June 5, 2019

Being the only one

Being the only one

This phrase refers to being the "only one" of an underrepresented group (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) in a majority group. The "only one" may commonly (though not exclusively) experience:

  1. Pressure (overt or not) to speak for all members of their group and to educate others on matters related to their group

  2. Loneliness, isolation, lack of common experiences and cultural backgrounds

  3. Internal conflict when hearing derogatory comments – whether to break harmony / take a stand or "keep the peace" / be silently upset

  4. Discomfort speaking up and fully engaging in teamwork

  5. Decreased productivity and effectiveness due to Stereotype Threat (covered in a future newsletter)


I was glad to be encouraged to play my music at work even though it was likely different than what my manager & white coworkers listened to. They wanted to be exposed to music I liked. 

More Champions

A white, male colleague began debating me about the difference between racism and prejudice seemingly out of nowhere. I wasn't interested in having this debate. Fortunately, a different white, male co-worker stepped in and said the original guy was wrong and moved the conversation away from this topic. 

Hear it Firsthand 1

It was always hard feeling like I didn’t belong with a certain group of white coworkers. They all liked the same type of music that I didn't listen to and did activities I didn't do (snowboarding at Tahoe, EDM concerts, etc) – and the surprise or shock they’d always have when I hadn’t heard of the musicians. It made me feel very different. 

Hear it Firsthand 2 

I was once asked to answer another colleague's question during a sexual harassment meeting by the HR rep. She started by saying, "is there a black person here?" I (a black woman) did not make a sound. Someone pointed me out. She then asked me, "could you explain why it's funny when a black comedian uses the N word, but not a white comedian." As every angry black stereotype flashed through my head, I just complied while NO ONE, including the full time HR person said a thing. One of the worst experiences of my life. Only black woman in a company of 160.

Facts and Data

  • A study on differing numbers of female board directors found big differences between having one, two, and three women. Solo women experience much of the "being the only one" effect and find participation challenging. Two women directors are perceived as a separate subgroup from the board. At three, the "female directors" become "directors" and the team culture shifts towards collaboration, sustained focused, and a broadened scope of work [HBR]

  • Social events and relationship building – activities that aren't always obvious but very important for advancement – are harder to navigate for underrepresented people due to a lack of shared background and cultural landmarks [HBR]

Take Action

  • Add some structure to social settings. Informal social settings cause stress for many people navigating social interactions. Adding some structure (ice breakers, little competitions/games, a leader doing introductions) can really help [HBR]

  • Value diversity. Diverse teams have been found over and over to produce better and more creative results. You don't have to be everyone's best friend, but taking an interest in coworkers' lives and interests helps people feel they belong [HBR]

  • Mentorship. Creating structured systems to match people with mentors helps facilitate career advancing relationships [HBR]

  • See something, say something. If you see or hear uninclusive behavior, even if it wasn't intentional, do your best to do something about it

June 5, 2019

Stereotype Threat

stereotype threat

"Stereotype threat", as defined by psychologist Claude Steele, is the mental drain from being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. In less dense language this means that people get mentally depleted when they're trying to avoid playing into negative expectations – and this impedes successful completion of a given task. [Wikipedia] For example: "I am a woman in a room full of men. I am taking a math test. There are stereotypes that women are not good at math." [University of Arizona]

This is related to the psychological phenomenon of "priming" in which an initial experience primes someone's brain in such a way that their later behavior is affected. For example, the word "Nurse" is recognized more quickly following the word "Doctor" than following the word "Bread". [Wikipedia]

There are main contributors to stereotype threat. These include situations when (1) stereotypes about one's identity feel relevant to the task at hand; (2) someone is solo in a small number of underrepresented people in a given context; and (3) someone faces evaluative scrutiny [University of Arizona]

XKCD comic titled "How It Works" [XKCD]

Facts and Data

  • There are many major consequences to stereotype threat. Here are five of many: (1) Anxiety and dejection; (2) Heightened self-consciousness of stereotypes; (3) Lowered performance expectations and subsequent practicing time; (4) Reduced creativity and speed; and (5) Altered professional identities and aspirations [University of Arizona]
  • The mere presence of other people can evoke stereotype threat. Researchers found that women who took a math exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right, whereas women who took the same exam with two men got an average of 55%. This same score decline didn't occur with verbals test, only on math tests. There weren't significant differences in performance for men. Lastly, women’s lower performance in math was proportional to the relative number of men in a group: in same-sex groups, women got 70%; in a mixed-majority (two women, one man), women got 64%; and in a minority-group (one woman, two men), women got 58% [Harvard Kennedy School]
  • Stereotype threat can affect everyone, including overrepresented groups. Any social identity can affect performance on a task that offers the possibility that a stereotype might be confirmed, even overrepresented groups. This includes  men with tasks of social sensitivity; white people compared on tasks assumed to reflect natural sports ability; and white men facing supposed Asian superiority in math [University of Arizona]
  • Stereotype threat can hurt or harm depending on framing. Researchers found that the framing of an athletic task significantly affected how Black and white athletes performed. They found that Black participants performed significantly worse than did control participants when performance on a golf task was framed as diagnostic of "sports intelligence." In comparison, white participants performed worse than did control participants when the golf task was framed as diagnostic of "natural athletic ability" [American Psychological Association]
  • Stereotype threat with gender and negotiations. One study had female-male pairs do a negotiation exercise together and found that when the pair was told good negotiators had traits commonly thought to be female (e.g. emotional, good listeners, expressive) the women performed substantially better than the men. When the the pair was given a gender neutral description of good negotiators, they found that men did substantially better [Northwestern Kellogg]
  • Asian women did better and worse on a math test depending on whether their race or gender was primed. Asian American women performed better on a math test when their Asian identity was primed compared to a control condition with no priming (conforming to the "Asians are good at math" stereotype). Conversely, participants did worse on the math test when instead their gender identity was highlighted (conforming to the "Women are bad at math" stereotype) [Harvard Kennedy School]

Claude Steele found that Black students facing stereotype threat did much worse on a GRE-like aptitude test compared to their previous SAT scores than did Black students who did not face stereotype threat. White students' scores were not significantly affected [Wikipedia]

Take Action

Trying not to think about stereotype threat doesn't help. Stereotype threat reduces available "working memory"  which is one of the strongest predictors of ability. It is self-defeating to seek to avoid the effects of stereotype threat by trying not to be anxious, not to have feelings of self-doubt, and not to pay attention to negative stereotypes. Such efforts further deplete the cognitive resources available to them for successfully performing workplace tasks. Read on for better solutions [HBR]

  • Affirm counter-stereotypical strengths. Women, for example can think of themselves as tough, risk-taking, and competitive for a few minutes before engaging in a task with potential stereotype threat [HBR] [University of Arizona]

  • Encourage a growth mindset. Emphasizing the importance of effort and motivation in performance while deemphasizing inherent talent or genius reduces stereotype threat. Black students who were encouraged to view intelligence as malleable were more likely to indicate greater enjoyment and valuing of education, and they also received higher grades that semester [University of Arizona]

  • Encourage self affirmation. When people affirm their self worth they protect themselves from perceived threats and consequences of failure. This can be done by encouraging people to think about characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important. White people who affirmed their commitment to being non-racist were less likely to respond in a stereotypic fashion to an implicit measure of racial associations linked to racial bias. African American students who self-affirmed themselves for 15 minutes performed better during the semester than those who did not. The effects arise because the affirmation alleviates the fear of confirming to negative stereotypes [University of Arizona]

  • When giving feedback, emphasize high standards with assurances about someone's capability to meet them. Constructive feedback is most effective when it communicates high standards for performance, while also providing assurances that their abilities and “belonging” are assumed rather than questioned [University of Arizona]

  • Remind others that stereotype threat is real but stereotypes are not. Remind someone that the anxiety they may experience when performing a task with a negative stereotype has nothing to do with their actual ability and everything to do with stereotype threat [HBR]

  • Help others avoid viewing themselves through an identity lens. Instead of “I am the only black woman in this meeting”, focusing on achievements and abilities (“I am the only person in this meeting with an MBA”) [HBR]

  • Exposure to positive role models improves performance. Providing even a single role model that challenges stereotypic assumptions can eliminate performance decrements under stereotype threat. Evidence indicates that even reading essays about successful women can alleviate performance deficits under stereotype threat [University of Arizona]. Google noticed that only 1 of 15 conferences rooms on a certain part of their campus were named after women and so began naming more after women [The Atlantic]

  • Move demographic inquiries (i.e. race/ethnicity, gender, etc) to the end of performance evaluations. Multiple sets of researchers found that moving demographic questions to the end of the AP Calculus test resulted in significantly higher performance amongst women on the test. By instituting this procedural change, it is estimated that an additional 4700 female students would receive AP Calculus credit annually [University of Arizona]

June 5, 2019

Office Housework

Office housework

Logistical and administrative tasks that are essential to office functioning, but don’t pay off professionally. Examples include taking notes, cleaning up after meetings, planning social events, bringing food/coffee, etc. This work often falls on women, and especially women of color. [Harvard Business Review]


The best advocates I've had give me a chance at thought and group leadership, while the most frustrating have relied on me for quasi-administrative tasks. I (and many women, especially other women of color) will default into (or be defaulted into) taking responsibility for organizing logistics, tracking attendance, NOTE TAKING. My best advocates free me up from these admin tasks (spreading the work amongst genders, races, etc) so I can participate in the content. 

Hear it FirstHand

I have to actively stop myself from volunteering for extra roles (i.e. party planning, note taking, cleaning up after a team lunch) that I don’t enjoy and that can be low status. As a woman, I feel that there is a strong expectation for me to be perceived as helpful.

Facts and Data

  • Wharton professor Adam Grant writes about research on this subject: “When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’” [Harvard Business Review]

  • Participants of a study were asked to evaluate the performance of a male or female employee who did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman who also stayed late to help. When men and women both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. A woman had to stay late and help to get the same approval rating as a man who didn’t help. [NY Times]

Take Action

  • Create a schedule of predictable “office housework”  tasks and share them fairly. Simply making well-intentioned but vague commitments to share these tasks equitably rarely works – add structure if you're serious about this

  • Check-in with those doing office housework regularly. You may notice someone on your team doing these “non-advancement” office housework tasks. You can't know for sure how anyone feels about doing these tasks, so don't make assumptions, but do respectfully check-in about the situation

  • Model good behavior. Volunteer to get the coffee, clean up after the meeting, water the plants, etc

  • Make the existence of "office housework" common knowledge on your teams. The more bias can be identified, the less power it has, and the more ability you have to do something about it

June 5, 2019

Bystander effect

Bystander effect

A social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim as more people are present. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility [Wikipedia]


As a Black female engineer I was often the only female and usually the only black person. In my first project a middle-aged white guy at one of our suppliers screamed at me in a meeting for making a suggestion (not raise his voice... scream), telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. He didn't speak to anyone else on my engineering team that way even though we were all in agreement. I was so shocked I froze.  

A male colleague stepped in, there on the spot, and told him it was an inappropriate way to address anyone on our team. He then reinforced his agreement with my assessment. The strongest form of allyship was that he was able to address it immediately as opposed to just feeling uncomfortable and not speaking up and waiting to handle the damage on both sides later. I appreciated his respect and support, especially since I had no idea how to defend myself in that moment.

Facts and Data

  • Researchers have posited three main reasons why the bystander effect occurs: the diffusion of responsibility; social referencing, the tendency to see how others behave and act accordingly; and simple shyness. [nymag]

  • One study showed that even 5-year-olds succumb to the bystander effect. When asked to help an adult clean up a spill, almost all children did when alone, but only 50% did as the number of 5-year-old bystanders increased. [nymag]

Take Action

  • Trainings and knowledge of the necessity of a proactive stance has been shown to reduce bystander effect. Even discussing with colleagues how you might approach different scenarios can make a big impact

  • Become more aware of this phenomenon, and encourage your office to get trained

June 5, 2019



A situation in which a person either hides or downplays some aspect of themselves because they do not want to feel (or have others feel) uncomfortable [Deloitte]


My manager made it clear that a physical condition he had (that was largely invisible to everyone else) would at times affect his ability to work long hours late at night. Him disclosing this, instead of toughing it out or making up excuses, allowed the entire team to be more honest with our own individual challenges, which I really do believe helped us do better work in the long term.


At my consulting firm, a male Senior Manager told us a story about how he would tell coworkers he had "important weekly client meetings," but he was actually spending time with his kids. He was trying to "cover" because he believed other men would not understand why he would need to spend time with his kids during the week – he thought other men would judge him and think this responsibility fell on his wife.

Facts and Data

Take Action

Some forms of covering are a part of doing business while others are more harmful. HBR writes: “Enabling employees to feel comfortable being themselves could unlock dramatic performance gains because they can focus their attention on work, rather than hiding parts of themselves.”

  1. Share your story and be a bit more vulnerable (in the right context)

  2. Know that many people feel it necessary to hide parts of themselves, especially related to their sexual orientation, disability, gender, race, and more.

  3. Don't pressure others to "uncover" anything they don't want to. Just because you might be a safe person to "uncover" with doesn't mean that others are as well.

June 5, 2019



A person senior to you who advocates for your career progression (vs a mentor who simply advises) [Glass Door]


My boss regularly encouraged and supported me to take on new challenges and provided me opportunities to do so. For example, he asked me to present our work at city, state and nation-wide events in which he could have easily just presented the work himself. It was more work for him to guide me through it and he took a bit of a risk putting me out there, but he valued me and my professional development. 


"What, do you think I'm too old for you?" said a 50-year old to me at a conference party – the next day my boss introduced me to him as the CEO of our department's 5th largest supplier: he said hi and immediately walked away. I felt pressure to not go to meetings with this CEO to avoid making him feel awkward AND, to top it off, I got reprimanded by my boss for 'skipping meetings' and had to explain why I wasn't going.

Facts and Data

  • Research indicates that women have many mentors, but few sponsors, and even fewer senior-level sponsors. White men often have an easier time sponsoring other white me and are less comfortable informally reaching out to junior female employees, especially women of color [Harvard Business Review]

  • The percentage of men with sponsors (19%) is almost more than 50% higher than the percentage of women (13%) [NY Times]

  • Across more than 30,000 employees from over 100 companies, two in three men indicated that the leaders who helped them succeed were mostly men, whereas only one in three women indicated the leaders who have helped them were mostly men [McKinsey / LeanIn]

Take Action

  • Men can consciously or unconsciously avoid sponsoring women in the workplace. Spending one-on-one time with women can feel uncomfortable purely because of the optics. Since sponsorship is crucial for professional development however, make a concerted effort to overcome these obstacles and sponsor women

  • Some companies have created formal sponsorship programs that help connect junior employees to more senior employees. The intentionality behind the programs can help overcome the barrier to entry for people to connect across difference. Read about some examples here

June 5, 2019

Self Advocacy & Confidence Gap

Self Advocacy & Confidence Gap

The gap between the self-assurance of men and women in professional settings that can often prove detrimental to the career advancement of women. Research suggests this confidence differential stems from women facing negative reactions to the same behavior that in men would be valued or ignored. [Harvard Business Review]


My team was preparing for our final presentation – three female, three male, and we had to select two of us to present. All three men self-nominated, and all three women agreed that any would do an excellent job. As they began discussing, however, one man interjected that he thought I should present instead of him, not only so that we would represent our team’s gender balance, but also because he thought I was a stronger presenter than him. I was flattered and reminded that I could have asserted myself at the start, but I, (like many women) rarely "self-nominate" myself for any position. 

Another Perspective

It took me about a month to feel comfortable really speaking up in class, and when I talked to other women in our class, we noticed that, across cohorts, women are less likely to be the first to speak up and generally take longer to warm up than the men in the class. I can't speak for everyone else, but for me, I know this was rooted in a lack of confidence in my preparation for business school and anxiety that others wouldn't value my contributions. 

Facts and Data

  • Based upon data from HP, women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the new position, while men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. [The Atlantic]

  • Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of HR, described his first experiment: he asked prospective employees to rate their abilities from one to five. After looking at self-ratings and subsequent performances of those who were hired, he concluded two things. One, that men who rated themselves fives should never be hired due to debilitatingly inflated views of themselves; and two, that women who rated themselves fives should absolutely be hired because “there’s societal pressure around women being self-effacing and more modest. For a woman to say she’s a five, she’s going to be amazing.” [Financial Times]

Take Action

  • There are many ways to mitigate this confidence gap in institutional ways. At Google, they found female engineers were not applying for self-promotions as much as men were. In response, they simply sent an email explaining that this was the case along with two studies that showed that women were less likely to self-nominate but were just as capable, and sometimes moreso. The application rate for women shot up, so they continued to send the email. As further proof this nudge itself was causing the better results, when they once forgot to send it, the applications for women dropped sharply, showing the nudge did matter. [Washington Post]

  • Encourage female colleagues to believe in themselves, take on stretch assignments, and take smart risks. Often, all it takes is providing more transparency about what these risks entail.

  • Remember that hesitation to jump into things and attempts to “follow the rules” do not equate to lack of ability.

  • Realize there is a thin line between recognizing the reality of self-limiting conditioning and blaming women for factors outside of their control. The confidence gap comes from women facing negative consequences for their behavior more than men do, not from women being naturally less confident.

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