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Monday, February 14, 2011

A Moment to Appreciate Gender Progress

Last Tuesday I hosted a coffee-talk session with our staff members hired one year ago or less. I wanted to get a first-hand view of what we were doing well and not-so-well now that we're hiring with more frequency. I didn't realize until the list spit off the printer that every one of these individuals were young women, almost all in their early-to-mid twenties. This turned the session from a look at "newbies" to a session exploring age and gender issues as well.

I had my usual list of questions: from generally how they liked it here to what do they specifically like to what do they specifically not like. I was very pleased with almost all of what I heard. We are doing a very good job connecting mission and people; not just articulating our company mission and values, but in selecting people with a passion for who we are and what we do. Almost everyone in that room appeared to be a really good fit. Most of the negatives revolved around on-boarding, initial training, and some miscommunication about PTO. There was nothing I heard that couldn't be addressed.

It was when I asked the question, "So since you are all young women, tell me what its like to work at Thomas Nelson as a woman." The best way to describe the facial expressions and body language was, "Huh?" as most had no idea what I meant. When I expounded about if they felt they were treated with respect, as equals, and perceived an environment of equal opportunity there was an almost unanimous "yes" in the room. They spoke of being on all-women teams, having women supervisors, seeing women in leadership as role models, etc...

Having been at Nelson 10 years this was rewarding. More important was the fact that I had to explain what I meant when asking the gender question. I've been in HR for close to 30 years and I've seen a lot change during that time. I'm married to a 50-something wife who remembers having to stand at attention in front of the high school principal to prove that her skirt (shorts weren't allowed) touched her knees. I had a relative who almost died in the 1970s waiting for a hysterectomy because her husband wouldn't give the doctors his permission. There are literally thousands of such examples in society and in the workplace. These young women have no such frame of reference. They entered the workplace after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.

And now here's the big lesson. Providing equal opportunity is to this generation like paying time-and-a-half for overtime or providing a 401(k) plan. You don't get a cookie for doing it, but not doing it brands you as no place they will work. The impressive progress of society in these last 30 years comes with expectations and assumptions that they are respected and get an equal shot at success. If you're a manager who doesn't yet get that; who gives lip service to equality but holds on to your biases, beware. If you thought dealing unfairly with a generation of women who see gender behind all issues was tough, try it with a generation of women who don't.

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