Main illustration: Kristin Raymaker
At Intercom, we know how important it is to create a balanced, equitable workplace.
“The world is a better place when everybody can be their best,” Karen says. “Each of us should be able to be all the things we want to be, however we identify, however we want to show up, whatever we’ve been counted out of in the past.”
This year, the theme of International Women’s Day was #ChooseToChallenge, and we marked the occasion with a week-long program of events and discussions organized by our employee resource group, InterWomen. Here are three key takeaways from the week – and how you can use them to continue to challenge the status quo long after IWD 2021 is over.
1. Representation matters
As the saying goes: you can’t be what you can’t see. Whether in pop culture or in the workplace, the stories we tell – and who gets to tell them – matter.
Reflecting on her own career journey, Leandra Fishman, Intercom’s CRO, recalls being told, “You’ll never be successful without a college degree.” (While that might not seem like a gendered statement on the surface, successful men without college degrees include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson.)
“That was a shocker for me because I didn’t hear that language growing up and it wasn’t a part of my scope,” she says. “And I believed it. I thought, ‘Oh wow, I’m not going to be successful.’” And while that clearly didn’t turn out to be the case, it did have a lasting impact on the early days of her career: “I spent my career without a plan because I already thought I wasn’t going to be able to accomplish a lot.”
What Leandra’s story highlights is the need to be able to see people like you – that is, people of the same gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and background – succeeding at every level.
“As a leader, it’s critical that you make time to listen and learn from others”
As Maria Gutierrez, Intercom’s Senior Director of Engineering, says, “My experience as a woman in tech is very much my experience. Getting to hear about other people’s experiences through support networks I’m a part of is super humbling and valuable – especially as it teaches me not to get fixated in my own experience and make decisions purely based on how I see the world. It offers a wider view of the challenges women face in the industry. As a leader, it’s critical that you make time to listen and learn from others.”
Mentorship (and sponsorship) can be incredibly powerful here. Sarah Tran, Director of Brand Marketing, has some suggestions for how to make connections with potential mentors: “What I’ve done in the past is reach out to people I knew in other companies and asked them to put me in touch with people whose work I admired, and offered to take those people out for a coffee,” she says. “It was always a very fruitful conversation where I asked about challenges they faced, and gained insight into how they act as leaders.”
She also recommends following up with them afterwards. “I make sure to go back and ping them to say, ‘Hey, that advice you gave me a couple of months ago – I really put that in action and this is the change I facilitated, thank you for that’,” Sarah says. “Sharing what their advice helped me achieve reinforces that relationship.”
2. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s career growth
A major recurring theme in discussions this year has been the impact of COVID-19. This last year has had a major – and potentially devastating – effect on women’s careers. According to research published in The Guardian, more than half of women in the UK believe that women’s equality is in danger of going back to the 1970s in terms of reductions to their economic and social power.
“For many women, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a work-life balance when every aspect of both work and life is happening in the same space (that they also have to keep clean)”
For many women, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a work-life balance when every aspect of both work and life is happening in the same space (that they also have to keep clean). So what can employers and managers do to help?
Karen recounts an anecdote from when her children were younger and she was struggling to find that balance. “I talked to myself and I was like, ‘What is it that I really need?’” she says. “It’s not that I want to quit and be full-time not working. I really like working. And I really love my kids. And so I tried to make it really specific: what I want to do is to be able to take my son to a music class and take my daughter to the park.”
With these specific goals in mind, she approached her manager to discuss the possibility of a more flexible working schedule that would enable this – and he gave his full support. Not only that, but when she later moved jobs, he offered to advocate for similar working arrangements to her new manager. The lesson? “Find spots where you can help support people, especially when it’s something that really matters,” Karen says. “It really mattered to me, and he was absolutely there for me.”
“I wouldn’t have the career I have without incredible support and sacrifice from my wife”
With more and more families working from home, the increased awareness of the domestic burden that has historically been placed on women has been eye-opening – and a catalyst for change.
“I wouldn’t have the career I have without incredible support and sacrifice from my wife,” says Darragh Curran, Intercom’s SVP of Engineering. “The ‘invisible job’ is a real thing, and I choose to challenge myself and others to step up and be an equal at home, and give my partner back the space and support she has afforded me, and to become a better role model for my children too.”
3. We need allies – and we need to be allies
Karen’s former manager is a great example of an ally using their privilege to advocate for change. And what this week has brought to the fore is just how much we still need those acts of allyship in order to make significant progress – and how much we need to continue to be allies for others where possible.
We all know that it can be incredibly difficult to call out microaggressions or biases when you see them, particularly when you believe they weren’t meant in bad faith. But often, “just letting it slide” can quickly snowball into an atmosphere of self-doubt (“Was that because of a gender bias? Is it just my impostor syndrome? Maybe I really am being too ‘bossy’…”).
“That small but powerful act of allyship allowed me to shed the burden of proof”
Speaking of an incident where a male colleague suggested to her that a particular interaction he witnessed in a meeting was actually rooted in gender bias, Maddie Revill, Product Engineer at Intercom, says: “That small but powerful act of allyship allowed me to shed the burden of proof, trusting someone else’s judgment instead of my own. I could just say yes. It unlocked so much for me.”
For Rich Archbold, VP of Engineering, he was able to use the extra knowledge he had gleaned through management to help redress the imbalances he saw. “One of the support networks we created in Engineering at Intercom that I’m most proud of was a forum-type event for women within my org,” Rich says. “I took the stage as an ally to share context on some of the things I saw that men were doing that I didn’t see women doing as much, to try to level the playing field.”
“For example, I saw men request more training, request more career advice sessions from senior leadership, and rate themselves consistently more highly in performance reviews than women. We discussed these topics and many more and I was incredibly gratified to see a better gender balance in all of these topics develop over time.”
“Training managers in the skills of inclusive leadership and how to build that equality in their team environment is the best way to make it the safest space for all different types of people to operate in”
Having managers who are primed to understand and adapt to the different needs, backgrounds, and approaches of their team members is one of the key ways companies can foster a more balanced workplace. “Training managers in the skills of inclusive leadership and how to build that equality in their team environment is the best way to make it the safest space for all different types of people to operate in,” Rich says.
So as another International Women’s Day comes to a close, we encourage you to continue to choose to challenge: challenging yourself, challenging those around you, and challenging your industry for the better.
Lu and Sara are two of the leads of InterWomen, one of Intercom’s employee resource groups.