Becoming an advocate for gender diversity: five steps that could shape your journey

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By Sanjay Mehta, Senior Vice President at Trend Micro and Girls in Tech Board Member

In my senior role at a cybersecurity company, I spend a good part of my days talking about digital transformation and securing the journey to cloud computing. In the “off-hours”, I am on a different kind of journey: one that has allowed me to better understand myself, deepen relationships with family and friends, and inspired me to become more active in making an impact on the lives of others. Each new encounter has broadened my perspective and crystallized a passion for diversity, equity and inclusivity, in the workplace, the wider IT industry and society at large.

Today, I am honored to be considered an ally at work and humbled to have been named a new board member at Girls In Tech—a noted non-profit and Trend Micro partner working tirelessly to enhance the engagement, education, and empowerment of women in technology.

Here are five things I’ve learned on my journey so far, which I hope may help to inspire others along the way:

1. Look inside yourself

What are the feelings and experiences driving your desire to be an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)? What’s shaping your thinking? What, if anything, do you expect to learn or gain personally? Are your intentions pure? These are all important questions to ask yourself.

My youth was spent in a predominantly white suburb of Colorado. Both of my parents were physicians and my mom, at one point, worked on an army base. I still remember the stories of how she was treated as a female doctor, an Indian woman committed to her culture and her traditional dress, and a devoted mother leaving the on-call nights or weekends for others who craved the extra hours and extra pay. She was steadfast in her beliefs and in her desire to help her patients and her family, never bending to the discriminatory expectations of others.

2. Look inside your organization

Are you already a loud and proud voice for DEI? Do you speak up when you see something that isn’t right? Do you ensure the teams you build and interact with are not homogenous? Look for new things you could start doing today to demonstrate your commitment to diversity and inclusion—both in the workplace and any extra-curricular groups you’re a part of.

I’m fortunate to work for a company where our co-founder and CEO is a woman and an amazing technology leader. She has been instrumental in growing a company over the past 30+ years, which is now a dominant industry force, without selling its soul or straying from its core values. This is so rare, but it shows that it is possible to balance the needs of customers, shareholders and employees. It shows that it is possible to build a culture of diversity that goes beyond vanity metrics, and that you can be in a great place that still strives to get better at DEI. However, there’s always more work to do.

3. Do more than listen

Embrace every opportunity you can to learn from others and about others. I separate this intentionally.  When learning from others, I am reading, listening to podcasts, or in dialogue with people I consider to be more expert than myself.  Interact directly if you can and if not, ask others the questions you would have posed. When learning about others, practice reflective listening so those you interact with feel heard and understood—it will also help you to digest and process what they are saying more effectively.

I practice reflective listening at work and at home. It’s been incredibly valuable in my relationships. But listening is just the beginning. Hearing is better, understanding is essential, and playing it back is immensely powerful.

Try not to solve or simply sympathize or empathize. Find compassion.

One of my favorite quotes that brings this concept to life is ironically from movie White Men Can’t Jump. This is certainly not the most diversity-sensitive movie title, but I can look past it to find this gem on empathy and the need to be understood.

“Honey, I said I was thirsty. I didn’t want a glass of water. I wanted empathy. I wanted you to say I know what it’s like to be thirsty.”

“See. If I am thirsty, I don’t want a glass of water, rather I want you to sympathize.  I want you to say, “Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth”.   I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of drymouthedness.”

4. Ask questions to understand feelings

Inclusion is about feelings.  The great Brene Brown reminded me it’s about the important difference of belonging versus just working to “fit in”.   To ask questions that result in understanding feelings, you must set up an environment of emotional safety.

Be humble and vulnerable and you will find others are eager to do the same.

Be supportive and not judgemental.  When you find yourself wanting to jump to an answer take a breath and ask this question instead: “how can I best support you right now?” We’re talking about complex issues here, so don’t assume you understand the problem, or the solution. Rather, ask the right questions and commit to helping in areas you are truly passionate about.

If you have kids, you likely wrestle with this every day. Say your child has a problem or expresses some emotion. You either try to solve the problem or say it’ll be OK. But are you really helping here, or just trying to make yourself feel better? Maybe they don’t want the problem solved. Maybe they don’t want to feel OK. Instead, use your reflective listening. Ask feeling questions and request permission to support them in a way that they want to be supported.

5. Be more vulnerable

Find a nice quiet place to sit with your own thoughts. Now, admit your life isn’t perfect and realize you are no different to anyone else. We all have our dirty laundry, we all have our family challenges, we all have emotional days. Most of us work really hard to not let that show. It requires a lot of effort, can be exhausting actually.

I still remember the day I stopped talking about authentic leadership and actually acknowledged my own vulnerability and wore it proudly. By dropping my guard, I have created an environment of emotional safety for others to reveal their true self and feelings. I don’t hide behind my fancy corporate title and I have learned not to hide my real self.  It’s amazingly liberating.

I hope you’ve found this useful. I can’t wait to get started in my new role with Girls in Tech, and would love to connect if you have ideas that can help us bridge the industry diversity gap.


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