An Inclusive Table: Commit to These 3 Things to Create Inclusive Discussions at Work
It is almost impossible to ignore the symbolism represented by the U.S. Capitol’s neoclassical architecture. The sturdy Roman columns remind the world of America’s epic commitment to our republic, Michelangeloesque murals of our nation’s founding quietly observe from overhead, and soft marble floors gently slope under the feet of 300+ years of democracy at work. Comparatively, I’ve spent a blink of time working in the Capitol, and most recently as the Creative Director for a Member of House leadership.
One day, my direct supervisor tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to attend a communications strategy meeting in her place. I was eager for the opportunity. Walking into one of the ornate meeting rooms in the Capitol building, I took a seat around an enormous mahogany table with about twenty senior leadership communications staffers — some of the most influential communicators in Washington, D.C. I was not only one of the youngest staffers present, but, in the manner of true antiquity, I was also only one of a small handful of women around that table.
This situation is not unique to politics or partisanship, within which I can gladly say that I no longer work. However, here I am a few years later, and I often find myself reflecting on this experience and many others like it. Professionally, I consider myself at a point in my career where I am “experienced,” but not “seasoned.” I’m rightfully not invited to every meeting, but I do present my work and my opinions at international conferences and have led workshops and trainings with Members of Congress and Parliament. I’m grateful to be at this professional intersection, as it’s allowed me to become familiar with the work being done around women’s roles in public dialogue, while also admittedly approaching it as a novice.
I have been impressed by the attention paid to this conversation, but I do ask if we are perhaps too concentrated on asking, ‘are women being appropriately represented in the public dialogue?’ instead of also ensuring that women are represented in the internal and external conversations in the workplace. When Harvard Business Review surveyed 270 women managers in Fortune 500 companies, more than half reported that meetings were a “work in progress” regarding gender issues. Day-to-day inclusivity not only advances women and betters an organization, but it also invests in women’s professional development and ensures more opportunities to participate in the public dialogue. To help create this kind of inclusion, I want to challenge you to commit to three things:
Commit to Questioning
While “manels” (male-dominated panels) remain an important topic to monitor, I encourage other women and men allies to also commit to questioning whether women are being equally represented in meetings and other avenues for information sharing, decision-making, and networking (email chains, non-party planning committees, Slack channels, happy hours, etc.). The same standards that we hold to women’s representation in panels should also be applied to the same day-to-day components in the workplace. Just as when women’s perspectives are not represented on a panel, in the media, in Congress, etc., conversations are missing the perspective and insight from half of the population. When women are missing from meetings, those same contributions are lost, and this is where the roots of “manels” begin.
Next time you are in a meeting, look around and ask, “Is there enough representation around this table for this conversation to be inclusive?” If not, ask yourself why or if the right people are in the room. There is no set rule here, because every meeting, every email chain, and every pull-aside is unique, but I hope that we can be more thoughtful about who is sitting with us around a table. Perhaps your projects or teams need more women assigned to them, or maybe you didn’t think to include someone whose perspective would benefit the conversation (or conversely, that the conversation would benefit their projects), or perhaps you have a recruitment and hiring issue. I want you to evaluate and question the workplace with the same lens that you evaluate a conference.
Commit to Listening
One of the most appreciated moments at my current job occurred in the first few weeks that I was hired. One of the male directors invited me to an internal brainstorming meeting that he was holding, because it directly pertained to my area of expertise. As I was still new to the organization, I was quiet during the majority of the meeting, and he noticed, so he turned to me and asked for my opinion. This caught me off guard in that moment, in part because of the conditioning I’ve been used to for years. This shift in conversation can still catch me off guard today. True allies not only want women represented in the conversation, but they are also interested in hearing their voices, even if that means compromising on sharing their own.
“Mansplaining,” “manterrupting,” and “bropropriating”: we all know these terms that describe how women are hindered being a part of the conversation. As Rebecca Solnit points out, “it trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation”, making women feel as if they are not equals. We saw that even in the progressive Obama White House when women staffers had to amplify each other’s voices to ensure equality. So I urge you, even if you work in a forward-thinking organization, even if you are a forward thinking individual, ask yourself, “How much did I speak, how much did I hear, and how much did I listen?” (Pro tip: use the GA Tally’s Who Talks feature to collect and share data on who is dominating your meetings.) For the record, both men and women can apply this lesson to both genders. It’s really just basic politeness!
Commit to Helping
A few years ago, I was unable to attend a high level weekly strategy meeting, and I asked one of my male colleagues if I could conference call in. He responded that “it was not that important that I join.” This could have signaled to me that my input was not valued, but it didn’t. Instead, it showed me that he had no idea about the work I had dedicated to being included around the all-male table in that meeting room. When we are “kicking and screaming” to be included, this kind of effort gets exhausting. When my supervisor “tapped me on the shoulder,” in the meeting I described in the Capitol, she gave me an opportunity and made it easy for me to be there. We are all familiar with the concept of women helping women (or even better, men helping women), but I believe in the importance of “tapping each other on the shoulder.” When women feel like they have had to swim upstream for inclusion, it can feel as if there is room for only one woman at the table, which can inhibit women from helping each other and strengthen the dreaded “stiletto ceiling.”
I encourage you to look for opportunities to bring other women into conversations and to help create new opportunities for them. By bringing junior women in (or even more senior women who want to learn outside of their area of expertise), we promote women’s access to experience and position them to be present at other tables and on other panels. We also ensure that no one can use the excuse that there are not enough women to speak publicly on a topic. By being inclusive in the beginning, these excuses can be met by plenty of women who are already at the same table.
There are no quotas to fill, but a new framework is needed. Women should always be represented, and it is everyone’s responsibility to think critically, ask ourselves about the context of the conversation, and make sure the “right people” are present; if those “right people” do not include women, then more consideration must to be given about why that is. Additionally, representation goes beyond including just women in these conversations. As these commitments are considered, I also urge you to include the perspectives of other underrepresented communities as well (e.g. socioeconomic status, people of color, those with disabilities, etc.).
Women are underutilized in public dialogue. Either a last-minute request is made to fill a quota or the same women are used again and again to discuss a topic. Responsibility and blame absolutely should be assumed by those who allow this to happen, but I encourage you to be part of the solution to create more opportunities for women and build a foundation that allows for more women to take this step. When we are used to seeing women around the table in our day to day life, it becomes all the more apparent when they are missing from the public dialogue.
Victoria Welborn is a Senior Program Officer at the National Democratic Institute, a non-partisan non-profit that works to strengthen democracy and governance internationally. Victoria specifically works on projects related to civic innovation, technology, and legislative strengthening. Prior to joining NDI, Victoria served as the Creative Director in the United States House of Representatives, where she managed digital communications for the House Republican Conference. Victoria holds a bachelor of arts from St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Find her online at @vcwelborn.