See, Hear, Feel

EP81: Dr. Samantha Dodson on women, systems, and leaning in vs out

September 27, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD/ Dr. Samantha Dodson, PhD Season 1 Episode 81
See, Hear, Feel
EP81: Dr. Samantha Dodson on women, systems, and leaning in vs out
Show Notes Transcript

It is always refreshing to be reminded that it is not easy to learn communication skills, and leaning in vs. out in the workplace is easier if you can be authentically yourself. Dr. Samantha Dodson and I talk about these concepts as well as the importance of having relationships that can help you grow. Samantha Dodson, PhD received her doctorate in Management from the Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. She researches how employees’ cognitions and emotions affect their interpersonal outcomes as regards interpersonal distress (e.g. discrimination), social effects of gender stereotypes, and understanding suffering at work. Her undergraduate degree is from Brigham Young University. She is currently at the Montalbano Centre for Responsible Leadership Development in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. She has written on why women don't lead. For more on Dr. Dodson, visit her website. For more on the "lean in" concept, Dr. Dodson recommends this article.

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today, I'm very happy to be speaking with Dr. Samantha Dodson. Dr. Dodson received her Doctorate in Management from the Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. She researches how employee's cognitions and emotions affect their interpersonal outcomes as regards interpersonal distress, for example, discrimination; social effects of gender stereotypes; and understanding suffering at work. Her undergraduate degree is from Brigham Young University, and she is currently at the Montalbano Center for Responsible Leadership Development in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. Welcome to Samantha. 

[00:00:41] Samantha Dodson: Thank you, Christine. Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

[00:00:46] Christine Ko: Would you be willing to share a personal anecdote? 

[00:00:49] Samantha Dodson: I got into this line of research because I was really interested in understanding gender and women's experiences and work, in part because I was raised with all sisters. I have four sisters, no brothers, constantly surrounded by strong and incredible women. And then I saw in the workplace these amazing women hitting challenge after challenge and really experiencing obstacles to their success that I didn't see the men experiencing. I decided to go get a PhD and try to understand gender and work a little bit better. 

[00:01:28] Christine Ko: What obstacles do you think that you saw women facing that men don't? 

[00:01:34] Samantha Dodson: I worked for a company that focused on helping other organizations create better workplaces to improve the employee experience. I had this amazing female boss who experienced a lot of discrimination. She ended up leaving the organization. I think the leaders were threatened by this brilliant woman who had good ideas. That was not the first time I saw it. But that was the time when it became very clear that even if your sharp and you're competent, that you're still going to experience pushback, in part because people feel threatened or surprised or taken aback by your being assertive and competent.

[00:02:20] Christine Ko: So it sounds more like a major obstacle is just the environment or the people surrounding? 

[00:02:25] Samantha Dodson: Absolutely. That's one of the reasons why in my work I tend to focus on relationships, how we perceive other people, and how we respond to them, because so much of the challenges that people face at work are much more relationally driven than actually task driven. As a pathologist you know how to do pathology, you know how to do your actual work tasks. The hard part is managing your boss, building relationships with other people, dealing with that difficult coworker or client or patient. That's where the real challenge is. For many people, it's in building connections that support you rather than tear you down. It's in finding people who can work together well and support you. That's where the challenge is, not in your actual work typically. 

[00:03:16] Christine Ko: It seems really obvious when you say it. And I came to that realization how important relationships are, but really only maybe like a couple years ago. I should have ideally realized that much, much earlier. Not to blame my training, but I do think that medical training is very much task and knowledge oriented. Recently I've heard from colleagues, people senior to me, that medical students don't have time to learn about the "soft skills", like how to really break bad news, how to talk to a patient. We can't even fit enough about the heart in the curriculum. So do you choose learning about the heart or do you choose these soft skills which they'll just learn anyway? I might be really lost and clueless, which I know sometimes I am in my life, but I didn't just pick them up along the way. 

[00:04:13] Samantha Dodson: I don't think your experience is unique. A lot of people don't get that sort of training. We might get it in our families. Hopefully, you're being raised by people who are trying to teach you empathy and communication skills. But when we think about it applied to your work, I think it's something that's really lacking in curriculums across the board, not just in medicine, I've seen it in engineering, I've seen it in computer science. I've seen it in so many of these fields that we prepare students to have the technical skills to execute their jobs, but we do not prepare them for these relational aspects. To assume that they can learn it on the job is a faulty assumption because oftentimes these workplaces are not set up to teach that. In a medical environment, for example, we would love to have a physician who has good bedside manner and who is, supportive and compassionate and communicative with their patients, but who's teaching that, right? They're not getting feedback on their bedside manner. There's also such stark differences in power between nurses and administrative folks and doctors that it's hard to learn those skills if there isn't a structure in place to give you feedback and encourage you to even think about the soft skills. Empathy and communication skills are what help you get promoted, what helps you succeed in your role.

[00:05:49] Christine Ko: Exactly. Can you talk about the concept of "leaning in"? 

[00:05:54] Samantha Dodson: "Lean in" became mainstream by Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote a book I believe in 2013, that talked about the ways that women were holding themselves back from succeeding in the workplace, and gave advice, ideas on how women could assert themselves, how they could take a seat at the table, how they could be authentic and be really engaged in their work. It covered all these different ways that women could take their careers into their own hands, instead of saying, the systemic structures in place are going to create obstacles for me, it's going to hold me back; having children's going to slow down my career, there's nothing I can do about it.

[00:06:37] Sheryl said, okay, but what if there is something you can do about it? Can you adopt certain behaviors that help you to keep advancing your career? If you choose. 

[00:06:48] Sheryl does mention in the book this chicken or the egg situation. Is it women aren't stepping up and leaning in, and that's why we see such large disparities in leadership and in the gender pay gap? Or is it the structures, the organizational issues, the discrimination that they face, the obstacles that are created by other people that's holding them back? Which one is the primary issue, are they both issues? She talks about, in this book, I'm gonna focus primarily on the former, what women can do to advance their careers.

[00:07:29] But I do appreciate that she recognized the latter because to me that is my bigger concern as a researcher. There are structural issues, that the way that we conceptualize careers, the way we conceptualize family units inherently creates challenges. And so my hesitation always when we talk about the lean in rhetoric is I don't want anyone to think that it's all on the women, that the onus is on women to fix the problem for themselves. Because if we do that, then we're negating the real structural issues that also need to be addressed. 

[00:08:10] Christine Ko: Yes, all makes sense. It's two sides of a coin. There are things that you can do as an individual, but sometimes the system and other things are just really stacked against you and it doesn't matter how much you do as an individual, unfortunately. 

[00:08:24] Samantha Dodson: We can look at both, right? The beautiful thing is, if we can look at two sides of a coin, then we can move the needle both ways. As a professional, I can lean in, I can take a seat at the table. I can negotiate my salary every year or, request stretch assignments or leadership opportunities. And, once I'm in a position of power, then I can help us rethink the structure, right? We can look at it both ways, and the individual can work, and the systems can work to both solve the problem together. 

[00:08:58] Christine Ko: Yeah. What advice might you have for women or other underrepresented groups given your research? 

[00:09:07] Samantha Dodson: One of the big things that I would say is to do your research when you're considering joining an organization. Are there people that you can talk to about the support systems or the obstacles that you might face? That's not always available, but oftentimes you know someone in the organization, or, maybe you have a secondary connection.

[00:09:34] Because I have a paper on why women aren't interested in applying for leadership roles. What we find is that women are more interested in applying for these roles if they hear from other people that it's a safe place to be. If other people that are already in those roles can say, Hey, you know what? I served on this leadership committee and actually I felt listened to, and I felt safe, and I felt like I had influence. Just even that nugget of information we found significantly increased women's interests in applying for these roles. Seeking out as much information as possible about potential opportunities can help women avoid potential pitfalls.

[00:10:20] Christine Ko: I got introduced to your work through that article, in part, and so I'll put a link to the abstract into the show notes. What role do you think implicit bias or stereotyping might play in this concept of leaning in versus not?

[00:10:37] Samantha Dodson: There is research on this idea of stereotype threat. A really classic example of this: there's a study that was conducted many years ago that looked at math performance. And what they found is that when women were primed with the idea that women are not as good at math as men, that they performed more poorly on a math exam than women who were not primed with any information at all. So there is clear research that women do hold themselves back in some ways because, in the case of stereotype threat, they believe that they aren't good enough. They believe the stereotype, right? That, oh, women aren't good at math, which means I'm probably not good at math. And so they actually do perform more poorly on math. But if they don't believe that, we see no differences in performance. So there are certainly biases that women hold that can hold them back. Women also tend to self stereotype to a greater extent than men, so they're more likely to internalize these beliefs that women are warm but not agentic. That we're not good at technical skills like math. We're better at caring for other people. And in reality, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that's the case, right? These stereotypes are grounded in a kernel of truth, but they do not represent the entire truth. 

[00:12:11] Christine Ko: Yeah. I think internalization of what we've been exposed to our whole lives... 

[00:12:16] Samantha Dodson: Definitely, and it starts so young too. There's research that children as young as two are recognizing gender roles, which is wild, because socialization starts so young and it just continues and continues. How do we break out of these patterns? It just starts so young, and how do we break that? When girls are exposed to strong female role models, they're more likely to say, yes, I can do that, too. If they have mentors in their lives, whether that be a parent, maybe a teacher, a boss even coworker, right? Somebody who believes in them and shows them that it's okay to be yourself, that you don't need to conform to a stereotype. And you know what? It's also okay if you're stereotypical. It's good either way. The best thing to do is to be yourself and to be authentic, which is something that Sheryl talks about in Lean In as well: really encourage women to step out of their own biases and think in terms of who they are and what they can do, rather than what the world is telling them who they are and what they can do. 

[00:13:17] Christine Ko: I like it. Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:13:20] Samantha Dodson: Going back to the initial idea that we women can both lean in and organizations can help women to lean in. For those listeners who are in leadership positions, who have opportunities to make structural change, I would just encourage you to consider what in your organization is holding women back from leaning in, and can you clear out some of those obstacles to make it easier for women, if they want to lean in, if they want to, take their career to the next level. What can you do to make that a little easier for them than perhaps it was for you? Can we rethink publication? Can we rethink authorship or requirements for tenure? There's so many different ways that we could rethink this. Academia is not well suited for mothers, right? Like your primary publishing years are also your primary reproductive years, and there's this, huge expectation that you're all in, that you're publishing these big papers. To me that's one of those systemic issues. There's a lot of different ways to be a researcher. We're conditioned in our programs that there's only one way . And for some people it doesn't work, right? And particularly for women, right? Like when we think about, okay what is feminism at its core? To me, it's letting women be who they want to be.

[00:14:51] And if that's a stay at home mom, awesome. If that's someone who does research. Awesome. Whatever works for you. And if it's somebody who wants to, go hardcore and become a CEO one day, awesome. Can we create, can we make it okay for women to choose the level at which they're leaning in or leaning out of their work that fits their personality and their family and what's going to make them feel successful and happy at the end of the day. 

[00:15:19] Christine Ko: It's a really good way to end. Thank you so much for spending time with me. 

[00:15:23] Samantha Dodson: Thank you so much. This was a fun conversation.