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We asked our CEO Véronique Özkaya for her thoughts on diversity, equality, and what it’s like to be a female leader in 2021.
2020 was certainly a year in which social justice topics were on all our minds. The global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement increased awareness about our biases, and made us conscious of the fact that gender bias is another topic that slows down the path to equality.
As a woman and the mother of three daughters, I‘m passionate about achieving gender equality. As a leader, I see the opportunity (and perhaps the responsibility) to use my position to increase opportunities for others. Over the course of my career, I had great mentors for whom my gender did not matter, but I have also experienced bias and blatant discrimination and seen it directed at others.
This used to make me angry. Emotion is a powerful driver, but it can also prevent you from acting. I’ll come back to that topic a little later. Today I want to focus my energy on increasing diversity in the workplace and breaking down the barriers and biases that hinder success.
Bias is a systemic prejudice for or against something or someone, based on things like stereotypes or identities. Your biases can be conscious (you are aware of your own prejudices), or unconscious (you don’t realize you are biased). There are so multiple biases, including age, race, gender, religion, etc. Typically, we absorb those biases from our upbringing and experiences. They influence our perspective.
It is much easier to recognize and address conscious bias. Unconscious bias is harder to tackle because we are unaware of it. “Implicit Association Tests” (IATs) can help identify what unconscious biases you may have. These are the result of Project Implicit, a collaborative research effort between researchers at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and University of Washington. Many tests are available, and I would encourage you to try one – you may get surprising results!
Here is an example of unconscious bias. You want to increase the representation of women in your team and you interview several candidates with the same skillset (as per their resume). Without realizing what you are doing, you may hire the man over the woman because he displays higher confidence during the interview. That choice has nothing to do with gender, but unconsciously you favor individuals who display this behavior.
The stubbornness of this issue lies in the fact that it is rooted in our societal beliefs about men, women, and leadership. We believe men should be “agentic” (assertive, decisive) and women should be “communal” (warm, caring, sympathetic). These gender stereotypes clash with the leadership prototype. Unconscious biases are by essence not obvious.
The imbalance created by biases can generate strong feelings of anger, injustice, and sadness. When confronted with biases, the first thing that comes to mind is emotion. We talk a lot about imbalances and the emotions they generate. It is normal to be angry at these imbalances, but we are sometimes so lost in our emotions that it prevents us from making progress. How do we give the world progress?
This may sound controversial, but I think that our generation has it easier than they believe. I am not saying things are easy, but they are easier than they have been. You do not even have to look too far back – the right to vote for women in Switzerland dates to 1975. Imbalances are man-made (and woman-made), and are created by our ancestors, who had different perspectives. Today, it is up to each one of us to shift that perspective!
When I told my daughters that less than 5% of CEOs are women in the US and Europe, they could not believe it. I loved that reaction because they could not think of why that was. Depending on your gender, your community, and your social circumstances, obstacles are in your way today. There is no denying this. It is important to prepare our kids for the road ahead but also to make sure they know they can achieve anything – it’s all about mindset.
The work of our generation is to reconstruct identities. All identities are assumed. The idea of masculinity is assumed – you may think of physical attributes like muscle, but how about instead, we try to break that and stop assuming? There is a brilliant story about Nelson Mandela boarding a plane in 1962 and feeling a wave of panic when he saw that the pilot was black. In 1962, he had never seen a black pilot in South Africa. The road is long, but we ARE making progress and perspectives ARE shifting.
Start by figuring out who you are. What do you stand for? What are your values? Next, get started. Remember how powerful emotions are? They can also stop us from doing anything. The hardest part is starting. You will be the worst at something the first time you do it (we all remember our first public speaking engagement) but then you will get better. The environment you may be in today may feel like gravity, and there is not much you can do about gravity. Don’t be afraid to ask for support – get started and you will soon be thriving.
One thing you need to do to improve is to remain teachable. Everything we know, we learn. Today, there are so many free resources out there that there is no excuse for not learning. Another way to help shift perspective is to ask for a seat at the table. Unfortunately, this is a huge problem for many women.
There is often a sense of not belonging or not deserving, so my advice is not to ignore it but rather to work on it. Look factually at all the things you have accomplished and surround yourself with positive people who will support you as you develop. Get a mentor – it’s the best way to learn, gain confidence, and get another perspective on things. At some point in your career, you will also be a mentor, and it will be your chance to give back to others. Last but not least, be willing to fail. Our best lessons come from failure, and if it’s handled right, failure gives us the keys to success by making us stronger and more resilient.
Véronique Özkaya was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Argos Multilingual in early 2020. Prior to that, Véronique built an impressive career in the localization industry, using her experience, insight, and leadership to shape strategies that unlocked significant growth.
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