Aristotle astutely observed that, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and gender equality in the workplace, too often the day-to-day habits in many organizations fall short of excellence. In the January 2017 HBR article To Address Gender Bias at Your Company, Start with Teams, Todd Warren and Michelle King point out that, like so many unsuccessful change initiatives, altering diversity and inclusion habits proves far harder than leaders initially anticipate. The authors argue that the key to addressing gender equality starts with team behavior. They describe three ideas for changing how work is done in order to address the social patterns that foster gender bias, reduce team effectiveness, and stifle careers.Google’s Project Aristotle, a three year effort to uncover the drivers of team excellence at Google, identified team norms such as psychological safety and conversation equality as essential to team effectiveness. Second, teams need to employ feedback practices that create rich conversations about team member expectations vs. their actual experiences. In their April 2016 HBR article Vague Feedback is Holding Women Back, Shelley Correll and Carolyn Simad support that idea, emphasizing the critical role of feedback on performance. They cite the example of a program run at Microsoft called Step Up – a year long leadership development process for women, during which they were provided with clear and actionable feedback. The program has achieved excellent early success in moving participants into leadership roles. Third, leaders need to regularly and systematically examine their own assumptions and habits concerning diversity and inclusion. This requires mindfulness, discipline, and a willingness to lead the development of new habits.
Current Research on Gender Equality and Teams
In their paper The Role of Gender in Team Collaboration and Performance, Julia Bear of the Israel Institute of Technology, and Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University, reviewed the academic literature covering the effects of gender diversity on team processes and performance. Bear and Woolley focused specifically on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and the increasing importance of team collaboration in these fields. They note a significant gender gap in the STEM fields and ask the question: Does gender diversity matter for team processes and performance? Their research results strongly supported the proposition that team collaboration is improved by the presence of women in the group. Concerning team performance, Bear and Woolley conclude that the effects of gender diversity are more complex. Their findings imply that in order to accrue the benefits of improved team collaboration and performance, women should be represented in parity with men (team size) along with equal clarity of purpose and role.
Building Diverse, Highly-Effective Teams
- Establishing clear team norms that ensure gender parity, conversation equality, and psychological safety.
- Regularly gathering feedback on team member experiences vs. their expectations – and pay particular attention to any signs of conscious or unconscious bias.
- Consistently closing gaps between team member experiences and expectations across key relationships – those between team mates, with the team leader, and across teams with shared goals.
Establishing those habits enable teams to take a leap forward in their efforts to end gender bias. Gender bias and a lack of equality on teams and in organizations is costly in terms of reduced effectiveness, productivity, and innovation. Addressing gender bias not only increases team effectiveness, but improves people’s well-being and happiness at work and beyond.
Bear, Julia & Woolley, Anita. (2011). The Role of Gender in Team Collaboration and Performance. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 36. doi:10.1179/030801811X13013181961473.
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