I thought I was a good manager. I listened. I gave feedback. I mentored. I found solutions. I motivated and supported. People trusted me.
The first time one of my reports told me that I needed to give more praise and affirmation, I thought perhaps they were being fragile. Not wrong, but just overly sensitive. I learned years ago how important praise is, and had made an effort to offer it, and I had lots of evidence I had gotten better. I didn’t write off the criticism, and I tried to improve, but I didn’t really understand.
The second time I was told, I took a few more steps back. Two different people, same feedback. There was a clear correlation: this feedback was coming exclusively from women. I’ll be honest, when I put this together, I didn’t like where my mind went. Women are needy. Women are fragile. Women need affirmation from men. Ugh.
But with the help of some (female) colleagues, we finally figured out what was going on. It sounds obvious, so maybe this was clear to them all along, or maybe we came to a conclusion it together. So:
The way women and minorities experience the tech industry is not the way white men experience it. Additional active steps need to be taken to provide a sufficiently supportive environment.
White men in tech have been in power for decades (after displacing women…). They make up the vast majority of most teams. Most of our mythologies are centered on them.
A woman in tech has had to fight more cultural conditioning and unconscious bias than any white dude, and often endure harassment or assault. I suspect most women in tech have never had a professional environment or mentor they felt was truly on their side. How would you feel about climbing the “corporate ladder” if no one on any rung looked like you?
Affirmation is important to everyone of all genders and races. Equally important, I’d say! The difference is that white men are affirmed by our environment, whereas women and minorities are not. Underrepresented groups aren’t asking for additional affirmation, they are speaking up about creating an equal (and equitable) amount of affirmation.
My job as a manager was to provide that affirmation and praise one way or another, however I could. Maybe if we had more diverse managers and senior employees, it’d be less of an active responsibility. Until then, providing public and private affirmation was as top-of-mind as providing any other type of feedback. I didn’t always succeed! But I recognized it, at least.
Turns out, more praise and affirmation is a win-win scenario! The women I managed felt more comfortable, and it turns out that the white dudes I managed felt better as well. Another score for diverse teams.
Also published on Medium.