The Gender Expert Helping Women to Lean In
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because talking about gender inequality is the first step to overcoming it.
By Poornima Apte
Lori Nishiura Mackenzie distinctly remembers the day she realized her Americanness had a hyphen. She was 7, and her was family living in California. One afternoon, as she was walking down the street with her mother, a few men leaned out of a car, shouting in fake Chinese accents and slanting their eyes with their hands. “My mother, who never let me say a bad word about anybody, gave them the bird,” Nishiura Mackenzie recalls. “I realized then that the way I looked was different and that it meant something to some people.” That singular incident not only made her aware of her Japanese-Americanness, but it also laid the foundation for what she wanted out of a career. “I think that has shaped my desire to make this a fair world for everybody, a more equal world with equal opportunities,” she says, whether that concerns race, gender or class.
Nishiura Mackenzie is the executive director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, founded in 1974 and dedicated to advancing public dialogue on a variety of critical gender-related issues. Nishiura Mackenzie came on board in 2008. In partnership with Faculty Director Shelley J. Correll, the institute has launched the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership, which is committed, in her words, to “moving beyond the ivory tower to bridge the gap between research and practice.” What does that translate to? “We work inside companies … to understand how we can pilot and evaluate solutions that block bias in every people process,” Nishiura Mackenzie explains, “from recruiting to performance management to promotion.”
Organizations can hire women, but if the environment doesn’t change, retention will be problematic.
Froswa’ Booker-Drew, founder of Soulstice Consultancy
The 51-year-old was born in California to Japanese-American parents who lived the dark side of history up close: Both were held in internment camps during World War II. Her mother was born there, and her father was 1 when he was relocated to the camp. Nishiura Mackenzie’s parents eventually met as students at San Jose State University. The family didn’t talk about the internment much, choosing to focus on raising Nishiura Mackenzie and her older brother with progressive values. “I think I’m the only person out of all my 14 cousins who has a business degree,” Nishiura Mackenzie says. “My parents really spoke to me like a human being with choices, and I think that shaped who I am.”
Nishiura Mackenzie studied marketing and entrepreneurial management at the Wharton School and worked in a variety of companies and nonprofits until motherhood put a temporary hold on her career. “When my son was born, he had some health concerns, and I didn’t know how to make it all work, so I stayed home for five years,” Nishiura Mackenzie recalls. Going back to an office was not easy. She remembers crying during an interview at eBay after being asked about her readiness to return. Realizing she didn’t leave the right impression, she requested another interview — and landed the maternity backfill job. When the company offered her a permanent position, she declined. “I wasn’t sure I wanted a for-profit job, so I consulted and worked for a couple of years while trying to decide how I was going to make all of this work — my passion for gender equality, my desire to have time with my kid and my love of business,” she says. A few years later, when the Clayman position became available, she knew it was the right opportunity at the right time.
Nishiura Mackenzie brings her personal experiences to the table when she advocates for women’s issues in the workplace. Angela Szymusiak, a senior talent development partner at Adobe, invited Nishiura Mackenzie to implement the Voice and Influence program at her company. Incubated at the Clayman Institute, the module has been adopted by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization to foster dialogue about gender equality and push for progress at the workplace. The results were unilaterally impressive, Szymusiak reports, with 87 percent of participants either agreeing or strongly agreeing that they will “apply the learnings from the program.” The gains were made even more meaningful by Nishiura Mackenzie’s authenticity. “Her willingness to be transparent and genuine really allowed people [at Adobe] to be willing to listen and learn,” Szymusiak says.
Such dialogue is a necessary first step in helping women advance in the workplace, says Froswa’ Booker-Drew, founder of Soulstice Consultancy, a Dallas-based leadership consultancy. But if dialogue is a great beginning, it shouldn’t be the end-all. “Companies must commit to acknowledging the inequity and create actionable plans with time lines for implementation that are specific and measurable,” Booker-Drew says. They should examine policies, but also the culture of the organization and how it embraces or is not conducive to women in leadership, she continues: “Organizations can hire women, but if the environment doesn’t change, retention will be problematic.”
Referring to her “small wins” approach to change, Nishiura Mackenzie looks to managers to play a definitive role: “In order to make organizational values a reality, managers need to enact inclusive behaviors in everyday interactions. Thus, to shift the culture, these small wins are essential for creating inclusive workplaces.”
Nishiura Mackenzie, a board member for the Alliance for Girls, trumpets the importance of starting early when addressing the issue of gender inequality. “The ideas about ongoing gender inequality are not taught universally in elementary schools, so we have to learn this on our own as adults, often in workplaces when something doesn’t go well,” she says. “We live in a gendered world that shapes our expectations of each other and ourselves.” Case in point: Nishiura Mackenzie’s son loved to knit when he was little. “I would take him to the fabric store, and they would look at him and say, ‘Well, you’re also teaching him to play baseball, aren’t you?’ This is about boys and girls having an opportunity to be themselves no matter what they like to do.”
Correction: An earlier version omitted the role of Professor Shelley J. Correll in launching the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership. We regret the omission.
- Poornima Apte, OZY Author Contact Poornima Apte