Deborah Nations


As Interviewed by James K., on March 13, 2014

Deborah Nations: In Her Own Words

My nameís Deborah Nations, and I was the former director of diversity for a company here in Austin, Texas, in the technology sector.

For the past several years, Iíve been working on developing and executing programs that were designed to increase gender diversity at the technology company where I worked, and really to create a more inclusive environment for women in the workplace. These programs were really intended to increase the recruitment and hiring of women in my company, increase the opportunity for professional development for those women, and really retain them at the company.

I think that 25 years ago women were just really starting to make a strong entrance in the workplace and so gender bias looked very very different, and I think there were more cases over sexual harassment in the workplace and it was just a really difficult place for women to work. Now I think 25 years later it looks a lot different. I think that thereís more opportunities for women certainly at the entry level, I think there are more women graduating from college, and I think generally it's a better environment for women. At the same time I think that itís important that we donít get complacent, because I think there still is a lot of gender bias in the workplace, and I think you really see that in the numbers as you get close to the leadership level. So across the U.S., women still only hold about 14% of executive officer positions, they hold about 17% of all board of director seats, and only 18% of our elected congressional positions are women. As well as a leadership gap, there is a big pay gap. So in terms of pay, women are generally paid about 77 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts make. So while sexual harassment maybe doesnít exist anymore as much as it used to, certainly thereís still a bias that we have to correct for in the workplace today.

Itís a big problem to tackle, and itís one thatís really holding women back, and itís hard to quantify. So look at one statistic, about half of Americans say today that children are better off if their mother is at home and doesnít have a job, just 8% say the same thing about a father. So you really start to uncover the unconscious bias that people have about working women today.

Itís pretty easy to see as a girl growing up that boys and girls are treated differently. At home for example, my brother and I had very different chores, we had very different curfews, we had very different expectations of us in the home. In classrooms thereís research that shows that boys get called on more, boys are allowed to call out more, girls and boys are treated very differently. It wasnít really until I got into a corporation though that I really began to work on this issue. As I looked around as I got into a leadership level at the company that I worked for, I was typically the only woman at the table, and that was really bothersome to me. Itís harder to speak out, itís harder to get your views heard, and when I looked into the numbers, I realized it wasnít just in my mind. At the level I was at in the corporation, only 12% of the people at that level were women. As I look at the two daughters that Iím raising, it became really important to me that this issue started to get fixed, and hopefully pretty quickly because theyíre going to be entering the workplace soon.

So there were some pretty quantifiable goals when I worked on gender bias. There were certainly goals around hiring women into the organization, certainly goals around professional development for those women, mentoring them, giving them access to people at more leadership levels, and retain them through their tenure at the corporation. But maybe more than that, there was a goal of making the environment more inclusive, where they could see themselves working there, they could see themselves at a leadership level, and they really felt comfortable kind of speaking out at meetings, speaking out to drive the innovation of the company.

I would say that when I bring up points about gender bias, I see people react in one of three ways. The first way I see people react is really apathy. People are really tired of talking about this topic, and people really think that women have come a long way and therefore we shouldnít be talking about it anymore and itís an issue that really has been solved through the years. I also see people occasionally when I bring this up get angry, and these are people who typically think this is a zero sum game, meaning that if women get ahead in a corporation, that men donít. So thereís some anger in thinking, especially for men, that theyíre being displaced within their organization if women succeed. Then thereís kind of a small minority of people, typically women or men who either have daughters or wives that are prominent in workplaces, that really understand the issues a little bit more deeply and really want to help to solve them.

Women started to represent 50% of U.S. college graduates in the early 1980 so many, many, years ago, so this should have really been a foreshadowing of equality. If you graduate 50% of women from colleges and they are ambitious and theyíre trained and theyíre skilled, that should have really solved the problem by now. Right? But it hasnít and so I think we really need to be looking at why that hasnít solved the problem and what is it about corporations and how are we set up and what are the biases that exist that arenít allowing women to really get ahead. And so as a CEO of a company, if I was looking at that, I would see that as a huge talent pool that I needed to be tapping, thatís not being leveraged right now.

Getty Images provides stock photography to a lot of corporations across the world and theyíre in a unique position to start changing that bias that weíve been talking about by portraying women as leaders versus as just nurturers and caregivers. I think the project that Sheryl Sandberg is doing with Getty Images is really brilliant. Itís based on the premise that you canít be it if you canít see it. And so many girls grow up with images surrounding them in advertising that portray them as nurturing or caregivers but certainly not leaders, certainly not powerful, and certainly not ambitious. And so I think what Sheryl Sandberg is trying to do is get in front of that to change the images that girls see as they grow up, so they do see themselves as leaders.

My background is in advertising and I am routinely pretty appalled at the portrayal of women in advertising. It may not be popular to say it but the ad business is mainly run by men, the media business is mainly run by men. So, if you look at the fact that 72% of television news directors are men, or 82% of film and movie producers are men, you start to see how media is being shaped by just one perspective. Advertising plays a huge role in how girls view themselves and how boys view girls and I think itís one of the earliest indicators of that bias, that unconscious bias, that happens in the workplace. But more often than not, boys are shown as very active, really getting dirty and really going after life, and girls are shown more likely to be very nurturing, caregivers, pretty in pink. And those images really stick with you through life and kind of begin to create the image of who you think you are and what you think you can do.

Iíve been really fortunate to have a very successful career and I feel great about what Iíve been able to accomplish in my career. At the same time, I think I would be naÔve if I didnít think Iíve experienced gender bias myself. You know, there were times when Iíve had my bosses say things like, ďYouíre just too nice. You just care too much about being liked.Ē But the reality was what they were really saying is you donít lead like I do, as a man. I lead in a more collaborative style. I lead in a more team style. But the reality is that if they had looked at my objectives, every single time, I was meeting my objectives. So, as a woman in business, what you really have to do is to keep going back to that. You gave me objectives, I met them every time. And I think that going back to objectives every time, thatís how I was able to build a successful career.

I think gender bias really exists in every level of an organization but I definitely think it gets worse as you get to the top of an organization. You can look at predominantly any corporationís numbers, and see that as you get into leadership levels, the number of women drop. And really itís kind of a vicious cycle for women who canít see themselves at those leadership levels because there are no women at the top, itís difficult to really see yourself there and start working towards that and be ambitious towards that. Itís back to what Sheryl Sandberg is trying to do with Getty Images, you canít be it if you canít see it.

So I really think that companies need to work at this, kind of from both sides of the coin. I think that companies really owe it to themselves to start to eliminate the unconscious bias that happens in an organization, both women holding themselves back, and also males really accepting that different leadership style to let women progress. At the same time, I do understand that really companies have to put a big effort forward to increase the number of women leaders in the organization. The more women leaders you get at the organization, the more it becomes okay to have women leaders at the organization, the more young, aspiring women can see themselves in top leadership positions. So companies really do need to work to put those efforts in place to get women at the top.

Ultimately, issues of gender equality will not get fixed until we start seeing this not as a womenís issue, but really as a business issue. CEOs need to realize that by not leveraging women at leadership levels or throughout the organization, theyíre really only leveraging half the population. As we increase the war for talent, and you really want the best and the brightest talent in your workforce, youíve got to be able to open that up to the 50% of the population who are women.