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Glass Half-Broken Colleen Ammerman

Colleen Ammerman, co-author of ‘Glass Half Broken’ in an exclusive interview

I consider ‘Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work’ one of the most important books of the year in the field of gender diversity in the workplace; it is not a book that includes only statistics and conclusions.

The authors, Boris Groysberg and Colleen Ammerman, have worked really hard to make it a useful guide for both companies and individuals, men and women alike, to help them with actionable advice on improving gender diversity and inclusion in hiring, evaluating and promoting processes.

One of the approaches that I agree most with the book is that companies should not rely on women to break through the glass ceiling one by one: that it is up to everybody, men and women, C-suite leaders and frontline supervisors, to foster equality in the workplace.

I feel honoured and thankful to Colleen Ammerman for the opportunity to do this interview with us.

Colleen is the Director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, where she works with the faculty leadership of the Gender Initiative to support a research community and a platform for disseminating practice-relevant insights for advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in organizations. She is also a member of the Life & Leadership After HBS research team, an ongoing longitudinal study of Harvard Business School alumni which examines the influence of gender and race on their life and career outcomes.


Colleen, many thanks indeed for talking with me today. It is a true honour! Can I start by asking a bit about your work and the background to the book?

I came to Harvard Business School about, gosh, eight years ago, to work on what we called the W50, which was a whole year of activities and projects commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of women being admitted to the MBA programme.

I came to the school to work on that, actually planning to stay just for that year, but then I got to know my co-author as well as a lot of other faculty members, including a professor named Robin Ely, who’s now the faculty chair of the gender initiative, and I ended up staying at the school to work on launching the gender initiative, in 2015.

The gender initiative is really a hub for all of the work going on at the school, not just about gender, but really about any axis of inequality or dimension of diversity in the workplace, pulling in the faculty and PhD students who are doing research on those topics, which is a lot of people at Harvard Business School. There’s more than 30 faculty connected to it in some manner.

Glass half broken

We do a lot of different activities to support increased diversity in business education and we want to get teaching materials out to business educators that show an inclusive vision of leadership. We also have lots of different events and programmes that are really about bringing research to practitioners, whether that’s through the media, through conferences or through smaller, more curated events for specific industries.

My co-author and I joke that we’ve been working on this book for basically the whole time that we’ve been working together. I’m not even sure how long ago we started talking about the book. But a few years ago we formalised it with Harvard Business Review Press, and our great editor there, to solidify the plan.

The book is based on our own research as well as that of so many amazing colleagues: we deep dived into 50 years of available material, but also did interviews with more than three hundred people, men and women, all across the spectrum of career stages from just starting out to very senior, including women who are on boards or in the C Suite and everything in between, and in companies around the world.



Why unconscious biases are harder to fight

I understand that a lot of focus and a lot of struggle around achieving equality is connected to unintentional biases, or otherwise called unconscious biases. Do you think they are easier or more difficult to fight in the system versus the very conscious biases?

Yeah, it’s a good question and that’s where we start off the book: in the introduction, we characterize the moment that we’re at today as ‘the stalled revolution’, where so much progress has been made; you can’t deny the extent to which we have changed things.

A lot of discrimination used to be perfectly legal. In the US, for example, there used to be gender-segregated employment advertising: you opened the newspaper and there would be jobs for women and jobs for men. There is of course still legal discrimination that comes up all over the world, I don’t mean to say that we’ve gotten rid of that completely, but it is true that we’ve made a lot of progress.

Where we have not made as much progress though, are the more subtle barriers, or unconscious biases that people hold.

And they are harder to fight, in the sense that they cannot be remedied or addressed just with a policy or a law; you cannot use an order from a judge against the mental associations that people make and that are rooted in gender or other stereotypes. Or in the case of very subtle routines and norms that tend to systematically advantage some people and disadvantage others: those things are much harder to detect and address.

They go more to the heart of how people show up at work, the circumstances they are in – and precisely because they are subtle, because they are more embedded, they are not something you can just do away with by outlawing or by implementing a different policy.

In the case of unconscious biases, we have to do a lot more work to get inside systems and processes, as we talk about in the book, in order to prevent those biases from influencing decisions, as well as educate people about how to identify and overcome their biases.

Take performance evaluations, for instance: we need to dig in and identify patterns that stem from implicit bias – like when even the language used about men and women is different.

These are problems that people have to become aware of at a personal level and then do the internal work to overcome them.

The importance of using inclusive language in job descriptions

I fully understand that; I have been myself in environments that really foster diversity, but still had faced resistance to hire for instance a woman that did not look like the expected stereotype for a role. So, one thing that I liked very much in your book is what you mentioned about the job descriptions and the language used. Can we talk a bit more about that?

Oh, that’s a great example of where a company, before it even gets to the point of evaluating applicants and reviewing resumes, may be skewing the candidate pool by accidentally, inadvertently discouraging qualified women from applying in the first place.

So, we do not even start with the full pool of women you should be considering for the job. There’s lots of great research on this: and the main recommendation is to drill down to the actual job qualifications: do not use language that adds on more layers, but use language that’s more neutral.

But even how a company talks about itself, and not just the job, is important: a company for instance that describes their culture as assessment oriented instead of growth oriented, sends a clear message for people who are in the minority, women in particular, that they’re not necessarily going to be in a place that supports their success.

If on the other hand, the company is using language to show how they support their employees’ learning and growing and rising through the ranks – then they show they nurture development.

So even things that don’t seem to be about gender or don’t seem to be about the job, there’s actually a lot there that can very subtly and accidentally skew the people who are applying to your role.

And we go into a lot of detail in the book with a lot of these examples: but a lot starts with making sure you’re getting down to what is important about the job and sending a message to people who are thinking about applying that the company is a place where they are going to be enabled and capacitated to grow, because that’s what everybody wants in their career.

I also believe it is narrow-minded and also self-limiting for companies to write the job description with a specific type of person in mind: you miss out on contributions and opportunities that you cannot be aware. There are definitely some dos and don’ts that can be learnt!

So, what’s your hope with the book now?

We very much hope that it’s something that people and companies will read. We hope that both men and women read it. We tried very hard to write a book that was not just relevant to women, as a lot of the books out there about gender in the workplace are read almost exclusively by women. Some of them for good reason, like for instance helping them navigate the reality that exists.

But there are also a lot of books about the problems that exist and how we can fix them, that men aren’t necessarily reading because they don’t think it’s for them. So we tried really hard to make the book not only for women.

This is a book about a problem in the workplace that is relevant to everyone and in which we all have a role to play. And we definitely think there are tools and frameworks in the book that you can use to be a change agent: you don’t have to be president of the company to use the book. You can be a change agent whatever your sphere of influence is, whatever you do, whatever your responsibilities are.

I think it’s up to all of us to try to be thoughtful about how we can actually move forward and fix some of these problems and move for positive change with regard to equity and inclusion.


Men’s huge opportunity to be change agents

I am so grateful that you bring this up! It is unfortunately a common misconception that it is up to the women to solve the gender equality or the diversity problem,  which is as irrational as expecting a victim to remediate the crime! Men can and should be equal advocates and supporters in the diversity cause.    

We saw this even in our own journey around inclusion at Harvard Business School. With regard to gender at the leadership level: on the faculty, we are still a male dominated institution, we’ve not had a female dean. Our senior faculty are mostly men. So, we would not have been able to make the progress that we have made around gender without the real commitment and action of those men in leadership positions. The dean at the time we founded the Gender Initiative had elevated inclusion to one of the formal priorities of the school, spoke about himself as being a feminist, was very committed to this, and that made a huge difference.

So we do devote a chapter of the book to talking about all the multifaceted ways that men can contribute. The bottom line is that men actually have a huge opportunity to be change agents. And I think a lot of men want to be on the side of supporting gender equity but don’t necessarily know what to do. So in the book, there’s a lot about specific things that men can do.

But I would say at the end of the day, it’s really about recognising that men have this huge opportunity, given that they are in these positions of influence and power and that they really can make a difference in both their words and actions. And if we can get men fully engaged and mobilised, I think we’re going to make so much more progress.

I cannot agree more with that. It could sound a bit irrelevant, but in the #sofagate incident where the female EU Commission President was deprived of a chair, the person I got most furious with was the Belgium leader: because, in my opinion, it was totally up to him to say, no, I’m not going to take the only chair.

Yes. Perfect example. I agree. And there is even research that shows that when men do step up and are vocal advocates, that actually even has extra impact because they’re men. It’s not about them, so if they’re stepping up to speak up for this, it’s even more important. So you’re exactly right. I totally agree.


Pandemic and changes

You have obviously started on the book before the pandemic, but as you continuously work with research on these matters, I wanted to ask if you find that the pandemic has made it more difficult or easier for researchers to see the picture, to extract findings and results, or that remote work and all the other changes have blurred the landscape?

It’s a great question for sure. It has made it both easier and harder in different ways. I think certainly we’ve seen the effects of the pandemic have been really deleterious for women’s participation in the labour force, et cetera. So we’ve seen a lot of damage from the pandemic.

Then layering on the shift to remote work and how that has affected people differently. This also has posed a lot of challenges. But what I think is the positive side is that because of that, we’re having a conversation about it that’s much more high profile than it has been in the past. And the fact is these problems have the roots that began before the pandemic.

It was already the case that women shouldered this disproportionate caregiving burden, for instance. So the fact that the pandemic just made that so much worse and so much more visible is really just a measure of how much that already was a problem. But yet we weren’t necessarily having these national and international conversations about it at the same level. So that I think is great. I hope that we can harness that into addressing the root of the problem in helping societies and companies really address that critical infrastructure around caregiving and child care.

Because that’s really what we need for our economies and our organisations to function. We cannot have this all shouldered by women. And then to your point about the virtual workplace and remote workplace, that’s another one where we have to think about how we can harness it in a positive way. So there’s not a ton of research on this yet. But you can think about the virtual workplace as being a way that we can either make inequity worse or actually combat it.

You can have more exclusion or you can do the opposite. So on the negative side, if you’re not thoughtful about it, in some ways it’s easier to exclude people from a virtual meeting. You might not even know you’re being excluded because it’s not like you see the meeting down the hall that you haven’t been invited to. You just never hear about it because it’s all Zoom. But on the flip side, if companies are really thoughtful about it, they can think about, OK, with the connectivity that we have and the flexibility that we’ve learnt we can adopt, we actually can make sure to bring more voices into the virtual room and make sure that we’re being attentive to that.


I would like to wrap up with a more personal question. I saw somewhere that you call yourself a professional feminist. What does this mean for you?

To me, it means that it is very gratifying to be able to work professionally in a role where I get to be a change agent myself. That it is very gratifying to be able to bring my sort of energy and my commitment to my professional life to furthering this goal of gender equality.

So it is fun to be able to say that I’m a professional feminist!



You can order the book from Harvard Business Review store here

If you are interested in the HBS Gender Initiative newsletter, you can sign-up: here


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