Episode 38: Confronting Bias and Unequal Treatment From All Levels in the Workplace

Hello, listeners! Welcome back to Tech Forward. On this week’s episode, I’m speaking with Wes Kao, a marketing strategy and product launch expert who works as a consultant and advisor to multiple consumer brands and tech startups. She serves as a mentor to entrepreneurs through her roles with WeWork Labs and Backstage Capital. Previously, Wes was the founding Executive Director of Seth Godin's altMBA. Today on the show, we’ll be talking about the leadership lessons she’s learned during her career, and her advice to other managers on how to adequately encourage and support women in the workplace.

After years of working in the corporate retail space, Wes found herself drawn to the rigorous thinking and problem solving aspect of the tech sector. She worked with Seth Godin to launch altMBA, an online leadership and management workshop which under her leadership grew from zero to 550 cities in 45 countries over a three year period of high-growth. She brings her wealth of experience to the table when mentoring entrepreneurs through Backstage Capital and WeWork Labs, advising founders and CEOs on effective leadership and avoiding the pitfalls of bias.

One key piece of advice Wes has for other managers is to conduct regular self-checks for bias. “The minute we think we’re above bias, or prejudice, or discrimination, that’s when we get into a dangerous spot.” Often, workplace culture permits pushback from white male employees — but punishes women or people of color for the same resistance, marking them as selfish or uncooperative. Though managerial roles often require split-second calculations in order to optimize the workday, Wes encourages managers to ask this question: “Would I react the same way to a white/male employee in this situation?” She also encourages similar self-checks when it comes to using language that reflects equitable treatment of employees. “Our automatic reaction might be to criticize, but those criticisms add up to a place where employees might not feel safe to lead, to challenge authority, and to ask questions.”

Wes also emphasizes that it’s not solely the responsibility of leadership to effect change: “We can always positively influence the lives of our coworkers.” She cites moments from her own  career journey when her allies have taken seemingly small, but powerful actions to support her. When clients assumed her male colleagues were in charge, those men redirected the conversation both verbally and physically — asserting that Wes was at the helm, and turning to face her. In situations where you suspect bias or discrimination, Wes advises, “Go to your allies in the company first. They probably notice it too. When you do talk to the person, bring it up in a respectful way. Above all, don’t suffer in silence! If you don’t feel comfortable and confident to do your best work, nobody is winning.”

Wes, I’ve really enjoyed hearing your insights and your stories, and I know that our listeners will too. Thank you again for coming onto the show this week. Thank you also to all of you out there listening, subscribing, and sharing the show. See you next week!

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