Last week we had our second STEM Women Hangout, from the series How Men Can Help.
Our guest was Dr Yonatan Zunger who spoke to us about how leaders can work to be more inclusive of women in their teams. Yonatan is the chief architect of social at Google, and he is in charge of everything ‘social’ at the company. He has an academic background, with a PhD in string theory from Stanford University. He was kind enough to join our discussion as himself, and not in an official capacity representing Google. This is a topic he is very clearly passionate about, as you can see from the video below.
Leading a Large Team
Yonatan explained the dynamics of his team, and how he is indirectly responsible for almost a thousand people, ranging from software engineers to product managers to privacy experts. As a result, he works with a large number of very diverse people from all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences.
We asked Yonatan if he takes any special steps to mentor women, and if his leadership style changes if he has to mentor women. Yonatan clarified that he does not. He went on to explain that leadership is about understanding individuals and their particular needs to develop. Gender comes up when recognizing that there are certain issues that are more likely to come up when there is a woman on the team.
Listening, Modelling and Recognizing
Yonatan brings up a great set of rules to follow when it comes to leading teams. These are Listening, Modelling and Recognizing.
To listen means to be aware that sometimes you might not have all the information at hand, and at that point a really simple thing to do is to listen (and hold off on the urge to interrupt!). Leadership is about paying attention to the needs of the people around you, and listening is a great way to open up that discussion. Sometimes these needs might be things that people are themselves are unaware of, or have difficulty articulating; again, being able to spot these things by simply listening is one of the most important skills a leader can have. Yonatan also emphasized that this type of ‘active listening’ is not a skill that people are born with, and is not a skill that is likely to be taught during the early stages of one’s career either. Active listening therefore needs to be actively cultivated, practiced and implemented by leaders. Yonatan recommended a book that he found immensely helpful for learning this process of active listening; Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
He stresses the importance of acknowledging the legitimacy of the other person’s feelings.
If someone is feeling uncomfortable, it needs to be clear to everyone in the room that it’s okay that they feel uncomfortable.
Yonatan explains that modelling good behavior provides a framework for creating a respectful environment where the social norms allow people from diverse backgrounds to feel safe, and as a result, thrive. When applied to gender, this means that when a team has women in it, it is important to understand that many of these women have go through a tremendous amount of adversity through their day to day lives. If the team can be a haven from that, if it’s a ‘safe place’ where that sort of adversity and abuse is not tolerated, then as a team leader you can create an environment these women want to be in and work in.
Recognizing positive behavior is also an important aspect of being a team leader. Mentoring is a vital aspect of recognizing and rewarding positive behavior. Recognition is about having social feedback, and giving people that positive feedback when they need it can be tremendously important.
You often find people who are simply less confident in their skills than they should be. This is often specifically a problem among women and minority groups. When you encounter people like that, it’s really important to take that extra bit of time to say “hey, you’re doing really well at….”
Why is it important to have women in a team? Yonatan highlighted the dangers of group-think, and emphasized how bad ideas are caught much earlier when you have people from diverse backgrounds in a team. This applies to all sorts of issues such as race, ethnicity, and social class – not just gender.
Another important aspect of recognition is when team leaders highlight the role of an individual in their team, by making it clear that their opinion is important. This is particularly useful in the context of meetings, and can often preemptively address issues that might come up further down the line.
Yonatan brought up an example from his physics background, where he noticed a distinct pattern in which a disproportionate number of women were very quiet in the classroom. He pointed out that these were the women who had the biggest problems in their careers, and how a huge number of them eventually left physics. He notes that this happened because they were not comfortable; it had nothing to do with talent.
So how did Yonatan learn all these skills? He admits that he didn’t learn any of these through formal mechanisms. He says that what he found most useful was spending a lot of time listening and talking to people. It sounds simple enough, but it’s one key point that this discussion highlighted again and again; the importance of listening. He also gave a shout out to an excellent article by Jennifer Gilbert titled ‘Software Engineering Made a Woman Outta Me’, and how that helped him understand the kind of problems a female software engineer would face.
Gender Ratios affect Behavior
We asked Yonatan if he notices a difference when considering the gender ratio of men and women in meetings, email threads, conventions etc. He astutely observes that whenever gender ratios move beyond a 3:1 ratio in either direction, people in the minority become a little bit more nervous, slightly more hesitant, and a lot more self-conscious about bringing up any issues; they start to censor themselves. This is futile because if someone is censoring themselves by not talking, they may as well not be in the room. This can be countered by actively drawing people out and making them join the conversation. Another observation Yonatan makes is how behaviors are influenced by gender ratios; if a group is mostly men, certain social behaviors tend to happen which are unproductive, and the same can be observed for a group that is mostly women, with different social behaviors.
We wrapped things up by asking Yonatan if he had any parting advice for how male leaders can better support and mentor women in their teams. Active listening, trying to understand people’s needs, asking when unsure, modelling good behavior, making it clear that bad behavior is unacceptable were all important points that were made. On a final note, Yonatan stressed that public recognition is crucial to recruitment campaigns, and that companies should make it explicit and clear: We love having women on our team. We have a safe place for you.
Our next live Hangout on Air features Natalie Villalobos. Natalie is the Women in Technology Advocate at Google running the Women Techmakers program. We speak with Natalie next weekend, on Sunday 16th March 12:30 PM USA Pacific/ 8: 30 PM GMT. We’ll be featuring Natalie and her work as part of our In The Spotlight series highlighting and supporting women in STEM. Natalie will chat to us about what inspires her, what her role entails, and why supporting women in STEM is important.