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Old Ideas Making a Comeback?

Old Ideas Making a Comeback?

Last week I gave a brief talk on multicultural sophistication. This talk was essentially aimed at assisting the attendees in developing some additional level of self awareness in their thought process relating to a variety of diversity topics. Every person, no matter who you are, has some bias or preconceived notion about someone, some group, some-something that colors objective assessment. I don’t want to get into the social psychology of in-group and out-group bias or unconscious motivations because that’s a much deeper issue (no less important and regardless of protestation, scientifically valid realities). The talk went over well, nobody walked away offended, and hopefully all were just a little more open to the very human condition of the reality of how the mind works and what happens if we do not challenge assumptions and everyday behavior.

It’s no surprise though that there are still some old school bigots and misogynists out there. There also tends to be a level of burnout currently that makes many people just shut it out, ignore it, and pretend it’s not a big deal (the “I don’t need feminism” movement comes to mind particularly because the reason that it can exist is because of feminism). However, burnout is especially tiring to those who do not experience the effects of bias, stereotyping, or sexism, among other isms. In addition, the average person, as evidenced by those who attended my talk, are just good people who do not set out to be unfair and make every effort to be decent human beings. Organizations spend a great deal of time, energy, and training dollars on ensuring that team members understand the importance of diversity, multicultural awareness, and acceptable speech or behavior. It’s unfortunate when those in charge fail to include themselves in these endeavors.

[Related: Women Who Lead: The Power of Diversity in Business--with Sallie Krawcheck]

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. A coder by the name of Lindsay Kirkham claims to have overheard some IBM execs making some very last century remarks on hiring women. First, let me be clear, there has not yet been any confirmation or denial of this event. I’m inclined to believe this young woman but even if she’s incorrect these are not statements I have not heard as recently as this year. These executive gentlemen were allegedly discussing why they don’t like to hire women. You can probably guess the reason...babies. EEK!

There is no denying that women leave the workforce (temporarily or permanently) to have a family. But there are two thought processes here, one conscious and one unconscious, that feeds the idea that having children makes women a bad employment choice. The first is, on the surface, a business decision. Hiring and investing in someone who will leave seems like a waste. This is really a no brainer in terms of spending financial resources. The unconscious problem really speaks to how we, generally, devalue not just women’s choices but choices that do not result in greater income and status.

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the average tenure of a male employee was 4.7 years. For women that number is 4.6. The reality is that men and women stay in a position for about the same length of time. For older non-millennials the average is about 10 years. The old trope about children is irrelevant when viewed from this perspective. So, what gives [IBM] guys? Is this an issue of women’s choices being value-less in terms of income and status?

[Related: Be the Diversity You Seek]

There is no crystal ball that any employer can view that will guarantee their investment. When you hire someone, man or woman, it’s a gamble. A young woman could leave to have a child, a young man could leave to be part of the next big start up. Any number of things could happen that could result in a valued employee walking out the door.

The very fact that anyone would be hung up on and make a negative decision based on the idea that women could leave a position to have a child is just so 19th century. Aside from the labor statistics demonstrating the patent falsehood of such beliefs, I would say that it is precisely because of childbearing that the qualified woman presenting such a conundrum is actually the right choice. Consider these two scenarios:

  1. Your outstanding male employee gets a job offer he can’t refuse. You’re sorry to see him go but thankfully he gives you a full month’s notice so you can find his replacement.
  2. Your outstanding female employee informs you that she is pregnant and is planning on leaving the work force for a few years. She gives you five months notice. As she winds down her employment she trains her replacement.

For those who may still have a problem with scenario number two you either need to get back into your time machine and return to 1950 or you might need to address the unconscious issues I mentioned earlier. Either way, in this day and age, there is no room for this type of thinking. Because of fear of punishment or maltreatment in the workplace many women keep their pregnancies secret until it can no longer be hidden. Any workplace, manager, or organization that operates in such a way as to result in such secrecy needs a swift kick into the 21st century. Remember, your employees are a reflection of the culture you create and if your culture results in secrecy it's time to review the organizations culture.

[Related: 10 Ways to Improve Your Company's Diversity Results]

If the story about the IBM guys turns out to be true I’d be very interested to see how IBM handles this, specifically in the public image space.  


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