Women face so many day-to-day slights in the workplace. You can think of it as a thousand everyday cuts. Each cut may seem small on its own, but together these have cumulative and ripple effects. Below is an excerpt from BEYOND LEANING IN, (out now!), a new kind of business book written as a novel by Melanie Ho in order to show how true-to-life characters navigate bias in the workplace. This scene is from the perspective of Debra, a trailblazing CEO who has broken a lot of glass ceilings and mentored many women across her career. But here we see her realize that she’s let unconscious biases slide at her company, and also that what seem like small slights can have a huge negative impact.
For Women’s History Month, Melanie is also posting a webcomic a day on her Instagram illustrating a scene or concept from BEYOND LEANING IN — the comic below is based on the same scene (though she changed brownies to cupcakes, because they’re more fun to draw!)
She felt sick on her drive home as she remembered a memo she’d sent out the week before, announcing promotions to the rest of the firm. Debra had just cut and pasted paragraphs that managers had sent her without giving much thought to them beyond fixing a few typos or ensuring they were all the same length.
As soon as she got home, she pulled the memo up in the email sent box on her phone and found the sentences she’d remembered:
Congratulations to Mara for her promotion to senior manager of analytics. We’re appreciative of Mara’s incredible work ethic and also grateful for her exceptional baking skills—we’ve probably all gained a few pounds from her brownies.
She looked at the description below Mara’s:
Congratulations to Michael for his promotion to senior manager of analytics. He recently led analytical work that was exactly what was needed to bring a critical project across the finish line, leading to $5M revenues.
The implications hit her. They had hundreds of employees at the company. Most people reading the memo wouldn’t know every promoted employee. She could imagine Mara’s manager defending the paragraph, saying that Mara liked bringing baked goods in; that it was important when it came to building a positive team environment.
All of that might be true. But people reading the memo would perhaps remember only one thing about each person. With Michael, they would remember the results. With Mara, they would remember the brownies.
Melanie Ho is founder of Strategic Imagination, a firm dedicated to drawing on the power of the imaginative arts to drive transformational change. She believes that today’s wicked problems won’t be solved unless we find new ways of getting past trapped mindsets–and that the tools of fiction, theatre, and the visual arts can help pave the way. In writing BEYOND LEANING IN, Melanie drew from hundreds of conversations with women across industries, secondary literature, and her own experience becoming a corporate executive in her thirties. Her career has also included serving as a consultant to hundreds of university presidents, vice presidents, and deans; teaching literature at UCLA while earning her PhD in English; and being a political organizer. She lives in Washington, DC.
Are you ready to find out more about how bias can show up and have an impact in the workplace? Learn about our online course, Unconscious Bias in the Workplace!