Saturday Morning Rounds November 23, 2019 - How to talk about charged topics

Posted by BossB, MD on November 23, 2019
BossB, MD

Saturday Morning Rounds
A weekly round-up of everything that captured our attention over the last 7 days

What we're reading

Do Longer Maternity Leaves Hurt Women's Careers? from the Harvard Business Review.

Shocker - the answer is yes. But there's a bit more nuance and information in the article that's worth highlighting.

The researchers start their piece by juxtaposing the positive and negative effects of maternity leave:

"research shows maternity leaves are related to lower infant mortality and reduced maternal stress..."

"[and] that the longer new mothers are away from paid work, the less likely they are to be promoted, move into management, or receive a pay raise once their leave is over. They are also at greater risk of being fired or demoted."

To uncover the mechanisms behind this data, they did a few studies and found that:

"maternity leave length is perceived as a signal of women’s agency and commitment to the job and thus used to gauge their dedication. In turn, this undermines perceptions of women’s agency, job commitment, and perceived suitability for leadership roles."

A lot of their focus was on the legislated, long (well over half a year in many cases) maternity leave policies of Canada, Australia, and Europe, and the unintended negative consequences that such long policies can have on women's careers.

Most of our readers, however, work in the US where we have no legislated paid maternity leave (only 2 countries in the world can claim membership in that shitty club - us and Papua New Guinea), and where the lack of such a policy is one of the most powerful drivers of the gender gap. As such, the authors' recommendations that:

"managers can provide additional information about women’s agency and career aspirations to counteract negative perceptions among decision-makers and co-workers... [and] the creation and promotion of “keep-in-touch” programs by organizations appears quite promising."

don't really apply. On top of that, recommendations that rely upon others to come and save us aren't really our thing here at BBMD. Luckily, we've helped a lot of women navigate these waters and we've got some advice we'll share on the topic in our "tip of the week" section below.

Who we're following

Dr. Uché Blackstock, MD (@dr_uche_bee) is one of our favorite follows on Twitter. She has a thoughtful and informative feed that focuses on equity and justice, both in medicine and in general. Her original content (including a moving OpEd in the Chicago Tribune this week) is 🔥🔥🔥. If you want to develop a more thorough and nuanced understanding of race and intersectionality, following her on Twitter is one of the best places to start.

BBMD tip of the week

Maternity leave, the gender gap, race and intersectionality, politics - all of these topics share a common theme: they're very charged.

What do we mean when we say a topic is charged?

  • Opinions about charged topics are often strong and entrenched.
  • Emotions about charged topics often run high.
  • Discourse on charged topics tends to quickly escalate or quickly shut down
  • Thanksgiving is the holiday of charged topics and there's plenty happening in 2019 to make that even more the case than it usually is.

So what do we do when a topic is charged? The first question we should ask ourselves is whether it's worth the fight in the first place. If you (a) can't change the outcome and (b) aren't likely to change an opinion, the high road is often our best option.

However, there are many topics - maternity leave being one of the most important among them - that we can't afford to ignore. So how do we wade into this dangerous territory in a way that's productive? The key is to:

  • Avoid defensiveness at all costs. In both yourself and your counterpart.

Seriously. Defensiveness is the single most counterproductive emotion in any exchange, and becoming sensitive to it in both yourself and others is a communication superpower. But how do you avoid defensiveness? Ask yourself a simple question:

  • "How could a well-intended and intelligent person come to that conclusion?"

We talk a lot in our curriculum about how important it is to assume best intent - it provides the clearest path forward and maximizes the emotional resonance of your interactions.

In this case we also add the assumption of intelligence because it helps us to more effectively see things from our counterpart's perspective and to understand their priorities. Doing so greatly increases our chances of actually changing their position.

In the specific area of maternity leave and career perceptions, one great way to do this would be to actually have an open conversation with the decision-maker(s) at your institution about the topic. Transparent conversations about charged topics can be incredibly effective if you follow this outline:

  • Start on the Right Foot - It's key to start the conversation with something like "I know that you are dedicated to creating an equitable workplace and that the studies I'm about to show you don't reflect the kind of institution you want to run." We call this tactic "preemptively saving face" for your counterpart - it avoids defensiveness and gives them an occasion to rise to/a positive vision of themselves to live up to.
  • Express Your Concern - Proceed to lay out your argument in clear terms, preferably with data to back it up. Share the article above, print out a study about the gender gap, tell an anecdote about what happened to a friend. Then make it personal by again reiterating that "I know this institution would never intentionally do something like that, but I'm still concerned about becoming one of those statistics."
  • Create Space for Them - After you drop a line like the one above, STOP TALKING. Let them squirm in silence for a few seconds. You'll be amazed at the kinds of commitments people will make to avoid a little interpersonal discomfort. And even if they don't commit to fixing the problem in that moment, you'll gain an informational advantage over your counterpart if you outline the problem in clear terms but then let them start to talk about solutions. There's usually very little to lose and a lot to gain by "not going first" in a negotiation.

The above method might not solve the gender gap overnight, but we've seen it change entire institutions' policies more quickly than any legislative action ever dreamed.

As an example, one of our clients works for a very large, well-known academic institution on the east coast. With our help, she negotiated an increase from 6wks of unpaid to 12wks of paid maternity leave. A year later she called to let us know that the mere existence of her contract had catalyzed an institution-wide policy change to match everyone's parental leave offer to hers - not just on the medical side of things but throughout the whole university!

Change comes most often from inside an organization itself, and you can be the most powerful force to make it happen for both yourself and others.

Quote we're contemplating 

"Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?"
- Rumi

As always, please let us know your requests and suggestions on Twitter. Which section above is your favorite? What do you want more or less of? Just send a tweet to @BossB_MD and put #SaturdayMorningRounds in there so we can find it.

Have a wonderful weekend, y'all!