Have you ever had a fishbowl with a solitary fish? That fish lives quite happily within its glass boundaries, adapting to the water even as it takes on a fishy funk. But over time, the fish can struggle to thrive in its own home. Experts call this “Old Tank Syndrome.”
So, what happens when you add a new fish to this same bowl? The new fish must navigate the glass boundary, the other fish, and the funky “Old Tank” water. The original fish has learned to survive. But the new fish is more likely to be ‘shocked’ by the unhealthy environment.
Now imagine the fishbowl as today’s workplace, where patriarchy is alive and well. As women have entered the corporate world, men and women have had to learn how to navigate the workplace—and each other. It’s the women and others who may be marginalized – the new fish — who have been most negatively impacted by the unhealthy environment, find it more difficult to progress, and are more likely to leave the corporate workforce.
Every organization has its own special balance of funky vs. fresh water. And this unhealthy environment impacts all of us, men and women alike. Here are three things ALL individuals can do to help “change the water” around us improving everyone’s experience.
1. Make the invisible visible. The workplace can be toxic for men and women of every identity. Many women who climbed to the top of the ladder in the past fifty years had to learn how to swim in waters defined by the those who came before them.
Ten years ago, a longtime friend worked with other senior women to convince (male) leadership that bias existed in their organization. She shared the outcomes of a Harvard Business School report on attitudes of leadership traits associated with men and women. There was so much bias “in the water” that even the women were more likely to associate leadership traits with men than with women. Only when the male leaders realized that women were as likely to be biased against other women as men did they believe that the environment needed changing.
We need to invoke some productive discomfort to start to see the water around us. Engaging with productive discomfort means starting with an open mind and heart, leading with curiosity to actively seek out perspectives that challenge our biases, and increasing our speed to empathy. Sometimes, being a little bit uncomfortable is necessary to create change.
2. Do even more to support women. Students of systems dynamics will tell you that what we have already been doing has gotten us exactly the current results. Doing the same thing we’re doing will continue to get us the same results.
I used to believe that I was a good friend and mentor to the many women I coached over the years. Recently, I realized there were so many opportunities to serve as a sponsor of women who were “newer to the water.” There were so many more occasions to use whatever power—positional, formal, or informal—I had to remove obstacles that they might bump into. I could be doing more to support new mothers who returned from parental leave still excellent at their job, but sometimes doubting whether they could be both mommy and manager. I could be doing more to create space for these younger voices to be heard and not spoken over by the men and other senior women around them. I could be doing more to advocate for the promotion they were ready for but didn’t themselves believe in. I could be doing more to advocate for them when they were not in the room. I see that now, and I cannot unsee it.
The call to action is for all of us to become better allies. If we have had the good fortune to thrive in the current corporate system, we need to help others find their way more easily. That is how we will know we are making progress.
3.. Change micro-aggressions into micro-affirmations. Many women and people of ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds nod their heads when I talk about micro-aggressions. These are the innumerable small, and, in some cases, not-so- small slights and indignities that they face at work.
A friend of mine recently told me that she was preparing for a big workshop with senior executives. One of the men in the room turned to her, signaled her out, and asked her to make sure that the meeting room was setup properly and to check on the water and coffee that had been ordered. It made her feel uncomfortable enough to notice. She wasn’t the only one to notice, though. A male colleague on her team jumped in and said, “Yes, we do need to get the room setup, but she is much too busy preparing to facilitate the workshop with the senior executives. I’ll go check on it.” In that second, he signaled that it was not her job to do what is often called “office housework.” And he showed—rather than telling—the executive that he saw her as an equal. He turned a micro-aggression into a micro-affirmation of her role as a leader.
Just as there are countless ways to be thoughtless, there are as many, if not more, ways to be thoughtful. And these micro-affirmations go a long way to elevating the experience of everyone at work.
Just as in a fishbowl, the water around us needs to be changed. We change it by making the invisible negative biases visible, by being better allies and sponsors at work, and by learning the behavioral nudges that foster a healthier work environment. There are those who have invited women to lean into the current system, to learn to survive in the existing corporate culture. I believe it is our responsibility to help change the system. Many have talked about breaking glass. Now it’s time to change the water.