This originally appeared as a Viewpoint article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.
Diversity in the workplace has been an increasingly popular topic, intensified most recently by the Google “diversity memo.” While I have never worked in Google’s industry, I have spent nearly 20 years working in economic development: first in the public sector, then in commercial real estate, and now in public accounting—all male-dominated industries. For my entire career, I have often been the only woman in a room filled with men—whether that room be a boardroom, conference table or mahogany-shrouded steakhouse.
Without sparking a debate about overall accuracy or lack of alternate categories, let’s pretend we can agree that in modern America many traits are considered “male” or “female.” Until recently, I prided myself on being “one of the guys.” I worked just as hard as most male professionals I knew, and, much to my mother’s chagrin, machismo tendencies came naturally to me.
My everyday personality fits well with the culture that dominates the boardroom. I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors throughout my career, and all of them have been men. I was successful in navigating the unsolicited overtures of my colleagues without damaging relationships or my career, and I was frequently given what was intended to be—and at the time received as—a compliment: I’m not a “typical girl.”
As my career grew, I shied away from professional women’s groups, quietly and stupidly proud of myself for meeting various professional goals without playing the chick card. I wanted to fit in naturally without wearing my gender like a cautionary warning for my male counterparts to beware of, subconsciously knowing it would lead to quicker career success.
I internally cringed when women professionals complained about the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. “Suck it up,” I wanted to say.
After recently participating on an industry panel, I am embarrassed to admit I had a late-onset epiphany: Just as I am not the only woman comfortable in a stereotypically male-oriented business culture, there are a lot of women (and men) out there who aren’t comfortable working in said culture. And it is intimidating as hell to find your place when you lack almost any similarities with the majority of people in the room. We can arm those less-represented female professionals with skills and support to overcome this obstacle, but we must arm the male majority with better understanding as well. When we do that, diversity in the workplace seems a lot less like affirmative action and much more like cultural evolution.
I’ve done a disservice to the men and women I have worked with over the years. By quietly judging those who couldn’t “suck it up,” I unintentionally reinforced homogeneity and helped suppress diversity—whether that came in the form of gender, race, sexuality, creed or color. But there is good news: I still have time to change my ways. We all do.
Good decisions are not made when everyone looks and thinks and views the world the same way. If everyone is identical, who will tell the emperor he has no clothes? We’ve all seen the disastrous consequences of business and political leaders, regardless of gender, who surround themselves with “yes men” and operate in a space where alternate views are never expressed.
Deloitte recently announced its plan to eliminate its women’s networking initiative to focus on arming all managers, male and female, with the skills to be more inclusive. I want to encourage Indy-area businesses to consider the same and provide support to both sides of the gender-diversity issue. Only when we all look inward will real change result.