How To Lead Without Gender Bias In A Post-Pandemic Workplace

IT faces particular new challenges in today’s hybrid environment—but they can be overcome.

Just as teams settled into their “new normal” of work after the initial shock of the pandemic, many companies are now planning their return to the office. Cue a collective mix of excitement, anxiety and a lot of questions.

It’s clear that the hybrid workplace—in which employees can work flexibly across remote and in-office environments—will be the new standard for companies. According to a recent McKinsey survey, nine out of 10 companies will combine remote and on-site work. But before company leaders can reopen their office doors, they need to unpack the new circumstances facing their workers.

Research throughout the pandemic suggests that remote and hybrid working arrangements can result in significantly different working environments for your male and female employees. And many of the traditional challenges faced by women in IT leadership roles, in particular, are amplified given the new communications norms of hybrid work.

To best prepare for your post-pandemic working culture, let’s explore the new remote working trends that have emerged, solutions to the familiar challenges for women in IT roles and four steps to build a culture where all team members can thrive, regardless of where they work.

Work/Life Balance Skewed During the Pandemic

The initial shift to remote-based work was difficult for everyone as we brought our workplaces home and turned our pets, partners, children and roommates into our new coworkers. This blending of work and home life has had a measurable impact for remote workers:

Let me be clear: My point in sharing these statistics is not to say that the issues facing women are unique to women. Your male workers, too, are likely working more hours and possibly taking on more family duties. And most studies focus just on the male/female binary, but there are a range of gender identities on your team and those individual challenges may not be reflected in these studies.

The point is that your workers are returning to the office with a completely different set of concerns than before. Through open dialogue and a willingness to explore new working models, your team will be better prepared to build a culture that naturally rejects any gender bias.

Familiar Challenges for Women in IT Leadership

It’s clear that leadership teams need to address these growing concerns for their employees. Women in leadership roles, though, are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out because of the factors discussed above, and these women are 1.5 times more likely to think about stepping down in position or leaving the workforce entirely.

The challenges that women face in any role have largely remained the same through the years. We’ll explore some ways to build a culture that rejects gender stereotypes, but the unfortunate reality is that many women in IT leadership roles will have to work hard to keep their voices heard and not be pushed to the side, especially as we finish the year.

In my experience, two main challenges facing women in IT leadership are:

  • Women must quickly prove their knowledge. Men in IT roles are commonly and initially trusted until they prove they are incapable of succeeding in their role. Women, however, generally need to “earn” this trust, meaning they face more skepticism and hesitation in a male-dominated office culture. One way to address this is to consistently use facts and hard data to prove your impact in your role and justify why your recommendations are a smart business move.
  • Office discussions more commonly appeal to male interests in male-dominated offices. Nearly 63% of women in IT or engineering roles have experienced a pervasive “bro culture” at their company, which has actively hurt their ability to build working relationships and blend in with their peers. This “bro culture” also reinforces the first challenge we discussed. The social disconnect can come through in subtle ways, like how male colleagues may chat about sports or organize group activities without inviting female colleagues. Women leaders should find commonality with their peers as quickly as possible. Become conscious of conversation topics that may discourage women from joining in, and actively redirect topics to be more inclusive of your full team’s interests.

In a hybrid work world, women will have to work differently to overcome these challenges when they can’t be face-to-face with their peers and conveniently drop into water cooler conversations or join an impromptu brainstorm. Teams should create digital connection spaces like Slack groups or open video chat rooms for general office conversations to better replicate an in-person setting for remote-based workers.

Four Steps to Build a Successful Hybrid Work Culture

The most successful teams are those that are diverse and embrace differences, with gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperforming gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by an average of 50%.

I’ve worked in the predominantly female-led women’s health and wellness space, and I then switched to the notoriously male-dominated world of tech. Regardless of if I was surrounded by women or men, though, my team’s success always came down to our ability to stay connected with our colleagues, understand individual needs and create systems to support their growth.

Here is how you can build a successful hybrid working arrangement that addresses any range of new considerations for your team: 

  • Redefine Your Employee Needs: Even if many of your team members have stayed with your company through the pandemic, their lives are completely different now than before. Meet with each employee to understand what their new needs are. How do they enjoy remote work? Are they ready to return to the office? What new life priorities are they juggling? Encourage your people managers to start these conversations a few weeks before your anticipated return to the office, and aggregate your team’s feedback in a grid or working document. The goal is to understand how much of your team hopes to return to the office, how many days they would prefer to work from home and the new priorities that influence their decisions.
  • Embrace Flexibility: Deconstruct your notion of a traditional work environment and embrace a flexible model that empowers your team. How can you improve the current way of work for your team? Start by looking at the notes from your team conversations. Consider changing working hours, days spent in office, bonus structures or other areas of work to best adapt to individual needs. Your team may need to shift course a few weeks after returning to the office, and that’s OK. Stay open to suggestions and refinement, and you can continue to explore ideas that will best support your team.
  • Develop Flourishing Mentorship Ecosystems: Does your company formally connect team members of similar passions, interests or working tracks? Implement or refine your existing mentorship program to even further support your team during the transition to a hybrid working arrangement. Encourage mentors to have an open conversation with their mentees about challenges they are facing in the new hybrid work model, pressing challenges they need to overcome, and general tips for staying resilient through change. Reassess how you pair employees with mentors, and refine the program to support potentially distanced relationships (i.e., send e-gift cards for a mentor lunch vs an in-person lunch at your office). These mentorship ecosystems are especially important as a formal way to better connect your male and female colleagues and to help break down some of the social walls I discussed earlier.
  • Implement Morale Boosters: Workers need the energy boost that comes with face-to-face interactions. If employees are not comfortable with socially distanced in-person events, host other types of get-togethers. These can include virtual social events or happy hours, no-meetings days, “days at the park” where employees all have a virtual park background and socialize via Zoom, online workouts or yoga sessions, game nights or more. Create a list of potential options and poll your employees to see which incentives would mean the most to them.

Evolve With Your Hybrid Work Needs

There is no way to prepare for every potential challenge that your team will face when returning to the office. Start conversations today to better understand your employee experience so your team is better prepared to hit its stride in this new way of work.

Remember that teams often fall apart at the seams. There are new digital divides that you will need to overcome, and it is important to over-communicate during your first three months of hybrid working. Be transparent about what is and is not working, and stay conscious of factors that influence both your remote working culture and in-person working culture.

The way we work will continue to evolve in the coming years. The best way to future-proof your culture is to partner with your team and seek diverse voices to overcome our challenges. It won’t always be easy. Change never is. But our work and personal lives will only be better thanks to the newfound freedom of hybrid work.

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