As a collaboration facilitator, the vast majority of the work I do is with software development teams, which are notoriously male dominated. In the last few years, the tech industry has become hungry for more women and is throwing a lot of money at “the problem.”
Intel announced that it is investing $300M to attract and retain more women. Facebook and Apple now offer $20k egg freezing as an employment benefit so women can delay having children for their careers. And Microsoft has committed to increasing Diversity and Inclusion Training. There are also more and more scholarships available for women and minorities in the hopes of developing a more diverse talent pipeline in the tech industry.
Yet in addition to tackling this gender disparity issue from the outside and increasing the number of women in the field, there’s an invisible interpersonal dimension which also needs attention—but is hardly ever addressed.
Here is the challenge: there are underlying dynamics of how gender differences play out in teams, and if they are poorly understood or not effectively addressed they impact team performance, creativity, and culture.
Here’s what I mean—and this example isn’t from a tech industry context, but rather a personal development retreat I attended last Spring. (A context many of us might believe or hope would be more attuned to these subtle dynamics in groups.)
There we were—80 inspired learners in a long, naturally lit hall with a view of the ocean. We were engaged in a challenging developmental practice that involved uncovering a lot of the unconscious patterns running our lives so that we can be free of them and be more present in the moment.
We had two teachers—a man and a woman. The man was the primary teacher who led the first day and a half of the retreat.
Our group was 75% women and 25% men. Because I work with women in tech I am particularly sensitive to leadership influence and I watch gender dynamics closely.
So in this context, I was curious to see that women didn’t start participating until the female teacher started leading the session. Prior to that, it had only been men raising their voices to ask questions. Even though there were more women in the room, with a man in front of the room they didn’t raise their hands to participate until a woman was leading!
I also found it fascinating that when women did raise their hands, they weren’t given the same opportunities to speak as the men were. For example, the people holding the microphones determined who would speak when, and I watched a guy in the back of the room walk past two women with their hands raised to hand the microphone to another guy.
Even in a group of people committed to a rigorous developmental practice of overcoming unconscious bias, the gender of the leadership team had a huge influence on participation in the room—and it went unnoticed.
Within organizations and teams where “unconscious bias” isn’t what we’ve come together to work on, the prevalence of bias and patterns in gender relating are taking place all the time. And they influence how we show up, speak up, and engage with each other.
I continue to be amazed and grateful for the work in the Integral Facilitator® program which helps me to understand and work with majority/minority dynamics, gender dynamics and masculine/feminine qualities. For instance I often use a polarity map (a tool we learn as Integral Facilitators) to help me see a clearer path through some of the challenges my teams face regarding unconscious gender dynamics and biases.
What I view as crucial for facilitators, coaches and consultants (not to mention leaders, managers and OD specialists) is that as facilitative leaders we can be the echo chamber that amplifies the minority voices in the room. Whether those happen to be female or male. Even just one other voice echoing the minority perspective can shift the awareness and energy in a room, making it possible for group discussion and thinking to pop out of a rut and get momentum in a new direction. When we skilfully quiet the dominant voices and balance the contributions, something new can emerge. The skills I developed in the Integral Facilitator program help me do this on a daily basis.
Here’s a quick example: Last fall I led a group of business school students on a challenge course. We were on a beautiful course near the Sandy River east of Portland, Oregon. Moss grows freely on the dense trees, and walking through the course feels like being transported into a magical world.
As we were walking from one activity to the next I invited the students to play the Zen Counting Game. The Zen Counting Game involves everyone getting quiet for three seconds, then one person initiating a count to ten, where each person in the group contributes counting a number. The goal of the exercise is to count as high as possible without two people jumping in to say the same number. If two people do say the same number at the same time, the group starts back at zero.
Through the woods we heard our voices: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5.” A groan from the group and back to the beginning: “1, 2, 3, 3.” Another groan. The group got to 8 a couple of times and then started to get frustrated that they could not go higher.
Then I asked everyone who had already counted in the last few rounds to be quiet and see what happened. With the group of quieter students counting we quickly made it to 58!
Team performance is greatly affected by invisible dynamics at play between majority / minority voices, and so is the large culture of teams and organizations. When we think about the balance of genders in the workplace and especially when we talk about actively bringing more females into a male-dominated industry, we have to be ready to explore what the shifting gender dynamics mean for how we interact with each other. This isn’t simply work that we do on the outside—it’s cultural. And it requires training and practice in working with the invisible interpersonal dynamics that arise in groups all the time.
Collaboration facilitator, Co-founder of Navigate IT and Certified Integral Facilitator®