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A Conversation with Siri Uotila

The low hum of minds at work could be heard across the CIC in Miami as Bridges Unite interviewed Siri Uotila, Research Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School and expert in Women’s Advancement and Diversity and Inclusion. Her bright, intelligent manner seeped into our conversation from the beginning, easing every aspect of it with fluidity and a sense of camaraderie. When I wondered how a Chemistry and Physics graduate from Harvard had come to make a career out of gender equality, a mischievous smile came across her face, as if she were recalling asking herself that same question before.

“The turning point for me was when I began working. I started to experience for the first time, first hand, some of the gender inequalities in the workplace that up until that point I had only read about.”

She saw women with the same, and sometimes more, potential as men miss opportunities because theysimply weren’t given the chance to compete for them. When Siri looked towards the top of the companies she worked at, there were almost no female role models for her to aspire to. This is a story most women know well.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said.

At that time, the broader conversation about gender inequality in the workplace was beginning to take shape. Women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter were using their status to strip gender inequality and sexual harassment issues in the workplace of their corporate masks. In the end, the narrative that surrounded her became the driving force for her to change her career path.

The previous night, I had seen Siri give a presentation on “Designing Your Organization for Gender Equality” at the CIC - all thanks to the wonders of technology and Bridges Unite’s initiative to broadcast it live on Instagram - when I realized there was something fresh about her approach. It wasn’t only the clarity of her speech, which I must admit I both admired and envied, but the fact that her message wasn’t just a message. It was a guide, a toolkit; a way to hold any organization accountable for any possible excuse they might have regarding gender bias.

“The core idea of the behavioral design approach to gender equality – pioneered by my colleague Iris Bohnet and detailed in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design – is that we’re not trying to change what people think and believe,” Siri said the next morning. “What we can do is change the structures, organizations and environments that we operate in to help mitigate the effect of our biases.”

Simply put, we need to stop trying to change what people think, and begin changing the structures around them that allow those biases to flourish.

It’s not exactly an easy endeavor, taking on the systems that shape how we behave. After all, they’ve been there for quite some time, and it takes something more than a diversity program to make a real change.

Per Siri, it all begins with data. “You can’t start fixing things if you don’t know what the problem is and if you don’t know what your baseline is,” she said. Knowing who works for you, whom the organization is hiring, what the processes are, where the resources of your organization are going, and who is in leading positions are only some examples.

“There’s a lot of research out there, for example by McKinsey, that actually shows that more gender diverse companies have better returns financially than less diverse companies.”

Companies with a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture attract and hire better talent. They also get better results from their employees, and generate better products because a diverse team can understand a diverse public better.

“This is not only about making sure that historically underrepresented groups are brought up to par. I think we all [companies included] benefit when the workplace is more data-driven, when it’s more fair, and when it feels more inclusive and welcoming.”

There’s a logical eagerness in Siri’s views that is paralleled by what I sensed as an ability to speak sincerely and emphatically, beyond her academic expertise. So, when I asked her about women’s empowerment, and others’ role in it, her perspective put an unanticipated spin on my own question.

“I think women are incredibly empowered already. They’re powerful; they’re just as competent and capable and fabulous as men. What we need to do is remove the structures around women and organizations that stand in their way and prohibit them from succeeding to their full potential.”

Most of us, if not all, have heard the phrase “women’s empowerment” before. It’s a habitual part of any conversation involving women’s rights, especially when the conversation entails gender disparities in the workplace. It’s a coalition of words that we use to describe the problem, as well as the solution. But what if our choice of words is blinding us to the possibility of real, sustained change? What if our emotional attachment to words such as “empowerment” is stalling the process of practical interventions that can advance women in the workplace, and thus, in every other aspect of their lives?

“Let’s say we have two Usain Bolts. They’re identical, but one of them starts twenty meters behind the other one in every single 100-meter race,” Siri explains. “While they’re equally fast, the one that starts twenty meters behind is always going to finish last. Right now, we’re going to Usain Bolt number two and saying ‘let’s give you a different t-shirt, and let’s upgrade your sneakers, and instead of moving your arms like this, move them like this.’ So, women’s empowerment is giving them a better t-shirt and different sneakers. Changing organizations is saying, let’s just have them start at the same line and let them run as fast.”

In the end, Siri’s work reflects the simplest, and most ignored, idea out there: it’s not about gold or silver. It’s about the fact that we’re all running towards something; that the finish line is ultimately the same: growth, fulfillment, autonomy. Maybe we won’t all get there, but we should all get the same opportunity to try.

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