Chaya Pamula recalled the time during a business meeting when she tried to ask questions after a male coworker had just pitched an idea.
“I finished only one sentence, and the person immediately interrupted me saying, ‘We already flushed that idea out,’” she said.
A brusque dismissal like that might have silenced her. Or triggered a response that might have alienated the coworker.
Pamula instead wanted him as an ally.
“I said to him, ‘I still want to say something, and I really need and value your opinion.’”
The coworker was surprised. “It was like a light bulb went off in his head. He realized that he had ignored me at that moment, and he realized that I wanted his attention. So, he listened to me; and after that, he never, ever interrupted me again.”
Even better, he also supported Pamula. He became her ally.
Pamula shared her experiences during a virtual talk on transforming men into allies in the tech industry. She is the founder and president of SheTek, a Princeton-based company that cultivates a pipeline of women who are qualified to meet the technology needs of companies; she is also cofounder and CEO of PamTen (Princeton), a technology services company. Pamula was joined in the talk by William Keepin and Reverend Cynthia Brix, cofounders and codirectors of the Satyana Institute (Seattle) and of the institute’s Gender Equity and Reconciliation International project.
They discussed several ways in which women can convert men into allies who will support their pursuit of balanced careers and professional growth in the tech industry. They said that women must:
- encourage men to become true sponsors and promoters of women in the workplace,
- resolve gender issues through invitation and collaboration,
- get comfortable with being uncomfortable in challenging situations, and
- have more self-esteem and self-confidence, so they will have the courage to speak up and address issues.
“It’s all about empowering women and honoring women who have challenged the patriarchal version of female stereotypes,” said Pamula, who at one point in her career was the only female employee on a staff of 5,000.
“I’m a woman of color, born and brought up in India, where patriarchy is rooted in the system, and I work predominantly in a male-dominated industry, which is the tech industry,” she said.
“Then I migrated to the United States, and I thought in this country, being an advanced country, there would not be any gender parity issues. To my surprise, I felt that it’s no different across the globe.
“There is a great potential for men and women to work together very skillfully,” she said.
“I was challenged with gender bias issues at work. In some instances, I didn’t even realize it was an issue, unless somebody really told me that I needed to act on it. Then it was an issue,” she said.
“It’s important to have that level of awareness and education, especially for women, to understand when to respond to the situation. So, I learned the hard way how to speak up. I had to have courage and be able to address issues, and had the opportunity to get a male colleague to support me in those situations,” she said.
“Men must listen generously, and believe women are capable and competent, while validating and normalizing women’s experiences,” she said.
“They should encourage women to let their talent shine, and they should level the playing field, engaging in women’s initiatives and practicing transparency, while avoiding interrupting women with unsolicited advice,” she said.
Important to Involve Men
“We can solve these gender inequities to overcome the systemic structural causes, and we should be able to reinforce the perception that it’s not about only women. It is important to involve men in these initiatives,” she said.
Pamula cited numerous statistics that paint a negative picture for women in the tech industry, including the fact that only 20 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.
Another troubling statistic is that 42 percent of working women say they have faced gender discrimination at work, she said.
“Women are about twice as likely as men to experience some form of gender discrimination at work,” she said. “More women who reported these issues have a bachelor’s degree or higher education.”
Meanwhile, “a majority of men still think that there is no gender bias at the workplace,” she said.
“Gender bias at the workplace means a lack of flexible hours, lower engagement and unequal pay,” Pamula added.
“Women still make less than men. And there are unequal opportunities and a lack of role models to look up to [when addressing] any situation. And, as I personally experienced, there’s also a lack of sponsorship for women. We need more sponsorship. It’s very, very important to find mentors and sponsors,” Pamula said.
“Women face sexual harassment. Noninclusive workplaces are ingrained into the culture of many of the industries that are not very women-friendly,” she said.
“Work and life balance is becoming a major issue for women having to deal with not only the household chores and taking care of children, but also online classes and dealing with the work demands,” she said.
“There were instances where you try to defend or disagree with a male colleague. Immediately the colleague says, ‘Don’t take it personally.’ You know whether you take it personally or not, but it’s a very common statement. They also say things like, ‘You are so good at taking notes. Can you take notes?’ Actually, I don’t mind doing that, as long as I’m not given that as my full-time job,” she said.
“Women must speak up when their male bosses and coworkers dismiss them or tell them they’re getting emotional during a conversation. It’s not about emotion. It’s about the profession.”
The Origins of Gender Bias
William Keepin and the Rev. Cynthia Brix addressed the origins of gender bias and expectations in the workplace.
Keepin referred to a “man box” that men endure as part of male socialization. It confines them to certain limited behaviors and attitudes, and produces desensitized and controlling behaviors.
“Men are conditioned in certain ways, which we see consistently across the cultures. Boys and men are subjected to a process of cutting off a certain part of their humanity,” he said. “And if they don’t do it to themselves, their peers will do it to them,” Keepin said.
“Men have to deny certain aspects of their sensitivity and their compassion, which have been called ‘feminine’ qualities, but really they’re just human qualities,” Keepin said.
“Women don’t realize the magnitude of pain that men go through to squeeze themselves into this very limited role that they’re given. There is a great deal of mutual unawareness across the gender gap that we have experienced in every culture we’ve worked in,” he said. “Men and women don’t fully realize the pain of the other.”
To change that, men must do the following:
- Understand women’s perspectives. Do not try to fix things.
- Recognize women as being capable and competent, and don’t be intimidated or threatened by female coworkers
- Validate women’s experiences and recognize their contributions. Don’t take credit for their ideas; instead, champion them and their work.
- Level the playing field and have the same standards and expectations for men and women.
- Remove male privilege and advantages from the equation, for instance by highlighting salary disparities.
“We all have to understand that we’re all in this system together, and that it’s toxic and traumatizing,” Brix said. “But it can be changed; this is the good news. In our work, we have consistently witnessed remarkable harmony, mutual respect and creative collaboration between men and women,” she added.