As a continuing commitment to look at the YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff through the EDI lens, and my presidential theme of Striving for Equity using the same Competencies, I considered the fourth of these Competencies. I thought about how career preparation is a considerable aspect of Learning Experiences (formal and informal), and realized that a notable, ongoing issue of equity, inequity and inequality revolves around gender issues in the workplace.
Because I feel that our perspective can become myopic if we stay wholly within the library sphere, I chose to interview women in the non-library workforce and I asked them about their experiences around gender inequity and inequality, and how these elements shaped them, both as teens and during their careers. I also asked them about how they feel gender inequity and inequality has affected the teens in their own lives today.
The next interview is with Sarita Parikh, who started her career as an engineer, with a belief that technology could improve the quality of people’s lives. She’s since learned that engineering is necessary, but not enough, and went on to do work in product design and consumer behavior. Sarita is the co-founder of jomanity, a startup focused on helping people live every day with more joy and more humanity. In her free time, Sarita hangs out with her kids, does yoga, and eats way too many donuts. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and her new puppy, Buddy.
If there was one element of gender equity that you would like to see promoted in the workplace, what would it be?
My instinctive answer is helping more people understand how the brain works and that as part of being human we all have unconscious bias. No one is immune from it and I think really understanding that is kind of liberating. If we know that, and we know that the “standard” picture of a senior executive is an older white male (this is the archetype in our minds because it’s what we see most often), it helps put context around why so many women aren’t seen as leaders. This is the “she just doesn’t ‘have’ what it takes” perspective. The most common feedback that I see women receive in leadership roles is that they are either too soft or too aggressive (the double bind.) It’s a narrow, narrow line between those two. Although that’s my instinctive answer, I also know that there is research indicating that when people learn a problem is a common problem, they can feel like they’re off the hook: see this NYT article.
Considering the research that gender stereotypes are set into motion around age 10, how would you say that you worked against these stereotypes for girls, and in what ways did they become a part of your own upbringing and adolescence?
I was a math/science kid, and oblivious in some ways, and my parents were strong supporters for those skills, so I was lucky that I didn’t feel bound by academic gender stereotypes. As a kid, I always knew I could beat the boys in math contests. (We used to have boy vs. girl math contests at school!)
I did, however, feel a strong need to be deferential to people with strong confidence, and I still grapple with that. I innately believed that people who spoke with confidence “knew” more than I did, and they tended to be boys. Side note: I had a real ‘aha’ moment when reading How Women Rise. I don’t have the exact quote, but it was essentially this: Women are more likely to be communal in their leadership and feel like luck and the people around them are the reason for their success. Men are more likely to feel that their success is preordained, that they will be successful irrespective of the people around them. That was a serious epiphany. I had never understood that idea, and after reading it, so many events from the past made sense to me. Finally, I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of having ambition. It felt embarrassing and aggressive and I rarely spoke of it. Now, I feel proud of having ambition: It no longer feels unseemly.
Can you discuss any experiences that you have had that made you feel singled out as a woman or as one of the women in your workplace or chosen career? Are there particular instances of gender inequalities that you have had to deal with? How did you handle them?
I’m often the only person of color in the conference room. I’m petite, I’m brown, I have a high pitched voice, and I’m female. For many years, I worked in technology and I knew people discounted me from the moment they saw me. It didn’t bother me that much because I knew that I had strong skills and that my professional value would become evident quickly. However, as I moved into leadership roles, being immediately discounted really bothered me. When other people underestimated me, it undermined my ability to lead. It made me nervous and question myself and that’s a bad combination for “presence.” Now, I have enough experience and confidence that I can project a warm gravitas. But it took a lot of intentional practice and mindset shifts to develop the confidence.
What guidance, if any, have you received from mentors or coaches about how being a woman in the workplace may affect your career? How do you feel that this advice has helped you? What resources would you recommend to people who work with teens that would help them to better understand the scourge of gender inequity and inequality and impart that information to young people?
I’ve had a lot of conversations about “burning this mother down”–mostly in jest, but definitely with the subtext of frustration. The reality is that if you want to change the system, you have to figure out how to work in the system. A huge part is developing strong relationships with people who can sponsor your growth and advocate for you to have bigger stretch opportunities. If you’re going into a meeting where you might get talked over or have your ideas repeated by someone else (which is comically common), I’d suggest having an arrangement with some close colleagues so that you’ve got each other’s backs. Ideally, those close colleagues are men and women. A professor spoke at my college reunion last week, and her research indicated that men must take an active and public role in promoting gender equity. I do a lot of mentoring, and I absolutely love ambition in women. I encourage it!
Famously, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women in the workplace to “Lean In”. Can you describe suggestions that you’ve read about or learned from others (outside of direct mentorship) that have been helpful? Detrimental? Any you needed to tweak for your particular situation to be successful?
So many! First, I believe you can learn something from everyone. It’s great to have official mentors and coaches, and that’s definitely valuable and something for which I’m grateful. But on a day-to-day basis, I’ve learned so many lessons from the people I come across. I’ve learned from my team, from senior executives, from people in the call center, from Lyft drivers, from my kids, the list goes on–it’s amazing how much wisdom people have! There are also plenty of unhelpful or poor lessons, and it takes time and experience to know how to separate the helpful from the unhelpful.
Secondly, I recommend developing a strong network of people who have similar values and goals, who can help you grow, and who you can help grow. That includes formal and informal networks. I’ve been a member of the Ellevate Network for a few years. In Ellevate, I’ve found an incredible group of authentic, driven, smart, and supportive women. I can’t say enough good things about the people and the spirit of the group. And informally, I’ve made so many great professional (and personal) friends over the years. Having a strong network is probably the single most important thing you can do to grow your career.
I’ve read all the books, some of them twice! One of the many eye-opening things I’ve learned is that it’s normal and expected to trade favors (“I owe you one” and then actually use that favor!). I always felt like doing things for colleagues was something I did with no expectation in return–it felt tacky to expect something in return. It still does. Also, one of the more contradictory things I’ve read is about using the word “I” vs “we.” Most of the women I know talk about “we”, as in “we launched this program” or “we wrote an article.” Men are much more likely to say “I.” I had read the advice to take more credit when you are leading something like saying “I led this program” or “I had my team…” But, to me it comes off as arrogant; I couldn’t do it.
Finally, what ideals about gender equity and equality have you worked to instill in your own kids and others around them?
My kids are way more woke than I am. They routinely point out my (unconscious, bias-fueled) hypocrisy.
One thing that happened a few days ago: I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast and the host’s 17 year old daughter was on the program. She was incredibly well spoken and well-considered. They were speaking about the role of kids’ movies on gender stereotypes, specifically, princess movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, and the influence they had–that they set up the trope of “girl’s life has meaning when she gets the boy”. I asked my teenager to listen to the podcast because I wanted him to hear the 17 year old’s intellectual process and the way she made her case. My son listened to it and was immediately dismissive. He didn’t believe movies that you watch when you’re four have a role in how you perceive gender roles as a teenager. He is, maybe, one of the most “blind to differences” people I know, and I can see why he wouldn’t believe that to be true for himself. But, it worried me that he was so quickly dismissive of the idea. Of course we talked about it at length afterwards.
Thanks for participating, Sarita, and thanks to readers for everything you do to counter gender inequity and inequality in and outside of libraries!
Todd Krueger, YALSA President 2019-2020 | Twitter: @toddbcpl