I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism and women in tech recently. HR departments focus their efforts on how to avoid punishment and on documenting bad behavior. What I feel they lack is training employees how to be an ally. When you are an ally, you speak up when you see someone being treated unjustly. You are an ally when you notice that someone is feeling isolated, not just when you are aware of obvious abuse. If you’re a manager, you regularly check in with your reports to give them an open space to report problems instead of expecting them to come to you. You are an ally when you encourage a colleague to speak up when they want to let something go.
Do you wonder what you can do to help women succeed in science and technology fields? Do you wonder how to make your office a warm and happy environment? Do you want to put an end to toxic behavior? The answer is to foster relationships. Do what you can to let your co-workers know that you’re looking out for them. There are a lot of ways to do this.
The public way to do this is to call out good work that’s being ignored as well as discouraging bad behavior. You can support someone in private by letting them know when you disagree with how they’re being treated or by getting them help if they don’t know what to do. Maybe they can’t speak up to their manager, so you go to yours for help. You can let them know when they do good work and let them know of ways to improve when they can do better. Did you notice that they solved a problem in a really interesting way? Tell them. Did you notice that they struggled with something, but got help at the right time or you were impressed with how they persevered? Tell them.
When someone is being sexist or abusive, speak up. It’s not only important for the person being abused, it can be important to anyone that happens to be listening. If it’s intimidating to chastise a co-worker in front of a large group, another option is to tell them privately that you’re disappointed with their behavior. If this is the route you take, it’s also important to let the abused person know that you support them. A feeling of isolation can be worse than any public shame. Let them know that they aren’t isolated.
There was a long time when I felt alone as a woman in tech and I didn’t even realize it. I suffered for years because of this. It would have really helped me if our sexual harassment training was used as an opportunity to show what it looks like to be a good person instead of dwelling on the salacious details of the bad examples.