Women In The Workplace: Assumptions And Challenges On Equality With Michelle P. King

Regardless of how modern the world has become and how organizations have transformed into more complex systems with both men and women harmoniously co-existing, inequality and, often, stereotype still play roles in toppling the balance. Today, Dr. Diane Hamilton engages in an eye-opening conversation with Michelle P. King about her book called The Fix, which promotes the understanding of how inequality shows up for women and the invisible barriers they encounter. Michelle is a leading global expert in gender and organizations, Director of Inclusion at Netflix, and the former head of the UN Global Initiative. If you’re a leader, discover how you can transform your workplace into one that values inclusion and difference, and supports employees to engage in wide-ranging behaviors.

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I’m glad you joined us because we have Michelle P. King. Michelle is the author of THE FIX: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Hold Women Back at Work. She’s an advocate for fixing workplaces, not women, and a podcast host of The Fix. I’m excited to have Michelle on the show and we’re going to talk about what she does in her work. This is going to be a fascinating episode.

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Women In The Workplace: Assumptions And Challenges On Equality With Michelle P. King

Michelle P. King is a leading global expert in gender and organizations, and Director of Inclusion at Netflix. She was the head of UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change. She spent her career advancing women in innovation and technology, leading global diversity and inclusion programs, and advocating for women at work. It’s nice to have you here, Michelle.

Thank you so much. I love being here.

This is going to be fun. You have your podcast, The Fix, so you’re a pro at all this. You do a lot of speaking and you regularly contribute to Forbes. Your works have been published everywhere and you have a PhD and all the things that you have with your background. This is going to be fun because we’re going to have a lot to chat about. For those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, can you give a little bit of background on how you got to be the director of inclusion at Netflix, have a podcast and do all this amazing stuff?

I’ve had a long career in human resources. I’ve worked in a range of countries in that space with a bit of a focus on diversity and inclusion. Probably after the birth of my second child, I wanted to dig deep into the equality space and understand why women aren’t advancing at the same rate as men. At that time, I got an incredible opportunity to work for the United Nations, the UN Women, and come up with a strategy around diversity and inclusion. Later on, hitting up innovation and tech programs. It was through a lot of that work that I came to see how work doesn’t work for women and what it is that we need to be doing. That’s when I started my work as a researcher, undertaking my PhD to try to understand this issue and what specifically we need to do to solve it. That’s how I got to where I am. It was through writing the book that the opportunity with Netflix presented and I’ve joined them, so it’s great.

I know you have an MBA and a Masters in Psychology, but what’s your PhD in?

My PhD is looking at inequality in workplaces but specifically, as it relates to organizational politics. I’m trying to understand organizational politics and how different men and women engage in that when it comes to things like networks, mentorship, sponsorship, and informal communication. I’m trying to understand how inequality shows up for women and what are some of the invisible barriers that women encounter. There’s a lot related to my book.

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Women In The Workplace: The number one barrier to men’s advancement in organizations is diversity and inclusion initiatives that advance women.


Tell me a little bit about your book.

I often share this story. A few years ago, I spoke at a conference in America. I just arrived in the States and I didn’t know too much about this conference. It was in Pennsylvania. I didn’t even know what Pennsylvania was, to be honest. I just finished a huge first leg of my PhD around the literature review and I’m looking at some of the challenges that women encounter at work. Through that work of reviewing thousands of academic journals, it became clear to me that women are not the problem, it’s workplaces. The studies are showing that a woman is capable, great at networking, and great at leading men and women. Women are high in terms of networking, leadership and management capabilities. Some of that came as a shock because I fell into that lane and school of thought. I assumed that women needed to do things differently to advance or women needed to do more and be more.

I was looking for that fix and I was wanting to understand what I needed to do to advance in organizations. In reading all of that, it was surprising. In learning how workplaces are designed for men and the challenges that that creates for women, I was like, “I’ve got to share the story.” I get to the conference thinking it’s going to be 200 people. It turns out it’s America’s largest conference for women. There are about 17,000 attendees. Michelle Obama is opening this session and I was like, “Oh my goodness.” That day, I got out and presented my findings with an audience of women who were eager to understand what they needed to do, what was wrong with them, and how they needed to fix themselves. They were all holding some notepads and pens, and I was like, “This is real. This is something we do. We try to fix women.”

Presenting all of this information, I noticed the notepads and pens get put to the side and heads are nodding. When I finished my talk and I came off stage, there’s a group of women lined up to introduce themselves and one woman was red in the face. She looked upset and as she came up to me, she put both her hands on my shoulders intensely. She stared into my eyes in dramatic fashion and I was like, “What did I say?” At this point, there are tears rolling down on her cheeks and I was like, “What is going on?” She said, “I’m going to put up on my wall at work what you said, which is that I don’t need to be fixed and I’m good enough just as I am.” It was at that moment, and it still gives me goosebumps, that I knew I have to write this book. I was like, “Every woman every way deserves to know that it’s not them, it’s their workplace,” but in a more positive way that they deserve a workplace that values them to say, “I’m enough.”

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The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Wor

I don’t think we tell women that enough in terms of their careers, “You deserve a workplace that values you.” That’s what started the journey. I wanted to write a book that didn’t exist, which was one that documented all invisible barriers throughout a woman’s career that explained in plain English how gender inequality works because most of us aren’t aware. It explains the challenges that this creates for men as well because that’s one of the things we never talk about. Importantly, why workplaces need this more than we do in terms of the challenges that are coming with the future world of work and the need for cultures of equality. If businesses don’t get it right, they simply won’t be able to survive. In a Coronavirus world, that’s more true than ever. We need inclusive leaders and we can talk about all of that, but that was what I found through my work.

The Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office is a book that discovers that the work of women is not what we’ve been talking about all along. Arianna Huffington said that this work is a passionate, practical roadmap for addressing inequality and finally making our workplaces work for women. How are we doing this? What are these invisible barriers? You mentioned a few things I want to touch on but I want to start with that.

In my book, I document seventeen of the most common challenges women encounter throughout their careers. A simple way to look at it, and it is part of the explanation of how inequality works in organizations, is that in most companies, when we think of the ideal leader or the ideal manager, we think of a male. That’s been replicated across cultures and geographies over the years that research has found that and that’s still true. It’s not just that we think of a male, we think of what I call the Don Draper prototype. If you’ve watched Mad Men, it’s a reference to that and it’s a 1950s, white, middle to upper-class male who’s heterosexual able-bodied. Importantly, he’s willing to engage in dominant, aggressive, assertive, competitive and exclusionary behaviors to get ahead. It’s also someone who’s willing to make work the number one priority. You have this prototype in an organization and everybody is expected to live up to it by engaging in those behaviors.

The challenges, the more you differ from the prototype in terms of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, physical and mental ability, and age, the more barriers you’re going to face trying to advance at work. That is exactly how inequality works because we have this prototype and it doesn’t work for everybody in the same way. The more you fit in, the more privileged you are because the easier it is for you to advance in workplaces. You naturally fit the idea or the standard of what good looks like. This is what creates challenges and it’s particularly difficult for women because while this might be your standard on what good looks like in workplaces that we see as competent, you have to live up to the prototype. In society to be seen as a woman, you have to engage in more feminine, empathetic, collaborative, meek and mild, and assuming types of behaviors.

To be seen as likable, you’ve got to engage in more feminine behaviors, but you have to be seen as competent, you’ve got to engage in more Don Draper behaviors. The problem is the two don’t marry. For women, there’s no right way to show up at work because if you’re dominant, you’re not going to be likable. If you’re unassuming, you’ll be likable, but you won’t be competent. One of the first challenges women face is this conformity bind. It’s this challenge of living up to the true requirements that don’t matter. The interesting thing in my research is men also faced this challenge in the sense that for them, their masculinity is tied to Don. For them to be seen as a man and be seen as competent, they got to live up to Don. If they engage in more feminine behaviors, which are often more effective when it comes to leading, empathetic, inclusive, collaborative and democratic, they will be labeled given the femininity stigma, seen as more feminine and not taking it seriously.

These standards created in the workplace handcuff us and they prevent us from stepping outside of these prescribed gender roles. The challenges for women are it affects how we’re seen in terms of our competency and how much we’re valued at work. For men, in the long-term, it impacts their effectiveness because they can’t deviate from Don. That’s, to put simply, one example of a barrier but ultimately, every barrier that I outlined in my book comes back to this, workplaces need to get rid of this prototype. Look at how you become more of an organization built around values and give people the freedom to demonstrate those values in a range of different ways. What my work aims to achieve is looking at how you create a workplace that values inclusion, difference and supports employees to engage in a wide range of behaviors.

You brought up many great points. My dissertation was on emotional intelligence and its impact on performance. Empathy is a big part of emotional intelligence. We know from Goldman’s and other research that empathy and developing emotional intelligence are important for success and leadership. I agree that men do have that sense that they have to be a certain way and I saw that a lot in certain industries more than others and in certain age groups more than others, in my personal experience. I’m curious if you’re finding it differs based on generation and industry.

In my first master’s degree, I did it in emotional intelligence and stress. I surveyed about 150 CEOs and it was when I was working in New Zealand. At the time, it’s the first online era, so interviewed and surveyed all these leaders. What is interesting is one of the key barriers I’ve found for men is this inability to deviate from Don and engage in more inclusive, collaborative, and supportive behaviors. It challenges men because it’s difficult. They’re isolated and they’re not encouraged to speak up about their different experiences and display that empathy. All of that is seen as deviating from what the ideal is at work but also the ideal in terms of what it means to be a man. I always say that the number one thing we need from men in terms of supporting equality is something to think about what it means to be a man at work because the silencing costs men.

In my research around stress, I’ve found that exactly this. When men can’t train, speak up, talk about the challenges, be vulnerable and demonstrate empathy to build relationships, it causes them stress. The isolation they face, not talking about what’s worrying them at work and not talking about the difficulties or the challenges, it leads to high risk-taking behaviors. They have to make decisions on their own that are often quite risky. Men have to manage the consequences of that on their own. It creates this toxic, stressful environment at work but also at home because men are encouraged through the breadwinner image to carry that load on their own and not talk about the challenges that they face.

[bctt tweet=”Women deserve a workplace that values them.” via=”no”]

There’s a lot of difficulties around male silencing at work and also, how men are bullied to conform to that silence. It’s interesting because while men may have all these male networks that support from an advancement perspective, they don’t have the true social support at work in terms of people they can talk to and be vulnerable with, and talk about the challenges. That’s why we see high rates of stress with men and we also see higher rates of suicide and depression. This is what we’re seeing in terms of the consequences of living up to these outdated ideals.

By generation, was it different?

What’s interesting is I always get asked that question around generational pieces. My book talks about this and shows more recent research. There are a few loads of Pew Research that’s come out to show that we still hold these ideas in terms of what good looks like for men and women and what good looks like work. Even though we like to think that men are doing more at home compared to Don in the 1950s, it’s still a lot lower than what women are doing. It’s all relative. The challenge is when men come into the workplace, they socialize and we forget that. Even if you educate men and you support them to champion equality of work. I’m talking about my husband. I’m a feminist and I train him on this stuff on a daily basis. When he goes to work, he still feels that pressure because of the social environment to conform.

He found it hard. He fits the prototype and he’s Don to go in. Just tell them and they’re taking a son to the doctor. He wanted to make up an excuse around and hide his identity outside of work because it’s not what Don does. This is challenging. I was like, “If it’s difficult for you, I don’t know much harder it is for women.” We need to break the male silencing at work and we need to give them that freedom to talk about the challenges now more than ever as men are taking on more at home about the challenges of integrating work and home life. If men can do that in a slightly more purplish position, it does make it that much easier for all women to do the same.

It’s interesting that you studied the stress level. I picked Reuven Bar-On EQ-i for my research to focus on stress because I was looking at salespeople. Stress is important to look at of how people react in certain ways. I’m thinking of my experience in different industries. What I found in my generation and the industries in which I’ve worked, the men I’ve worked with are always nice and respectful to me but I felt like I’m going to be the first one they’re going to give the administrative tasks to. This is girl work and they’re above doing the girl work. You never see the guys on the committees that are handling the girl work. Do you see a lot of that?

Office housework is a major issue. Interestingly, we haven’t even begun to talk about race and gender racism, and how that plays out of work. We know this is an issue that adversely impacts black women in particular in organizations. They’re taking on office housework, being asked to take meeting notes, manage birthdays or any of those administrative invisible activities in workplaces. It creates huge challenges because people who are underrepresented in organizations and tend to be more marginalized, it’s harder for them to advocate for themselves. The lean in schools of thought would say, “Speak up and say, ‘I don’t want to do it. I want it to be more fairly shared across the team. This isn’t right.’” Studies show when you do that, you’re perceived as being difficult. You are seen as not being a team player, so it’s a tricky situation. Whereas for me being firmly in the fixed workplaces, school of thought, I say, “With something like that, let’s make the invisible visible. It’s what those activities are and then let’s rotate it across the team, so nobody has to ask.” It’s more equally distributed.

It’s something we do in my team. We rotate it so different people keep time, keep notes and on the meetings. We do that as a way of sharing invisible tasks but it takes a willingness of leaders to look at how things are not working for everybody, being open when employees do raise it, hear them, and try to think of solutions from a design perspective in terms of how you can fix it. Equal pay is another one I talk about in my book. It’s such a frustrating issue because a consistent study shows that if you’re transparent about your pay data, the gap closes. This is not complicated. If you think about it from a commercial sense, if you’re publishing your pay data in terms of where the gaps are, you’re accountable for closing it because everybody can see it. You’ve got companies like Verb and bigger ones like Adobe, where they published this data and it helps to close the gap. It closes almost instantly because companies have to take measures to do that.

The whole aim of the book is bringing it to light and making people aware. Many people are in denial around gender inequality in workplaces. They believe that workplaces are meritocracies and they function favorably in the same way. That’s simply not true. Success discriminates and it discriminates based on how closely you fit this prototype. That’s why the pay gap exists, which is something that I explained in my book. We simply don’t value men and women’s contributions in the same way. The aim is to make people aware and understand what actions they can take, but most importantly, to hold leaders accountable for creating environments that do value difference. We do remove the barriers and take active steps to do that together.

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Women In The Workplace: The number one thing needed for a manager in terms of supporting equality is to think about what it means to be a man at work.


I’m thinking of jobs I’ve had versus my leaders’ pay. I remember having a job where I made $70,000 to $80,000 and one step above me made $1.2 million. You’re going, “I did more than this guy did.” You look at that but there was no way that they were going to put a woman in that position. They made that clear by overlooking a woman who was doing a great job temporarily while they looked for a guy to replace her with. It’s challenging for some industries. What do you do when you work for a company like that? Do you quit? Do you make a stink about it? What is the thing you’ll do if you’re in that position?

It’s tricky because I get the pressure. People love the lean-in concept because it’s empowering this idea, “I alone can fix my workplace and I can overcome it. Equality might happen to some people but it won’t happen to me and if it does, I can manage it.” That’s flawed thinking. That’s what creates the problem. What we noticed is when you enter your workplace with that belief, which most women do early on in their career, their confidence and ability to reach senior leadership positions within the first three years falls by more than 60%. The reason for that is because you do get fed that message of like, “I can do this. I can overcome it,” because we like that message. It makes us feel good. It’s the individualistic idea and you forget the environment you’re working in, how it’s rigged, and how your bosses determine success. We forget how a lot of them have clear ideas of what good looks like that tend to be met and we forget all of the challenges women encounter.

We see that massive drop off in confidence. That’s why the number one thing all of us can do around managing work environments that are difficult is to realize it’s not you, it’s your workplace. By that, I mean understand the barriers, know what they are, and think about the ones you’ve encountered along the way so that when they do show up, you can see them for what they are. As easy as that sounds, it’s not that easy because you’ve got to do the work and you’ve got to put in the time and effort to become aware of what those challenges are.

The second thing is to think about how we can be allies to one another. Make sure you can advocate for yourself in terms of speaking out, shedding light on the barriers, and holding leaders accountable for taking action. That’s hard to do in life with your example. You’re in a working environment that’s not valuing you. There’s a real opportunity here for women, in particular, to be allies to one another and I’ve seen this happen effectively. It’s something I practice myself and I’ve seen other women do it. There’s something when women advocate for one another and call out the challenges for one another in the case of the office housework.

I’ve had a colleague in one of the organizations that I worked at was a black woman who regularly was tasked with this. Once I knew the barrier and I knew that this was something that happened, I was more aware of it and I called it out. That was the opportunity to think about, “How do we make this more equal?” The aim is to try and get women to advocate for one another. In that situation, you might have had an ally, somebody to support you or you might not have because historically, in our research shows, women don’t support one another. How many white women know the barriers that women of color face and how it’s so much harder? When you have both race and gender, you’re coming together and creating new experiences of inequality.

What it is that we’re wanting from men and organizations we have to give to one another as women, which is to know the challenges we face and be allies to one another. It’s incredibly difficult to navigate a work environment that doesn’t value you and is constantly telling you, “It’s you.” You engage in all the lean-in behaviors, do more, get the qualifications and still not achieve. That can be demoralizing. That’s why it’s important that we come together and support one another. In terms of allyship, it’s calling out those barriers when they happen. It’s advocating for one another, speaking up and supporting one another, and that’s the action that we need to take.

As you’re saying that, it brought to mind another situation in that same company I had left but I was back talking to them at an event. The guy who was my boss was open sitting at the table mentioning that he promoted the woman that was on the other side of the person next to him. He’s like, “We promoted her because we needed to have a black woman in leadership.” He made it sound like that was our only thing. I was stunned that somebody would say something stupid, first of all, but then I looked at him and I feel bad that I didn’t say something. What do you do? Do you start a fight in the middle of a restaurant when you don’t even work there anymore? I looked at some of the stuff. It’s hard for women. Say, you have an advocate maybe with other women but a lot of times, you don’t. We’ve had many people on the show talking about how women hold them back because they’re competitive for a few jobs. What do you do about that?

Whenever I talk about it, people are like, “You’re so brave.” I’m like, “Am I? Because this is most people’s experiences.” Exactly what you’re saying, it’s a female on female misogyny and a lot of that is the male lens. In terms of how women are meant to relate to one another, I don’t think women have defined that term ourselves like we have an opportunity to define what leadership looks like for us. We’re given Don Draper and we’re told that that’s what we have to live up to. We have to navigate this double bind of femininity and masculinity of how we do that and try to live up to it. Consistently, the research that I’ve looked at shows that women leaders, the ones who are successful are a prototype. Generally, on average, they tend to engage in Don Draper behaviors and they tend to be childless. We find that there is a bit of a prototype around what women leaders look like and a lot of it is those women who can conform to Don.

I’ll talk about my book. For us as women, the challenge is redefining what good looks like around leadership and we’re seeing examples of that with world leaders like Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand as a prime minister there. A lot of Americans know because of the terrorist attack that New Zealand encountered and how she handled that with such empathy and compassion. It was a new approach to leading and even during Coronavirus, she’s engaging in a lot of empathetic and compassionate behavior. I interviewed her and she’s in my book. It’s the interview around how she’s approaching leadership and what matters to her. She said that the number one thing for her that she wants her government to be known for is kindness. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but when she said it, I was like, “What?” It’s not what I was expecting. This is what I mean about building a values-based organization and not the prototype in terms of what success looks like.

[bctt tweet=”There’s a lot of difficulties around male silencing at work and how men are bullied to conform to that silence.” via=”no”]

Being competitive, assertive, achieving, financial success, and having that outdated notion of what good looks like, she completely redefined it and built it based on value. She was like, “This is what I want our government to be known for.” Everything hangs off the value. They look at different ways of displaying that in terms of how the government is working. Whether you like her as a politician or not, that is the future. It’s creating a value-based organization where you clear in terms of what it is you’re trying to achieve. My book clearly shows that women as leaders are exceptional. We have the capabilities and the talent to lead in a different way. We need to be conscious of how we’re living up to the prototype and in doing that, we don’t support one another. Women have to come together to be clear about how we’re going to do this differently, be brave in doing that, and knowing that in doing that, it’s more effective.

When we live up to this prototype, we don’t support each other, see each other, and understand our different barriers. White women have an obligation to do this or any woman from any other racial or ethnic minority group because if you look at the history of feminism, it was stolen. White women stole it. White women liberationists did not want to advance all women. They were interested in advancing white women, particularly white women who get put in workplaces and those women who conformed to Don. That’s why when you look at the data on women leaders, it’s clear that white women make up the majority of women in organizations because it’s that much easier for them to get that prototype. We need to use that privilege and spend it by understanding the barriers that all women face and supporting one another.

You talked about many things that are important and write about. There are issues for all women of color or not to get into some of these positions. They got stuck in this catch-22. Think about women on board of directors and California put in a law that they wanted a certain number of women to be on boards. I’ve talked to some people, men and women, who get upset by this. The men, of course, when I talked to them, they’re like, “Why have them on if they’re not as good as somebody else’s mentality?” With the women, I’ve had some headhunter types of women who were looking for people for boards and the one I could think of said, “You need the most experienced person for these boards and the people with the experience are white men, and they’re the CEO. These are the ones we want. That’s how it is. Why would I want to put a woman on a board who doesn’t have as good of an experience as a man?” What do you say for that argument?

There’s so much to say to this. I want to talk first about targets and then I want to address the issue of leaders saying, “I can’t find these women with experience.” In terms of when we copy and paste a woman into leadership positions, which tends to be followed like targets. Organizations set targets for how many diverse hires they want and then companies plunk a woman into a leadership position and hope they’ll be successful. That seems to be the way that a lot of companies have gone around trying to solve this issue of the lack of diverse representation and leadership positions. I didn’t have an issue with it until I did my research. I have a firm opinion on it that it’s just lazy because it’s a way to quickly increase your numbers of diverse representation, but do nothing to solve the lived experience of the workplace. They do nothing to solve the crappy behaviors and the culture of the organization that doesn’t support or value women.

You can put a woman in a leadership position but there’s no guarantee that she’s going to succeed or be valued or treated in the same way as her male counterparts. That’s why irrespective of your opinion on targets or your opinion on quotas or putting women into these token rolls, the research finds it doesn’t work. Even if you put a woman leader in, there’s a thing called implicit quotas. When you have one woman, you’re 50% less likely to have another woman because you’ve seen this already fitting. You’ve done your quota and you’ve done your diversity hire, and you’re good. Study shows that women in leadership positions like CEOs, irrespective of the firm’s performance, whether it’s good or bad, they’re 63% more likely to be replaced by men. The reason for that is that in the prototype, we’re more comfortable with men in leadership positions. This token hiring doesn’t work but also, it’s incredibly damaging.

My research has found that when you have a woman in a leadership position and to be seen as a token hire, so we’re just putting her there because she’s a woman, people perceive her as incompetent. Remember, women are seen as less competent anyway because they don’t fit the prototype. She has to work so much harder to be seen as average. She has to outperform all her peers to be seen as deserving of the role. That creates a lot of pressure on the woman who’s in that leadership position and then outside of that, for men, this is one of the most damaging aspects of diversity work. My research has found men cited the number one barrier to their advancement in organizations is diversity and inclusion initiatives that advance women or advance the interests of women. That’s because the message is, “This is a zero-sum game. It’s about just advancing women at the expense of men.” That diversity inclusion is becoming synonymous with that. Whereas research shows that in a culture of equality and environment that values difference, what we find is men are twice as likely to advance to senior leadership positions and women are six times more likely.

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Women In The Workplace: Leaders are accountable for creating environments that value difference.


You might say, “How could that be that everybody’s advancing more?” It’s because we’re no longer advancing a small number of people to fit the Don Draper ideal. We open it up, everybody’s got an opportunity to advance and that’s the thing that men miss. Even in the system that we believe works for men, it doesn’t. It is few men who have advanced the senior leadership positions and most of those who advance are the ones that fit Don. Men have to conform to try and get both senior leadership positions, whereas the aim was a lot of the work that we’re doing. Let’s open it up and invite a range of behaviors. Let’s give men and women an opportunity to advance in an environment that values differences. For me, this is more about how to create environments that can enable everyone to succeed and enables and values differences. Create that environment and then have a look. Your representation in many respects should start to take care of itself because then, you are getting more of a meritocracy where you’re advancing people based on who’s the most effective rather than people who are most likely to prototype.

The last thing I’ll say based on this whole idea of exposure, somebody saying, “I can’t find a talented woman.” I get that crap all the time from leaders and it’s frustrating because it shows they’re biased. Talented women are out there. Let me reassure you. The reason you’re having a hard time finding them is because you don’t know them. You’re not exposed to them. The work of leaders is not to be lazy and say, “This is a recruiter’s requirement.” The work of leaders is to diversify their network. That is something every leader should be doing. Organizations can enable that by hosting dinners or hosting events where they give leaders access to diverse candidates. How many male leaders know black women and know women from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, who are already capable leaders and have a relationship with them that’s established? Like they do with white men.

When the opportunity presents itself, they can call them up and say, “Why don’t you apply? We’d like to consider you. We’d like to invite you to be a part of this process because we think you’re capable.” That’s the problem we need to solve. The interesting thing is what I’ve done in previous organizations is when you work on harnessing leaders’ exposure and you put them in environments with diverse, capable leaders. You’re not only establishing their networks. You’re also changing their perceptions of what good looks like so they have the prototype built into their head because they fit it. That’s their idea of what good looks like and their networks tend to all look the same. “This is effective in how networks work. We’d like people who look like us.”

When you get exposed to difference and you develop relationships, challenges, and assumptions. Over time, if you have enough of those relationships, you then can call on them not only from a recruitment process, but it also starts to demystify this whole idea of what good looks like. It starts to challenge some of these leaders’ ingrained beliefs. Exposure is important. When you’re hearing leaders say, “I don’t know them,” or “We can’t find them,” which is probably the more common one, what it’s showing is that they haven’t done the work to diversify their networks.

I like what you’re saying when you talk about challenging your assumptions. My research is in curiosity and getting away from status-quo thinking. There are four things that my research found that keep people from being curious and it’s their fear, assumptions, technology, and environment. As I’m working with a lot of large organizations of pharmaceutical companies, Verizon or whoever I work with, they’re all trying to work on challenging some of this status quo way of thinking. I’m thinking back to another job and men sometimes, they made it sound like, “I’m a strategic thinker. I got the big overall ideas,” but women could be tactical and managerial more than leadership type of people.

We’re back to the women’s work thing. I’m curious if you think that working virtually would change any of that. I still teach and I’ve taught more than 1,000 business courses. All my jobs I’ve had for online teaching originally, nobody ever saw me in the interview. Nobody ever knew anything about me other than what they saw in a virtual paper setting or whatever it was. Do you think that women would fare any better in virtual work because you’re not looking at me and having the female stereotype in front of you?

I would love to think it was as easy as that. It’ll be great to say, “Let’s do this virtually,” and then all the stuff goes away. We know through all the research on bias in tech, for example, that a lot of it is invisible. When you look at how women are harassed on social media and the bullying and the stats on that. I address a lot of these topics on my podcast and how that is a huge issue for women or the actual bias in the design of tech, the design of apps and how we don’t see women in terms of their needs as end-users. A lot of my work at the UN looked at that. The reality is, irrespective of the platform we’re using, there are always ways to exclude, marginalize, and discriminate. Whether you’re in person, on a VC and you ignore the contributions of somebody on a team meeting or you are not even aware of the challenges that different groups are experiencing in this particular pandemic that we’ve all encountered. Whether that’s how this is a lot more challenging for women because most women are tasked with managing work and home life.

[bctt tweet=”Success discriminates based on how closely you fit this part of time.” via=”no”]

For women who are having to work at home, do schooling and do all the invisible labor at home, it’s so much harder for them. The fact that a lot of black women in America are particularly exposed to the virus because a lot of them are in key positions, that’s creating huge challenges in terms of their ability to get support or the mental health issues that a lot of colleagues are facing that are blind, too. The organizations are still pushing workers to carry on as normal but ignoring how it’s differentially impacting all workers. Inequality can happen irrespective of whether you’re working at home or whether you’re working at work. I saw an article where a woman was sharing how her workplace required her to dress up for VC meetings, just internal meetings.

She was saying, “This is hard to do,” because she has kids and the workplace is totally unfair. She has to wear the suit, run into the lounge and feed her kids. I was like, “This is outrageous.” The fact that we’re still doing this and then penalizing her for not looking like she doesn’t have children. This inequality can happen irrespective and what we need is workplaces to see the whole person, see our identity in that side of work, understand the challenges we face, talk about it, treat people like humans, and not expecting them to have to deal or show up like the prototype. This can happen irrespective of where we’re based. The challenge is probably a bit more invisible, things like having to wear a suit or whatever it is, which is why we need people to talk about the challenges they’re experiencing.

I have a huge problem with business casual because it is focused on men being comfortable and women are still miserable. They all wear their jeans and Dockers or whatever it is that they like that are comfortable and then there isn’t the equivalent for women. If you did wear the equivalent, then you would be looked at as, “Women don’t wear Dockers.”

There’s this section in my book on this. If you want to get angry, read chapter seven where I share how women are expected to conform. Women aren’t just judged in terms of their performance, they’re judged in terms of performance and appearance. There’s a set formula for how women need to show up at work in terms of a suit, loose hair, no makeup, and slight jewelry like it’s that prescriptive. If you dress in that exact right way and you perform, you’ll then be seen as acceptable in terms of your competence. Whereas men, you have Mark Zuckerberg with his hoodie and jeans, and he just shows up and it’s all fine. You can’t imagine a woman leading a large multinational wearing a hoodie and jeans because there’s a different standard. That’s a great example of purely on appearance and how women are judged in terms of their performance and capability. Whereas for men, it doesn’t matter how you look. It’s just your performance. It’s incredibly challenging.

The same thing in the speaking world. I’ve had a lot of Hall of Fame speakers that I’ve talked after the show about why women aren’t as much in the Hall of Fame and aren’t considered as top quality speakers in women as men. A lot of the guys have said, “They get over criticized with what they wear and all the things that they would never do to a guy on the stage.” There’s so much to challenge that and it’s keeping people in different categories, and that’s what we’re trying to get away from. I know you interview a lot of women on your show about this and I looked at some of your guests. A lot of people would recognize Sarah Jessica Parker, Zoe Saldana, Kate Hudson, and the list goes on and on. I’m curious about who you pick for your show. How do you decide who you want for your show? What is your aim for going for the movie star people, in that respect?

When I started it, I was writing for Forbes at the time. My whole thing was interviewing high profile people, whether they be academics, celebrities, and thought leaders on topics related to gender inequality at work. That was my niche with Forbes and I started recording the podcast. It wasn’t the best format. I don’t believe but we started that and then after about 6 or 8 months in, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It’s much more helpful to have what I see as substandard experts. While I’m happy to talk to well-known people about their particular bent on it or what it is that they are trying to achieve when it comes to gender equality, the value is in substantive experts or substantive stories. People who have done a lot of hard work. The show has pivoted from having high profile people to much more substantive experts.

Getting in people might be not as well-known like Darnell Moore, who I interviewed. He founded the Black Lives Matter organization and he’s got the most incredible story of nearly being set on fire, for being an individual who’s part of the LGBTQ community, and for being black. His whole experience with that and how that then led him to do all his advocacy work or Teddy Quinlivan, who shares her story as to how she is a model, that transition while being a model and her whole experience with that. What it was like to come out through CNN and have the whole world realize that you’re a woman, and understand what that means. You hear these incredible stories of people who’ve gone through things or academics who are sharing their latest research and insights.

TTL 292 | Women In The Workplace
Women In The Workplace: The conformity bind is one of the biggest challenges that women face in organizations.


For me, that’s what I’m most proud about the show when we made that move to have a focus on substances where the audience grew the most. It was rewarding because people want to have difficult conversations and want to talk about these topics. Read my book. I’ve got a lot of pressure to dumb it down and make it easy to read. The publisher was like, “Why can’t I lean in on that?” I’m like, “No. We need to have substantial conversations and talk about difficult topics. Women are ready and the world is ready to look at this stuff.” That’s how it’s transitioned. Now, I’m only interested in stories of substance.

My next book is on perception and a lot of this ties into what I’ve been writing about it. I know I’ve had experts on my show that went by they, them, their. Are you dealing with that at all?

In terms of personal pronouns, my full thing is, fundamentally, equality is about the freedom to be yourself and be valued for. That is what this is for. This is a fight for freedom and freedom at work. We need freedom and workplaces need freedom. Personal pronouns are one example of that. We need to be respectful of people and how they identify. Personal pronouns are one way to demonstrate that respect. Whether you think it’s silly, you don’t understand it or not something that you value, if we show that we value one another, we can do that by understanding how personal pronouns indicate how somebody identifies. We need to value our different identities because you want to be valued. We need to practice that and practice how we want to be treated by treating others that way. Take the time and effort to understand what the personal pronouns are, and if somebody has a preference. What you’ll find that’s interesting when you do that is all the assumptions, we make about how people identify and how challenging it is. You’ll see how ingrained gender norms are in our language and it’s hard to get that right.

We need to give each other grace because we’re going to learn. I don’t have this nailed, the whole part of equality and it becomes difficult in the diversity and inclusion space. It was seen as the police force that goes out there and the polices everybody. It’s painful and people get scared. They’re all like, “I’m going to get the pronoun wrong. I’m going to get this wrong. I’m going to say the wrong thing.” Nobody wants to talk about anything. When anybody raises something, it’s seen as somehow labeling somebody as racist or sexist, and then that becomes somehow worse than the behavior, whether intentional or not, racist or sexist. It’s created this challenging time where we find it hard to talk about things.

For me, if we give each other grace and not police each other, try to develop awareness and understanding, and be clear on what it is we’re asking people to do and why, that’s how we’ll get there. Also, how that supports cleaning the environment that all of us want to work in. When you understand why personal pronouns matter, you value them and then you try to understand how to pretend to practice and what it is that’s been asked of you. You can take steps to do that. For me, that’s such a great example of we’re somehow in this, it felt like policing and it felt like, “This is silly. I don’t need to understand it,” when that’s not the case at all.

That’s a great place to end. There’s so much that they can get out of your book, from your work that you’ve done, and all of your speaking and writing. I was excited to have you on the show. Michelle, thank you so much for being on.

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

You’re welcome. I was hoping you could share ways they could connect with you if anybody wants to learn more. Do you have a link?

I’ve got a website. It’s MichellePKing.com. You can go on there and you can check out my site. I also connect with everybody on LinkedIn and you can also check out my weekly podcast, The Fix.

This is so much fun. Thank you.

[bctt tweet=”Inequality can happen irrespective of whether you’re working at home or whether you’re working at work.” via=”no”]

I’d like to thank Michelle for being my guest. We get many great guests and I hope you check out her book, THE FIX. She’s got such great work out there. We get many wonderful authors and individuals on the show. I hope you take some time to check them out. If you’ve missed any past shows, you can go to DrDianeHamilton.com. What’s nice is there are lots of tweetable moments, so I hope you check that out. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead radio.

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About Michelle P. King

TTL 292 | Women In The WorkplaceMichelle P. King is a leading global expert in gender and organizations, and Director of Inclusion at Netflix. Previously she was head of the UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change. Michelle has spent her career advancing women in innovation and technology, leading global diversity and inclusion programs and advocating for women at work. She is an Advisory Board member for Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation’s adolescent girl campaign, and host of The FIX, a podcast that shares the stories of women and men who are taking action and innovating to advance equality in the workplace and beyond. She speaks frequently on the topic of gender equality, and contributes regularly to Forbes on the topic of women’s advancement at work. Her work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, Scoop and TIME magazine. Michelle is a published, award winning academic with a PhD, a Masters in Psychology, and an MBA.


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