By Candice Lu, a Founding Partner at OnPrem Solution Partners, a consulting and product development firm located in Los Angeles, New York and Austin.
The recent study “2020 Top Companies for Women Technologists” by AnitaB.org showed it may take women 12 more years to reach equal representation with men in technology roles. For many of us, representation has a lot to do with how we trust ourselves as professionals. As we look to recruiting to speed us toward parity, we see gender inclusivity is not the only measure of a healthy industry. This is especially true when new entrants into any industry are roughly between the ages of 20 and 25.
Working beyond the assumptions of being a young person at work was among the first challenges of my career. Led by my mother’s example, I knew what was possible as a trailblazing woman. I had seen these dreams realized before, but as the youngest person in the room, I didn’t think it was my place to speak.
Without realizing it, I had begun internalizing a hierarchy that presumed to silence me. I needed a new perspective to earn the progress I deserved.
Fear can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. Whether a true inhibitor or perceived, I was self-conscious. After all, in my mind, why would executives 20 years older than me want to hear my thoughts? I intentionally held myself back from speaking out of the assumption that I was not supposed to, was too young or would be perceived as disrespectful to more seasoned professionals.
I needed to be pushed by my mentors. The experience of speaking up was like the exercise of a trust fall — I knew that if I did fall, someone would be there to catch me. Over time, I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I learned to embrace my fear and take a chance. Now, I speak publicly with more ease. As I said “yes” to myself, others followed. My age became a difference that I honored and my contributions were recognized for their merit.
On a broader level, I do still believe there is age bias in the workplace and especially in the consulting industry. Advancement should be based on merit, not years. Yet traditionally there is a five-year gap between the manager and senior manager level. For women in particular, this type of structure is challenging. Many women are thinking about starting families during their path to senior manager. During this time, we see talented women leave the industry. The manager level has a great deal of responsibility to be fully accessible, including onsite, with the client. The senior manager role is often more cross-functional and enables higher flexibility.
A meritocracy supports narrowing the age gap in consulting. Ray Dalio adeptly articulates the value of meritocracy, which is #1 on his list of principles. A meritocracy has many benefits. For example, it encourages young professionals to confidently share ideas, which will ultimately benefit the business. For women, it will accelerate their path to promotion and support flexibility. A meritocracy also supports a team environment and higher-quality work. People become less focused on titles and age and more focused on delivering the best work.
A merit-based culture starts with valuing diverse ideas. At my company, we have a number of systems in place to give space to voices of all backgrounds and seniority levels.
Open forums foster teamwork and communication.
We have an array of support forums for our teams to openly communicate, and we create them in real-time based on what our team is experiencing. These types of conversations serve as ice breakers. They are a necessity to optimize teamwork and communication. When people feel more comfortable with each other, they are more direct and collaborative.
Mentorship provides guidance and a sounding board.
Every new team member at my company receives a mentor. Our mentors go through a training process to be able to guide new hires not just through projects but also in their careers. Intentionally, our mentors are not in the “line of command” for their mentees and as a result are able to be impartial sounding boards who specialize in helping their mentees to break through their own barriers.
Internal pods offer exposure and visibility.
We created what we call pods. These are groups of people who volunteer to participate in internal initiatives focused on areas such as culture and diversity. The goal is to have participation across the organization so that any policies or services we implement actually reflect ideas from the entire team.
Internal events create a supportive community.
Prior to Covid-19, we held annual events where everyone came to a single location. Since its founding, our business has been set up as a virtual workforce. When we can be together, we make the most of it and strive to deepen our relationships with each other as human beings. We encourage people to speak about their fears, their goals, their childhoods. This deepens relationships and creates a support system.
Instituting a meritocracy at the workplace is one strong leap in the right direction. But acknowledging merit is not the only step needed to move forward.
In the consulting industry, a firm’s ambitions for internal growth can be limited by external client interests and perceptions. Until recently, consulting has been dominated by legacy ideas of hierarchy. Those ideas excluded contributors because they failed to fit a certain familiar mold. While there is something to be said about the value that years of experience bring, the work that we do in parallel is to collaborate with our clients to give more junior resources the ability to lead based on capability. We believe change is progress.
As we build true meritocracies, we have to be aware of our own conscious and unconscious biases so that we don’t inadvertently create different barriers that we have worked to dismantle. By committing to a merit-first approach, from our junior contributors through leadership levels, firms can change the breakdown of our industry for the better.