I have been writing this blog post for a while. In fact, it has almost been one year that it has been in development. Last Spring, when LEFT (then still Left of the Dot) moved into our new offices, we created an “inspiration wall”. Basically, every employee was asked to suggest five men and five women who inspired them, and we would put their photo up on the wall in a central location to inspire themselves and the other Lefties.
The guidelines were very vague: “Name five men and five women who inspire you. The only rule is that you actually had to think of them, and when you did think of them, thinking of them made you want to be better.” In other words, they had to have impacted your life in some way or made you want to be a better person.
Given where I was at that moment of my life, I gravitated towards business leaders initially. That sounds simple right? After all, we all have people in our lives who made a mark on our outcomes, or people that we admired. The hard part would be narrowing it down to only five. And then I started. I listed off five men easily. In fact, I probably had a shortlist of about 15-20. I could go on about these men, who they were, and point to certain passages in books, blogs, or TED talks that inspired me.
However, this post is not about my list of five men. It is about the women.
When it came to trying to identify my list of five women—particularly business leaders—I was stumped. In fact, I kind of panicked a little bit. When I broadened my criteria to include leaders in fields outside of business (Science, Sports, Politics, Community), it became an easier task. But there were very few that jumped to the forefront.
However, that little voice was asking a heartfelt question: why did I find it so difficult to identify five business leaders or entrepreneurial women? And in my panic, I asked myself one other very important question: am I biased towards men and against women?
Normally, this is not a question that one talks about, and definitely not one that one blogs about publicly. Gender bias, even if it subtle, is one of those things that gets pushed aside and rarely brought up in water cooler talk.
I looked at the small, but growing team that we had assembled both in Canada and in Bangladesh. Yes, in Canada the first seven hires we had were all men. Yes, in Bangladesh, we had a disproportionate number of males in technical roles over women. I had never thought of myself as biased. In fact, I actually kind of thought that I was the opposite, perhaps even somewhat of a feminist [a term itself that had been manipulated over the years].
So I shared these thoughts with both my wife and our Employee Experience Manager [female]. I told them that this concerned me. I know I don’t intentionally judge anyone on whether they were male or female, white or brown, Canadian or Bangladeshi, but on their ability to do the task at hand.
Eventually, I did create a list of five women, but more importantly, I made a pledge to try and learn more about all ten of my nominees—male and female—by reading books or stories, or watching TED talks, or simply browsing beyond the headlines. And this is where my personal exploration got interesting…
You see one of the women on my narrowed down list of inspirational women was Sheryl Sandberg. For those unfamiliar with her, Sheryl is the COO of Facebook and currently sits on their board of directors. And in my introspection, I started to read and learn more about the ‘Lean In’ movement and her book: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
While I would encourage all who are reading this to read the book in full, at a minimum everyone should read these Tips for the Workplace. As summarized by Wikipedia, “the book looks at the barriers preventing women from taking leadership roles in the workplace, barriers such as discrimination, blatant and subtle sexism, and sexual harassment.”
In society, we often slap each other on the back and say ‘Good Job’ and ‘Atta boy!’, praising each other about how far we’ve come since incorporating anti-discrimination, diversity, and inclusion policies in the workplace. I have often thought that these were unnecessary as you simply hire, compensate, and reward the best candidate regardless of all factors. If you do this, there should be no need to have such policies. However, when you look at the grand scheme of the business world and in particular the tech/startup world (as modern as we portray ourselves as being),  I do believe that gender stereotypes are holding us back from our potential of achieving what is possible.
What I learned about myself and my personal interactions — and I am somewhat ashamed to admit it — is that like many, I was probably guilty of passive/subtle/subconscious sexism and bias. One statement really rang true with me, “Women are often hired based on past performance while men are hired for their potential.”
Maybe reading some of this book did change my actions, or at least maybe it opened my eyes a bit to how I should approach things in the office and at home. We have always tried to hire for potential and fit as the most important criteria, but if our society is more prone to hire men for potential and women on past performance, did we miss out unknowingly on great female candidates in the past? It is quite possible.
I debated about whether I ever would share this blog post, but as I wrote earlier: gender bias, even subtle biases, are all too frequently pushed aside, or if they are talked about at all, it is done in cliques of men and women – rarely together. I even shared a nearly complete version of this post with my partner Chris as well as Melissa, our Employee Experience coordinator who does our recruiting, as I was worried about potential fallout from the simple act of admitting to a past subconscious bias created potential legal issues down the road. But it is too important a topic to suppress, and it needs to be brought to the forefront.
Earlier this month, we saw both a celebration of International Women’s Day  and the third anniversary of the Lean In movement that Sandberg started. I figured that it was important for me to finally publish these thoughts, and I would encourage you to share with your colleagues. It is important conversation to have.
Causation or correlation: 2.5 years ago, we only had one woman working for us in our Maple Ridge office. Today, we are almost 50% female and six of the seven most recent hires have been women. None were hired because they were female. We hired them for their skills, their talents, their passion, and yes… their potential.
Things can change quickly.
Note: In my final edit of this post, I removed the names of the five women and men that made it onto my list of inspiring people. Stop by our offices, we will give you a tour, and I will point out the people who inspire me. However, I will not point out the individuals on the wall. I will, instead, introduce you to the women who are helping drive our business forward. And to this end, I leave you with a few photos of the women in our offices, both in Canada and in Bangladesh. You are the ones that inspire.
Photography by Alan Bailward Photography - http://bailwardphotography.com