Be A Better Ally With These Five Ideas

Each week, we share five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

5 bulb lights in Newton’s Cradle position
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1. Make a stretch opportunity spreadsheet

Stretch assignments provide the opportunity to learn new skills and be better positioned for a promotion. Such projects can also help increase confidence, enhance social networks, and build credibility across an organization. As a result, they can help retain employees from underrepresented groups. These challenging or prominent assignments may even keep them from dropping out of the field completely.

As Google engineering manager Mekka Okereke recently pointed out,

“Men tend to get the lionshare of stretch opportunities — ‘I believe you can do this new thing!’ Women tend to get lateral opportunities — ‘You did it there, you can do it here!’”

Mekka went on to share a compelling, practical idea to evaluate how you’re assigning stretch projects: Make a spreadsheet with columns for employee’s name, demographics if available (e.g., race, gender), if they have a stretch opportunity for 2020 (yes/no), and a description of that opportunity. Fill it out for each of your team members. Then ask questions. For example, what percentage of your team are women or non-binary? What percentage get stretch opportunities? Ditto for the men.

If you’re not giving these stretch opportunities equally today, what action will you take to be more equitable?

2. Track ideas in meetings

Let’s say a person from an underrepresented demographic says something insightful or even game-changing in a meeting, only to have it dismissed or ignored. Then someone else says the same thing later, and it’s well-received — or maybe even heralded. While the second person gets the kudos, the person who originally said it starts fuming inside.

Here’s an approach to combat this all-too-common phenomenon:

In meetings, track whose ideas get acknowledged or built on, versus ignored or appropriated. Then, look for any patterns based on gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and abilities. If you spot a pattern, work to fix it by paying attention to ideas that get repeated and reminding everyone who originated them. For example, “That’s a great idea. Thanks to Jen for surfacing it earlier.”

3. Jot down pronunciation reminders

Earlier this month, the Harvard Business Review published If You Don’t Know How to Say Someone’s Name, Just Ask. As professor Ruchika Tulshyan wrote,

“Learning to pronounce a colleague’s name correctly is not just a common courtesy but it’s an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace, one that emphasizes psychological safety and belonging.”

Ruchika offers some simple guidance, including asking how to pronounce someone’s name, apologizing if you get it wrong, gently correcting others if they mispronounce, and not giving someone a nickname just because you’re not familiar with their name.

We also love this idea, from software engineer Katy Kahla:

“Saying someone’s name properly is one of the most respectful things you can do. I hate it when I’ve been saying someone’s name wrong and work hard to correct myself. I write pronunciations down for people interviewing so I can review back to it when I am struggling to remember.”

By the way, Katy also uses a custom “Name Pronunciation” field on Slack to help coworkers learn how to say her name: Kat-ee Kay-la.

She’s not the only one. We learned that Monzo added a pronunciation custom field to their Slack profiles and bet that other companies have done so, too. What a great best practice.

4. Offer to write a recommendation

We spotted this advice in a tweet from chemistry professor Jennifer Faust,

“For faculty looking to support #MinoritiesInSTEM, why not offer to write a recommendation letter instead of waiting to be asked for one?”

She goes on to give credit to a documentary about being allies for underrepresented people of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) by journalism professor Kendall Moore. Adding it to our must-watch list.

And while we’re on the subject…

5. Give wholehearted recommendations

Recommendations come in many forms. Formal letters, social media endorsements, verbal reference checks, and back channel casual conversations can all impact the career trajectories of the people they describe. This means that when you’re giving any kind of recommendation, you should show complete confidence. No hedging (“she might be good”), faint praises (“she’ll do okay”), or other phrases that undermine (“she needs only minimal guidance”).

Wondering why we’re calling this out? Turns out that in a 2018 study of recommendations for academic positions, researchers found that letters about women included more doubt-raising phrases than those about men, and that even one such phrase can make a difference in a job search. This means that a lukewarm recommendation may be more harmful than no recommendation at all.

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