Today’s workplaces have grown in many positive directions when it comes to women’s places within them — which, of course, ought to be no different than men’s places within them. When I started working, that wasn’t the case. Often, I was the only woman in a meeting full of male executives. Although I was as much of a participant as anyone else around the table, once, some visiting executives pretended that I did not exist until the moment that one of them turned to me and asked me for some coffee. They wrongly assumed that the only woman in the room was an assistant, not a stakeholder.
Fortunately, it’s hard to imagine such a “woman, get me coffee” request being made today. Especially as workplaces are significantly more gender-balanced, it’s important that we shift from thinking in terms of “male employee” or ”female employee” and move toward a gender neutral approach.
“Gender neutral” doesn’t mean that we disregard the importance of diversity. Rather, a gender-neutral approach is a mindset acknowledging how genders complement each other in order to create a sustainable working environment where all can thrive.
Interacting, speaking, and addressing your teams and peers in a neutral way reaps benefits of inclusion. A simple example is when introducing new staff. Consider replacing statements like “we’re thrilled to have a new man on our team” with “we’re thrilled to have a new team member.” That’s a subtle shift toward greater inclusivity.
Hiring plays an important role in diversity as well as in gender-neutral approaches, of course.By recognizing talent first, both in yourself and in others, you focus on something that everyone, regardless of gender, possesses. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or a prospective employee, lead with what you bring to the table, and watch and evaluate how every person operates in your business as neutrally as possible. When you get to know each other at this level first, the focus on skills and talents strengthens. This is especially important for women. We don’t want to be known as “the best female programmer I’ve ever seen.” We want to be known as the best programmer, period. When, collectively, we focus on what we do in the workplace, old stereotypes will die faster. As a child, I remember being told I ice skate pretty fast “for a girl.” I proudly replied, “I skate faster than all of the boys, actually.”
Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m reflective particularly of my journey as a female immigrant who proudly skated faster than boys and played ice hockey when that’s something girls didn’t do. I credit my parents’ gender-neutral child-rearing approach to that choice and to a lot of subsequent choices that I made, like studying computer science in college when that’s something that very few women did. I never thought that I didn’t belong around the table or in the room or that my voice didn’t have a place. If there’s a gift that I could give to women everywhere, it would be that sense of knowing that wherever you are, you belong there, and your talents and your voices matter a great deal. With women at the table of every major corporate board now, and with women in leadership positions steadily on the rise, it’s a different world than when I began my career — and thank goodness for that.
A version of this article first appeared on Information Age.