Critical Listening Guide

 

Critical Listening Guide: Just Because You Always Hear It, Doesn't Mean It's True

Not all approaches to increasing diversity are research-based or effective! This guide is intended to help you identify common misunderstandings that surface when people talk about how to increase the participation of women (and other underrepresented groups) in technology. Use these tips to help you spot statements that might be "red flags" or a sign that the discussion is headed in a direction that is not research-based.

When appropriate, you may want to explore or challenge these topics. See the "Ask This" and "Add This" sections for ideas on what to say. Scroll down for multiple topics and applicable research on each one.

 

Hear this?

Types of Problem Statements:

Fix the woman (in yellow) • Essentialism (in blue) • Framing as "women's issues" (in purple)

Note that in addition to the problems identified above, all of the statements in this grid lack an attention to intersectionality – that is, they fail to recognize the ways in which women and men vary in terms of race, class, sexual orientation and other social identities. Remember that it is always important to ask "which women" or "which men" are involved?

Click on a statement to find out what to ask or add to continue the conversation, as well as the common misperceptions behind the statement.   "Women need to learn to be more confident."   "Women bring communication or people skills."
 
"Hey ladies, we need to stop holding ourselves back."   "Consider infusing hip-hop into your curriculum to better engage students of color."   "Learn to take up space, and toot your own horn."
 
"So tell me what are the top 5 things we need to do to recruit and retain more Black women? More LGBTQ folks?"   "Women need flexibility in their jobs."   "Men are such linear thinkers."
 
"Women and men have different leadership styles."   "We need to help our interns from certain areas learn to speak more professionally; otherwise, it’s really going to hold them back."   "A senior leader announces that the Black and Latinx affinity groups should take the lead in developing an inclusion strategy"
 
"We really need to help our Asian students learn to speak up more"   "Women manage like ____; men manage like____."   "Women won't apply for the job unless they have all the qualifications; but, men will apply if they only have a few."
 
"Women are such great collaborators."   "Women want a family-friendly workplace."   "Don't be afraid to negotiate; just waltz in there, and ask for what you deserve."
 
"Take charge of your career."   "We really need to hire more ______ ( e.g., Black, Latinx, Native American) employees so that we can better understand that market."   "Women usually want/choose to spend more time with their families."

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Ideas for Using This Tool

For Yourself:

  • Skim before or after conferences, workshops, or other talks to heighten your ability to recognize and address these concerns.
  • Refer to it when preparing your own talks, panels or workshops.
  • Refer to it when reading information on diversity or whenever you hear something that doesn't sound quite right.

With others:

  • When using this tool, don't make it about blame. Talk about how we've probably all made these statements from time to time. These are complex topics so it's helpful to think about how to talk about these issues in more accurate and effective ways.
  • Show this to your team or to other colleagues to start a conversation.
  • Debrief with others after conferences or workshops, using this tool for reference.
  • Disseminate as a helpful resource for speakers who are preparing talks.

 

The Problem: Fix the Woman Approaches to Diversity

 

Hear any of these problematic statements?

  • "Women need to learn to be more confident."
  • "Hey ladies, we need to stop holding ourselves back."
  • "Learn to take up space, and toot your own horn."
  • "Don't be afraid to negotiate; just waltz in there, and ask for what you deserve."
  • "Take charge of your career."
 

Ask this.

  • "Tell me more. I'm curious to hear more about why you think that."
  • "Isn't it more complicated than that though?"
  • "What if it ('being confident' or whatever advice is being offered) backfires?"
 

Add this.

You can help make these kinds of problematic statements more accurate by adding this research-based information.

  • Many women (and men) might benefit from learning to be/appear more confident. But, at best, this will only help those individuals; it won't change patterns of underrepresentation.
  • Just because women "seem" less confident, doesn't mean they actually are; how they behave could be a result of stereotype threat or the environment they are currently in.
  • Suggesting women be more confident (or assertive) fails to recognize that there are advantages to behaving diplomatically or less assertively. The workplace could benefit from more people learning to behave diplomatically.

Why is this problematic?

This statement relies on a "Fix the Woman" approach rather than a "Fix the Environment" approach.

What does the research say?

While some of this may be good advice or professional development that both individual women and men could benefit from, years of research demonstrates that it will do little, if anything, to change systemic underrepresentation.

These statements ignore reasons WHY women may appear less confident or may not negotiate. They fail to recognize that sometimes these actually may be smart strategies in a system that treats them differently. For example, being assertive and taking charge can backfire for women.

Research:

 

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The Problem: Essentialism

 

Hear any of these problematic statements?

  • "Women are such great collaborators."
  • "Women bring communication or people skills."
  • "Men are such linear thinkers."
  • "Women and men have different leadership styles."
  • "Women manage like ____; men manage like____."
  • "Women won't apply for the job unless they have all the qualifications; but, men will apply if they only have a few."
 

Ask this.

  • "Tell me more. I'm curious to hear more about why you think that."
  • "Isn't it more complicated than that though?"
  • "All women/men? Which women/men?"
  • "How do you account for variations among women, men, or other groups?"
 

Add this.

You can help make these kinds of problematic statements more accurate by adding this research-based information.

  • It's important to qualify these statements by noting that they:
    1. don't apply to all women and men,
    2. differences we see aren't innate but rather socially influenced tendencies, and
    3. when they do apply, they are often "context" dependent and not always true even of that person.
  • For example, sometimes some women, largely due to how they've been raised, do express different leadership styles. But in public conversation, these differences often are overestimated.

Why is this problematic?

This statement reflects what researchers call "essentialism": statements that overgeneralize or exaggerate similarities among women (or among men), statements that act as though "traditionally" male or female characteristics are innate, or statements that portray women and men as essentially and fundamentally different.

What does the research say?

While some research shows partial support for some (but not all) of these statements, they tend to get simplified and exaggerated in public discourse. As a result, these statements can do damage because they inscribe difference as innate and specifically due to gender. They ignore:

  • the vast range of differences between all women (even between women of the same age, race, class)
  • the huge role that socialization plays in who we are (i.e., how we are raised, societal norms)
  • the fact that women and men are more similar than different; in fact, research shows that differences among men or among women are generally greater than differences between men and women.
  • reasons WHY women may appear less confident or not negotiate. There is a failure to recognize that sometimes these actually may be smart strategies in a system that treats them differently. For example, being assertive and taking charge can backfire for women.

Research:

 

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The Problem: Framing Diversity Issues as "Women's Issues"

 

Hear any of these problematic statements?

  • "Women want a family-friendly workplace."
  • "Women need flexibility in their jobs."
  • "Women usually want/choose to spend more time with their families."
 

Ask this.

  • "Tell me more. I'm curious to hear more about why you think that."
  • "Isn't it more complicated than that though?"
  • "All women/men? Which women/men? How do you account for variations among women, men, or other groups?"
 

Add this.

You can help make these kinds of problematic statements more accurate by adding this research-based information.

  • Policies should be framed as beneficial and for use by everyone, including men and individuals without children.
  • Formal policies are not enough. Any conversation about programs that support work/life balance must include strategies to encourage employees to actually use them. For example, employers must ensure that employees aren't stigmatized or penalized for using programs; in addition, executives and supervisors should set positive examples by making use of benefits themselves.

Why is this problematic?

This statement frames the issue or problem as a "women's issue" -- as something that is primarily important for women or special "help" that women "need."

What does the research say?

While it's true that family responsibilities still tend to fall more heavily on women, and women are more likely to leave because of competing responsibilities, times are changing. Men are participating more in childcare and express desire to be involved parents, but often feel even less able than women to utilize work policies that enable greater family involvement.

"Free choice" is not always as "free" as it seems. Women may "choose" between family and career because they have few alternatives. When partners share family responsibilities equally, women frequently make different "choices."

Research:

 

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