In a recent Google shareholders call, a small thing happened that has big implications. Google’s CFO, Ruth Porat, answered a question posed to her by a caller. In posing his question, the shareholder referred to Porat as “The Lady CFO” making a choice, consciously or unconsciously, to amend her title with a gender designation.
Porat answered the question as articulately as any highly credentialed CFO of a Fortune 500 firm would do. And while perhaps there was nothing notable about her response otherwise, what happened in its aftermath is quite remarkable.
The immediate reaction was fairly tame
While Porat chose not to react to this alteration to her title, another shareholder, Danielle Ginach, did speak up. Shortly after Porat answered the initial question, Ginach commented, “I am sorry to put another shareholder on the spot, but Ms. Porat is the CFO, not the lady CFO.”
In a subsequent commentary, Ginach noted, “Reflecting on my decision to speak out at that moment, I realize that what angered me most is that one of the most influential people in finance was addressed based on her gender. If someone at her level of success cannot escape the trappings of gender, what hope is there for the rest of us? I was also frustrated that both Porat and her colleagues, who lead their industry in improving diversity, didn’t find the comment worthy of addressing.”
It is remarkable that gender played such an odd and pivotal role in this interaction, and admirable that another woman chose to speak up.
A viral movement begins on social media
In the wake of this interaction, social media, which continues to push limits in raising awareness across a variety of issues, exploded in response to the “Lady” addition. The internet was riddled with comments from men and women alike calling out the absurdity of the comment. While Ginach reacted in the moment, Twitter comments shared shortly thereafter also reflected the same disbelief that such heightened gender awareness was displayed so prominently. That this incident happened on a Google call is particularly ironic in light of the fact that Google is an organization that is very publicly working to encourage dialogue and make improvements in diversity and inclusion.
In what has been described as a “protest,” 800 members of Google’s staff, both men and women, have banded together to take a stand against sexism by adding the word “Lady” to their job titles, even in their email signatures and within Google’s internal directory. According to Meg Mason, Google’s partner operations manager for shopping, “It’s a smart and simple response that effectively conveys just how irrelevant gender is to being able to do your job.”
Employees have also launched an internal site to promote the protest and, in true Google fashion, proposed a series of emojis of women in a variety of professions with the words “Lady Day” following the icons. Mason further commented, “I wanted to do something fun and ‘Googley’ that allowed us all to stand together, and to show that someone’s gender is entirely irrelevant to how they do their job.”
The implications of micro aggression
While discrimination is illegal and more easily recognized, bias often takes the form of more covert or subtle actions like what happened on the Google shareholder call. We call these covert, often unintentional, seemingly small events “micro aggressions.” While explicitly stating someone’s gender as part their job title is on the more blatant side of the spectrum, micro aggressions are often a bit harder to identify and frequently go unrecognized by the person communicating them. Despite their “micro” nature, they impact others by making them feel like they don’t belong or are different in a negative and non-inclusive way.
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While a single micro aggression likely won’t undermine the confidence of a CFO like Porat, the cumulative and broader impact of these actions is detrimental to employee confidence, satisfaction, contribution and, ultimately, engagement. It’s the cumulative effect of micro aggressions that cause the real damage. And not just to the individual. The broader detriment to organizational success can be palpable, as well. When employees don’t feel valued for the competence and experience they bring, it can be difficult to remain motivated.
A 3-2-1 approach for dealing with micro aggressions
The Catalyst organization, a partner of BlessingWhite, suggests a clear “3-2-1 Framework” to deal with micro aggression. It is a framework that played out in the reaction of Dinach, Google leaders and employees in the days following the “Lady CFO” comment. This framework suggests:
- 3 things you should never do – Ignore it, excuse it, become immobilized by it.
- 2 things you should always do – Address it, communicate with those involved.
- 1 thing you need to decide – Address it now, or address it later.
While the initial comment was ignored, Dinach’s decision to address it calmly and succinctly shortly thereafter displays a leadership strength about which we should take note. Google’s decision to work with its employees in supporting the viral “protest” — changing titles, and creating “Lady Day” emojis — is a conscious decision to address the issue. They are neither ignoring it, nor excusing it!
By acknowledging micro aggressions you empower yourself as an individual and a leader to open an important dialogue and, ultimately, shift the awareness and behaviors of those around you.
The groundswell of support and the lighthearted (but effective) way in which Google employees have recognized and reacted to the “Lady CFO” comment provides a humorous and socially relevant way to have a conversation about an important topic. . Micro aggressions are a form of communication that implicitly perpetuates stereotypes, highlights inequities, and, when unaddressed, negatively impacts individuals and organizations on a daily basis.
Lastly, this is a topic that was written about by someone who, at least for today, is happy to go by the title, “Lady Consultant.”Leah Clark Lady Consultant