What does it take to have credibility? A few letters behind your name, a diploma from a top-tier university, a CV that reads like a nobel laureate? But what about instant credibility? The Malcolm Gladwell "Blink"-like impression you make on someone based on his or her previous likes, dislikes, prejudices and biases. Those biases are created and reinforced by what we see around us. In the case of the startup world and, more specifically, within the C-suite of most companies, what we see is a very homogeneous population.
I'm not here to lecture about what we need to do to change the system. But I do think it's worth turning a mirror back to ourselves to understand the system that we operate within. More importantly, I want to foster the ability to empathize and see things from a different point of view. By putting ourselves in another person's shoes, particularly the shoes of someone outside the homogeneous majority, we can start changing our systemic biases.
There are many situations where the majority of the population is of one specific age, gender, class, race, or other social grouping. But I can only speak to what I know, and what I know stems from my experience in high-tech companies and startups. Both of which are extraordinarily male-dominated.
I was in an executive review at a large software company in the Seattle area last week. There were 20 or so people in the room. Two were women: myself, and the VP's administrative assistant. This situation is not unfamiliar to me, or to many women in tech. But it's hard to communicate how this gender imbalance feels to men, who (in these companies) are almost always in the majority. It's certainly not their fault, but it would be interesting if they could feel what it is like to be in the inverse situation: giving a presentation to a high-powered female executive, surrounded only by other women executives.
The most frustrating feeling I struggle with is my own sense of credibility. I'm the woman in the group, and I realize that regardless of how progressive or open-minded the other people (men) are, there is an unbiased awareness that I'm different. And that makes me feel quite vulnerable. Not until after I've been able to make several sharp, articulate and well-reasoned comments or contributions do I feel I've "earned" my seat at the table.
That's absurd, I know. I shouldn't feel that way, and I applaud women who don't. But the reality is I feel on guard, as though I have to prove myself, when I'm surrounded by an entire group who is different than myself. The same would go if I was entering a room of twenty 60-year-old women. As the youngest, I'd feel like I had to "earn" my seat at the table.
Perhaps that's the analogy to share: for men, imagine if you were stuck inside the body of a twelve-year-old. You looked like you did when you were twelve, but you were as old, intelligent, and experienced as you are today. How would it feel if every time you wanted to make a comment, contribute to the meeting, or even introduce yourself initially to a colleague, you were in your twelve-year-old body? Would you feel less assertive? Would you hesitate before speaking to make sure what you had to say was well thought out and articulate?
Perhaps not. Perhaps you're extraordinarily self-assured. But for the rest of us, it's a good way to think about what it's like for the "different" people in the room.