When it comes to the discussion of systemic gender bias in the workplace, it can be hard to land on a concrete definition. What constitutes implied sexism? What is innuendo, and what is innocuous? What quantitative examples can women hold up as evidence of sexual harassment or discrimination? Language, when recounted after the fact, often lacks the punch that can only be understood in the moment. Like a text message, secondhand accounts often cannot convey tone, context or body language, all of which can play a part in making a woman feel threatened.
The general public by now is familiar with the term “de-escalation,” which refers to techniques that certain marginalized groups use to mitigate a perceived threat rather than confront it and risk raising the stakes. These techniques, long used by women, racial and religious minorities, and other demographics that have traditionally been subject to discriminatory behavior, are today being taught to protesters as a means of keeping peaceful protests from devolving into riots. As de-escalation refers to women, common examples are leaving a location if it feels too laden with risk, or laughing off and dismissing unwanted sexual advances from men in positions of power. One only has to look at the recent onslaught of accusations against high-profile, powerful men who have for too long gotten away with unspeakable behavior because women often de-escalate sexual abuse and harassment. Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose and President Donald Trump are just a few of the dozens of recipients of such allegations we’ve seen in the recent months.
In the infamous Elephant in the Valley study, which examines sexism and sexual harassment in the tech industry, 60 percent of women surveyed reported unwanted sexual advances, and one in three women said she feared for her personal safety because of work-related circumstances. It is inevitable that the de-escalation techniques and other behaviors women learn outside of work impact their experiences inside. Does simply being a female influence the career trajectories of women in tech? If so, how? And perhaps the most difficult question to answer: At what point do employers and industries become responsible for mitigating a reality that does and has existed outside of the realm of their influence for thousands of years?
Lynn Bryant, channel account manager at Kemp Technologies, has been in the IT channel for 30 years. During that time, she’s seen a lot of progress toward the elimination of the “bro culture” the tech industry is so often accused of fostering. But now that blatant sexual discrimination behavior is the rare exception rather than the norm, the industry has to turn its attention to addressing the intrinsic cultural discrimination and marginalization that impacts the way women manage their careers and are afforded opportunities to excel.
We sat down with Bryant and talked about de-escalation, how a lifetime of such conditioning manifests itself in the workplace and how millennials will save us all.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Channel Futures: As women, we’re used to every day having to be hyper-aware of our surroundings and subconsciously evaluating risk factors. It’s second nature to be on guard, even at work. How does simply the fact of being a woman impact our career paths?
Lynn Bryant: It's just one more thing we have to deal with. Not so much anymore but when I was young, oh my God, it was crazy. You just tell somebody "no" and you move on. I’ve been propositioned by people I work with. I’ve been propositioned by customers. I’ve been propositioned by crazy drunk Japanese guys at a trade show that I had no idea who they even were. I've been mistaken for a booth babe. I didn’t dwell on any of it. I think in my mind it was just sort of par for the course. I can't tell you if I'd been in the makeup industry or the lingerie industry, would it have been any different?
CF: I think you’re touching on something here that I think really needs to be talked about. That’s that we normalize those propositions, because that's the reality of women, not just in tech. That’s our reality.
LB: Right. That’s guys and women. I mean if those attractions drunk and/or sober didn't happen, none of us would be here. It's how we handle it, though, whether or not we get blasted for it in some way later. If I turn down a customer, [does] he stop buying for me? The ones I’m thinking of off the top of my head, “no.” The relationship just got funny. It was like, “You're an a**hole.” “OK, you’re just holding out on me.” I’m like, “I’ll keep holding out on you, but you still need to buy stuff from me.” You laugh and you go on or you can get worked up over it. You can get worked up over it whether you’re in school, on the bus, at the grocery. We have to be OK with turnaround and going, “You’re being an a**hole. Stop it.”
CF: How do you think that caution manifests in the workplace?
LB: I learned when I was recruiting that women tend to doubt themselves and overthink everything and wonder if they're the right person and wonder if they’re the best person for the company. I mean 10 ways to Sunday. Like you said, they think about it from all different directions. They’re constantly calculating, “Do I want to walk down this alley?” The men are just like, “Look at me! It’s all me. You’d be an idiot not to hire me.”
I could have two men and two women contact me for a position that I had posted and the men would spend an hour telling me how awesome they were. The women would ask the questions. What are they looking for? What does their client base look like? What does success look like for them?
The approach was always, always very different. The women are trying to figure out, “Does this company fit my lifestyle? Can I be successful here? Can I do a good job for them?” The men were usually like, “What does it pay? What's the title? How many people are between me and the VP position? This is why I'm so awesome.”
The women would think about it a lot more than just how much money is it and what's the title. So it was really hard to get a female candidate. It’s really hard to get a woman to leave the company she's at, because she would look at other things. She would look sort of at, “OK, how would this affect my family? How would this affect my travel schedule? What does this look like on my resume?”
CF: So she isn’t conditioned to having the freedom to just jump in feet first. There’s an extra level of caution and preparation that has to go into it. In a way, it reminds me of conversations we’re having in this country right now about race.
LB: I’ve been thinking about that too. We’re talking about women in tech, but there are even fewer minorities. How difficult is it for them to get the job, hold the job, get the client? The stuff that they've had to put up with by far is more extreme than anything I've ever dealt with. It’s almost the same question, though. What do they do about it? You can go sue somebody, but then do you not get the next job because of that? It's a small market. The folks I know of color are so put together. It's almost like they have to go that extra 10 miles to even get what comes naturally to me.
CF: When does the responsibility shift from being on the woman – or the racial minority – to give 110 percent and excel in an industry, to being on the industry for opening itself up and making itself more inclusive?
LB: How do you change an industry?
CF: Time I guess.
LB: I mean, that’s a really powerful answer. It's not just the industry. It’s how people are raised. It's their experiences at home, in high school, in college, before they ever get to a company and then move into a position of power. How do you affect that? Again, I thought we were past it, but we’re not; we’re absolutely not. Is knowing that something is off simply a matter of us just becoming more aware and asking the questions?
CF: I think it’s a matter of having the conversation. When we come away from this conversation, will you be more aware? Will you have a conversation with your daughter that reflects some of this? Will that eventually trickle down and effect real change? In the channel, one of the things that I have hope for as far as diversity goes is that such a vast chunk of this sector is going to be retiring in the next decade. These millennials and Gen Z, these people who actively question and actively embrace diversity, they take a real kind of satisfaction in telling baby boomers and Gen X’ers, "You’ve got it wrong. This is the way the world should be.”
LB: So I’ve had the conversation with my daughter. I’ll keep doing that, but I’d like to have conversations now after you and I have talked with some of my friends, both male and female, and just see what they'll tell me and what they think. I feel very strongly that there are a lot of good people out there. We have to win. We have to do the right thing. We have to be moral and ethical and do the right thing and not push somebody into something they're not comfortable with. That also means not letting the people that are comfortable with their power push us around.
I don't want to be the woman that's afraid. I don't want to be the woman that can't because someone else is telling me I can’t.