organization.
On the headwind side of things, which is kind of what’s still slowing things down, is, of course, the fact that we unconsciously all bring ourselves to the workplace. We bring all of our unconscious beliefs, perspectives, assumptions, preferences, associations, roles, archetypes, and biases. I intentionally put all of those things in there because it’s not just biases we bring. We bring all of this still to the workplace.
I think that a lot of organizations still have an underlying belief that they themselves are meritocratic. I talk about this in The Elephant and the Mouse. I call that the myth of meritocracy. And taking a page out of Cheryl Kaiser’s work at the University of Washington, where she coined the phrase, the illusion of inclusion is that people think, well, we’re doing all these programs, aren’t we? So we must therefore be a fair organization. Not really understanding that effort does not necessarily equal outcome. And intent doesn’t always equal impact.
And so, I think we’re still quite a ways to go, particularly when we look at the numbers. I mean, you talked about women in senior-level leadership, and we’ve got the World Economic Forum still saying that it’s going to take over 100+ years to get to gender equality, so, you know, it’s still pretty slow.
MELINDA: Well, since you mentioned it, let’s talk about meritocracy for a bit for anybody who doesn’t know, and then meritocracy myth. I will say we work in the tech industry often. It’s that meritocracy myth is particularly damaging and impacts hiring, promotions, how we relate to each other, and so on. And so, can you just unpack that? What is the meritocracy myth? How do we recognize it in ourselves?
LAURA: First and foremost, I will have to tell you, Melinda. I have never met anyone who said I got to the top of this organization because I was suddenly advantaged. Who says that? No one. Right? What do they say? I got to the top because it’s a fair organization, and only the best get to the top. And look, we’re measuring our sales or whatever. And so, that’s the proof. Right?
MELINDA: And I worked hard, right?
LAURA: I worked hard, right? I worked hard. And if you worked hard, Melinda, you too could get as far as I got. Right? So that’s part of the understanding that there are subtle gatekeepers along the way that slow some people down. And what you can see now is that many organizations don’t have so much of an intake problem, but they do have an upgrade problem. Right?
People come in, you know, often you’ll see analysts or associates or whatever. Fifty percent women, 50% men, healthy representation of other historically underrepresented groups, and then they disappear. Where do they go? Then you end up with a C suite that’s 93/7. And you start at 50/50.
Sometimes people will say to me, “Well, you know, look at women. They choose to step away because they want to have children or whatever—family responsibilities. So, they voluntarily step away. So that explains the pipeline problem. I’ll say, “Well, I’m a lawyer. So for the moment, I don’t agree, but for the moment, I will stipulate what you said is true.” But then you have to ask yourself, what happened to that Black man who came into the organization? What happened to that Asian man who came in? The Hispanic Latina man who came in, where did he go? He didn’t make it to the top either.
So, that tells you, you have some subtle things going on, these gatekeepers. Part of the myth includes what I call possibility and frequency. So, personally and historically, the underrepresented group says, “Well, this has happened to me. I didn’t get that assignment or something, whatever.” And the dominant group member says, “Well, you know, that’s happened to me, too.” Okay. It’s the issue of possibility and frequency.
What does that mean? So, I’m a White female. I get randomly searched at the airport when I travel. You get randomly searched at the airport, right, Melinda?
MELINDA: Right. Yeah.
LAURA: Okay. Your name is Mohammed. How often do you get randomly searched at the airport? Ask any Mohammed. He’ll tell you 99.9. So, if I say to Mohammed, “Oh, come on, Mohammed, that’s happened to me.” As if we’ve had the exact same set of experiences. We have not. Possibility for me, frequency for him.
Part of the myth is that it happened to me. Well, that’s happened to me, that myth. Part of it is the one you just said. You work hard. Part of it is, well, everyone gets feedback on their work to improve. It turns out that’s not even close to being true. Some people get really good actionable feedback. And some people get feedback that’s either not actionable at all or is more focused on communication style or something like that, rather than work performance.
You can go on and on. And so, one of the things that I’m advocating for organizations to do is, do a lot more testing of how different groups perceive the organization. Do they perceive it as a meritocracy? If yes, okay. If not, what is it about the organization that you’re saying creates something that is not a meritocracy? And answers will be things like I’m not getting the resources I need. I’m not getting feedback. I’m not getting a critical assignment. I’m not the go-to people that the inner circle might have. So that’s how you find out this stuff. And that’s how you then can institutionally remedy things.
MELINDA: How do you ask the organization? How do you create data around the meritocracy myth? What does that look like?
LAURA: Well, look, I think that many organizations have two scarce resources when it comes to people analytics and data analytics. I think if you are a company of any decent size, you should have a people analytics person on board who knows how to create the surveys, the focus groups, and the input that will get you this kind of information. That’s what I’m talking about for improving data. Understanding exactly what’s going on within your organization.
Understanding this will get more to the basic concept of the elephant and the mouse, which is understanding that dominant groups don’t know much about non-dominant groups, but non-dominant groups know an enormous amount about dominant groups. Right?
MELINDA: Right. Right.
LAURA: So, if you’re the elephant in the room, what do you need to know about the mouse? Not much. But if you’re the mouse in the room, what do you need to know about the elephant? Everything. So, one of my thesis is that if you are a member of a dominant group, you got to get to know your non-dominant members better, understanding what their lived experiences are within the workplace, not just thinking, “Well, the world works for you the way the world works for me.” It does not.
MELINDA: Yeah. And then, going deeper into that elephant and the mouse metaphor, which you obviously carry throughout the whole book. You know, there are so many things there. Feel free to jump in here. One thing I was thinking about or was reading in your book was code-switching and how the mouse because they know so much about that dominant population and have to navigate within a roomful of elephants, right, that code-switching starts to happen, and we have to figure out ways to deflect microaggressions also where elephant behavior is normalized.
LAURA: Yes. And often, because it is dominant group behavior, we think that it is the norm and the right way to do it. It’s not that it’s the wrong way, but it’s not the full way.
MELINDA: It’s not the only way.
LAURA: Not only it’s not the best only way, but the best people in organizations have both skills sets the dominant groups do have. I state my opinion. I go where I want. I’m not unsure about anything, but I also have the skill set of the mouse. I can multitask. I have high emotional intelligence. I’m certainly aware of others. I can listen well. The best have the tools in their toolbox kind of thing. So, that’s that.
When you’re talking about the mouse or the non-dominant group members, code-switching is certainly one of those adaptive mechanisms that people do. I’m not sure everyone in your audience knows what code-switching is. And that’s always interesting, too, because when I do sessions with diverse groups, I’ll say, “So who knows what code-switching is?”
And then, I’ll wait for the hands to raise. And, of course, certain groups know exactly what it is. And certain groups have never even heard of it. Code-switching is basically I adapt my language style to fit into the dominant group style when I’m amongst the dominant group. When I’m amongst my own, if you will, I switch back to how I sort of normally speak about things.
Now, we all do code-switching in a certain way in the sense that you probably don’t speak to your grandmother the way you speak to your friends. But code-switching is far more dramatic than that. And far more exhausting, incidentally.
That code-switching you often find with historically underrepresented groups like Black, Hispanic, Latinx groups, and Asian groups. You’ll see that women often do a form of code-switching called disarming mechanisms. That’s ritual, modesty, ritual mitigation, ritual smiling, ritual apology, ritual humility, and ritual question.
An example of this ladder, and I always joke with men about this. A man was driving with his opposite-sex partner. And she says to him, “Do you want to stop for a cup of coffee?” He’s a direct speaker, so he’s heard, “Do I want to stop for a cup of coffee?” “No.”
Now, the second time that has happened to him, he is bilingual because he has figured it out. And Melinda, you can tell the group. If I say, “Do you want to stop for a cup of coffee?” What am I saying?
MELINDA: I want to stop for coffee.
LAURA: I want to stop for coffee now. That’s a ritual question. Ritual is a disarming mechanism. Kind of funny, as we’re talking about now. But if she goes into her manager’s office using this disarming mechanism, she says to him, this is a man, “Do you think I should get a promotion?” He looks at her and says, “Well, if you don’t think you should get a promotion, why do you think I should think you should get a promotion? No.” And of course, what does she say? “Do you think I should get a promotion?” What does she say?
MELINDA: She’s questioned it.
LAURA: No. What she’s actually saying is, I want a promotion, and I want it now.
MELINDA: Right. Right. He’s perceiving it as a question.
LAURA: He perceives it as a question and lack of confidence. She doesn’t have any lack of confidence whatsoever. But she does know she has to use a disarming mechanism. Because if she went into his office, and said to him, contrary to archetype, how we expect women to behave. If she said to him, “I’m the best you have. I am the leading person on your team. I have done all the projects beyond what you expected. And so, I want my promotion, and I want it now.” What would she get? She would get blowback. Right?
She would get the manager going, “What? Oh, aren’t you just a little aggressive?” So, she knows to use a disarming mechanism. Now, he interprets that as a lack of confidence. That’s why sometimes you hear people say women lack confidence. I don’t know. They’re just using these mechanisms that they need to use, knowing that they’ll get social negative consequences if they don’t. So, you hear them in a meeting. “I’m not the expert on this, but I kind of have an idea.”
No, she is the expert on this. And she has some definitive ideas. But again, if she goes in, “I have had 25 years of experience. I am the complete expert. I’m at the top in my field, and we need to do X, Y, and Z. She’ll get blowback. So, that’s why she does that.
MELINDA: Fascinating. You also mentioned in the book that we bring our grandmas to work with us, which is, I think, along the same lines. You write about the impact of deferring grandmas. Can you share what you mean by that?
LAURA: Yeah, Grandma is not your grandmother. It’s society. It’s how we learn things. We learn things from our parents and from our peers, and from our teachers, and from our religion, and from our myths and fairy tales, and from our social media, and from our television and our movies, all the ways that we learn about people. I call that grandma.
An example of that might be this is kind of a funny one in a way. This example is kind of funny. It’s the ham joke. Maybe you know it. So, a little girl watches her mother cut off the end of the ham. She says to her mother, “Why do you cut off the end of the ham?” The mother says, “I don’t know. Ask grandma.” “Grandma, why do you cut off the end of the ham?” Grandma says, “I don’t know. Ask great-grandma.” Great Grandma, why don’t you cut the end of the ham? Great-grandma says, “Well, I had a pan this big.” Isn’t that exactly how we learned from our parents what they got taught, what they got taught, what they got taught. Little remembering the original reason for something. We learned from our parents. We learned from our peers.
American Council on Education did a cute study. It asked 11-year-old girls, What would happen if tomorrow you come back as a boy?” The 11-year-old girl goes, “Okay, fine. I’ll ride a bike. I’ll climb a tree. I’ll get dirty.” And they ask 11-year-old boys, “What would happen if tomorrow you came back as a girl?” Suicidal. I’ll throw myself off a bridge. They can’t imagine anything worse at 11 than coming back as a girl. Now, where did they get that? What happened between zero and 11 for that mentality to come about? In our myths and our fairy tales. In the everyday movies that we watch on social media. All this stuff comes into play. And that’s for our religion. And that’s all I call that grandma.
MELINDA: What do we do to recognize the elephant and the mouse to recognize that we bring our collective grandmas to work with us. What do we do with that to be better to move Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion forward?
LAURA: Well, I think it’s firstly and fundamentally awareness. I live differently than you live. And then, probing that. I do like employee resource groups, and there are pluses and minuses to that. One of the reasons I like them is that it allows for a collective sort of explanation of the dynamics that are going on within a group that allows for the dominant group members to hear from non-dominant group members in this collective voice. That’s what I like if your energies are being used for that kind of thing. It’s a matter of creating awareness, understanding dynamics, and then behaviors.
So, for example, we know. That research tells us that women are interrupted three times more than men are. Okay, but if you’re in a meeting, and Melinda, you’re speaking, and you get interrupted, where did your ideas go? Gone. So now I say, “Well, wait a minute.” There’s the institution’s responsibility (i.e., the manager) to observe this dynamic and say, “Yeah, hold on, John. Let Melinda finish.”
Because otherwise, you just see how the imbalance just occurred. Or we know, for example, and you know, it’s not the men do this intentionally in an evil way. It’s just a dynamic, right? That sometimes, you know, Melinda, you say something, know what he says anything, little man say anything. Little man says it. And all the men go, “Whoa. Great idea, John.” Have you had this happen?
MELINDA: Yeah. Yes.
LAURA: Yes, of course. You have.
MELINDA: Yes, I have.
LAURA: And all the women are going, “Wait a minute. Didn’t Melinda just say that? Didn’t she just say that?” So it’s important for the manager to observe that dynamic and go, “John, it sounds like you’re agreeing with Melinda.
Now, I will say that, at this point, I call this the Wizard of Oz theory approach, which is, you know, Dorothy had her helpmates. She had the Tin Man and the lion and the Scarecrow helping her along the way. So sometimes I’ll say, “Look, we all have an obligation when you see that kind of thing happening.” When you see, for example, let’s say, Melinda, you’re in the meeting, but you haven’t spoken. And yet, I know you’re the expert on this topic. I know you are.
I have the responsibility if you will, or a can to be your tin man or Scarecrow, or, you know, or lion and say, “You know, I know Melinda knows a lot about this topic, let’s hear from Melinda.” I can be active intervention. I can be a wing person. I can be a helpful bystander to these things. So, there are ways that we can just change our behaviors to actually ensure inclusion.
MELINDA: You also talk about risks and rewards. I think that is important. You have kind of two different kinds of risks. One is the perceived risk, somebody from the dominant group, the elephant kind of has this fear, or, you know, that they’re taking a risk by saying something like that, right? By doing something like that. “Maybe I’ll do it wrong.” That’s a risk, but there’s also a risk on the other end, as well, risks of not doing or not changing. Can you talk about these a little bit?
LAURA: I’m less worried. I would just prefer the dominant group members just do something with positive intent because everyone will understand it’s a positive intent. I’m very much against anyone walking on eggshells. Yeah. Because that just gets you in no place whatsoever. These kinds of things that I’m suggesting are not dangerous and risky things to do.
Now, here’s where you’ll see risk play out, for example. Herminia Ibarra of London Business School has written that women are over mentored and under sponsored. Okay? And we know companies and organizations have lots of mentoring programs. Melinda, let me give you some advice kind of thing.
MELINDA: Right. Right. Fix the person.
LAURA: Yeah, well, fix the person or, you know, this is what happened to me so I can help you along. I can coach you. And it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. It’s better than nothing. But weird is the real rubber hit the road sponsoring. Right? And what’s sponsoring? Sponsoring is, I’m putting my reputation at risk because I’m co-signing the check for you, as it were. I’m saying I think Melinda is the best person for this next promotion, and I personally am going to make sure she succeeds.
Okay, that’s a risk if it’s somebody who’s not like you. Because if it’s somebody who’s like you, you go, “Melinda, you remind me of me, so I’m going to help you along here. I’m going to support you. And if you make mistakes, I’m going to provide excuses for why that was okay. And that, incidentally, is known as leniency bias, you know, someone who’s like me can make mistakes. Someone who’s not like me, you know, we tried Melinda, and she made a mistake. She isn’t going to work. So, that’s a risk. That’s perceived risk.
The other risks I talked about in the book are the risks of homogeneity. Jacqueline Phillips, who just passed from Colombia, had some research which she found that homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions. They just think they did. And heterogeneous groups come to better solutions. They just don’t think they did. Because homogeneity is easy, right? We all agree. Quick, you know, we’re all 100% right. I trust everybody because they’re all like me, and this kind of thing is in heterogeneous groups. Conflict, tension, nobody’s right. It’s always a compromise of some sort. I don’t trust you anyway, Melinda, so I’m not going to listen to you kind of thing.
It turns out that what I call my book is a lot of stuck. All these organizations are striving for what I call Noah’s Ark, which is we only just get two of each in the ark. We’ll have our diversity. Right? They will want this. This is Noah’s Ark. When they get in Noah’s Ark, then they don’t know how to deal with the heterogeneity. They get all these diverse people in, and yet some are getting suddenly advantaged, and some are getting suddenly disadvantaged, and some are getting heard, and some are getting not heard. Some are having success and inclusion, and some aren’t. Then I say stick with homogeneity because it’s a heck of a lot easier.
MELINDA: Right. Yeah, yeah, it’s true. So thinking about managers, thinking about leaders who want to make a difference, who wants to move themselves forward, and also their teams to create change faster than it has been going, what would you recommend that they do? What are maybe the top three things that you would recommend that they do?
LAURA: Well, first and foremost, figure out a way to understand what the different sets of experiences are between dominant groups and non-dominant groups and kind of get an understanding of what non-dominant groups are going through. Use your data. Use your statistics. I mean, McKinsey and these other companies come out with all these reports about what’s happening sort of in a meta-analytical way. So, take it down to your organization. For example, McKinsey has found that for women and other historically underrepresented groups, promotions are about two years slower than the dominant group members. Well, if I were that CEO, I’d say to my people, “Is that happening to us? Is that happening here? Yeah. Shouldn’t we be looking at that?
Other metadata analyses of Fortune 500 companies, 200 of them, 76% of women’s personnel evaluations showed some had some comments about their communication styles. Too aggressive, sharp elbows. Hold that, right? 2% of the men’s evaluations had something about their communication styles. If I knew that that statistic existed in a meta way, I want to say to my people, is that happening to us? And if it is, what do I need to do? What is the training that needs to happen to ensure that this is not happening? Are the traits that we prize in male leaders that we denigrate in female leaders?
So, is there this tight rope bias? Is there this double bind? Is there the leniency bias I was talking about? Is there a prove-it-again bias for women and other historically representing groups? You’ve got to keep improving yourself. Is that happening in my organization? If it is, what am I going to do? What am I going to charge the organization to do about these things? I like it a lot, Melinda, and this comes from Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan in their consulting company. They have an analogy around safety.
Now, not psychological safety, although that is important, literally safety, zero defect, making sure that airplanes don’t fall out of the sky, making sure that chemical plants don’t blow up, what do they do? They have senior management commitment, but it’s accountable all the way down the organization. It’s measured daily. People are trained on an ongoing basis. Everyone. The ramp service person can shut down an airplane if they think there’s a safety problem. Right? So everyone has that responsibility to deal with that. It’s transparent. Everyone is accountable for it. So, if you start thinking about what happens in that sort of zero defect safety process, it has a real lot of application to diversity and inclusion.
MELINDA: And you can take it into psychological safety, right?
LAURA: Yes, absolutely. Good point. Absolutely. You can, yes.
MELINDA: Because that is important.
LAURA: Well, psychological safety means do I feel like this is a level playing field? Do I feel like I can show my authentic self in the organization? Am I heard? Do I trust the leadership in this organization? Or are they just saying stuff but not really following through with it? So yeah, psychological safety is crucial.
MELINDA: We talked about risks and what are the rewards. I love what you said in the book, “The reward of allyship is contained in the act of doing.” which I think is really important. Can you talk about rewards a bit?
LAURA: Yes. I mean, clearly, one of the first and foremost rewards of diversity is different perspectives. Right? I mean, what you’re really looking for is cognitive diversity, different experiences that people have. It’s a way of avoiding traps, avoiding huge mistakes.
I always wonder when you see some criticism of a company because they put out a t-shirt with an offensive image on it or something like that. And you think to yourself, “Oh, my God, did they not show this to people? Do they not, you know, ask how people would react to this?” So someone in the organization can say, you know, that really is a negative image in my culture.
And you wonder, “Ah, did nobody get asked?” One of the interesting things is, and we know this. How many years does it take companies, Melinda, to build up a reputation? Years, right? It takes years to build up a reputation. How long does it take to destroy your reputation?
MELINDA: Not very long,
LAURA: Not very long. Seconds. Seconds. I mean, we’ve seen this with all the #metoo emphasis. We’ve seen this with all sorts of these kinds of things. Just in minutes, you know? What are we learning now about institutional investors? They want to know what’s going on. They want to know if you have the diversity in the organization to invest in you. So there’s a lot of oversight now that’s coming from outside groups that are looking at you.
Do I want to attract the best and the brightest? Well, the best and the brightest are as diverse as they come. And if people don’t see themselves at the top, they’re going to think, “Oh, this isn’t an organization for me. I’m going to find some someplace else to go.” The rewards are many, and the risks are many.
MELINDA: I want to ask. I’m circling back to the very beginning. What did you find around what it would take to have a woman president?
LAURA: Well, generally speaking, we get our presidents, and there’s a little bit of exception to this, but we generally get our presidents from the governors, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, from the vice presidents. That’s where we generally. Now, we’ve seen senators and business people, etc., but generally, when you look at the overall grouping of presidents, that’s where we get from. There are very few women governors. We’ve only had one woman vice president to date, and no female Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, because the combat exclusion rule, until recently has kept women from becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
What’s the field and pipeline for women? Plus, we have an unwieldy system called the first past the post system, which means that you have to get 50 plus one in the electoral colleges even further. When you look at other countries, they don’t have to do that. They have Prime Ministerships. And so, it’s from a civics lesson perspective it’s easier.
I think certainly, the number of people who say they won’t vote for a woman president has dropped dramatically. Now, if pollsters, they know not to ask that question. Do not vote for a woman president. They know not to ask that. They do know to ask, do you think your neighbor would vote for a woman president? And then you say, “Oh, I just don’t think my neighbor would.” That’s the answer.
So that number still sits at about hardcore 7% or something like that? Well, that’s a big number. If you think about how close our elections are. And so, we still need, I think, more and more role models of women who are taking leadership positions. So, we’re not there yet. I’m not quite sure when we will get there. At least we see some progress going on.
MELINDA: Closer and closer, I guess. Yeah.
LAURA: Closer and closer. But, you know, again, but will the Economic Forum is saying, hey, it’s still a little bit slow. So we got to figure out what I call a way to hurry history.
MELINDA: Well, is there anything else that you want people to know about your new book?
LAURA: Well, again, I think what we’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do through the new book, is to continue to chip away at some of the things that are really hardcore resistance to acceptance. And part of that hardcore resistance is, it’s really, for any of us, difficult to give up our power or our centrality, you know, and you can see that with gender, you can see that with race, you can do that with any one of a number of things. And that slows things down because people don’t want to necessarily shift. But when they do see the benefit of it, when they do actually experience it, then people are actually pretty quick to change. And change actually goes from the unthinkable to the impossible to the inevitable.
MELINDA: I love that. Where can people learn more about you and your work?
LAURA: Well, thank you for asking. I have a website www.LauraLiswood.com. I have bought these two new books. I have a lot of stuff which has been around for quite a while and is still used by many organizations. And then, The Elephant and the Mouse, just having come out two weeks ago by Wiley. So you know, if people have enjoyed this conversation and gotten something out of it. There are even more tools and observations in both of those books. So, thanks for asking for that.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Laura. Thank you for this conversation and also for all the work that you have done over several decades of really creating change in the world.
LAURA: Thank you, Melinda, for your work, and keep progressing. We need it.
MELINDA: Agreed. Agreed. Thank you, everyone. Make sure that you take action as a result of this conversation, and we’ll see you next week.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you.
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Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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