Amazon VP: 'Microaggressions aren't micro to those who experience them'

Mamar Gelaye reveals how the tech giant is handling the diversity question

Amazon VP: 'Microaggressions aren't micro to those who experience them'

Belittlement hits differently. Whether it’s a sly dig or a missed “thank you” or an outright slur, the truth is we’ve all experienced it - big or small, loud or silent. For Mamar Gelaye, Amazon’s VP of Ops Tech Solutions in Robotics, she recalls a time in a meeting when a male colleague repeated her point as his own.

“This microaggression was intended to silence my voice,” she says. “However, I used this opportunity to address the situation in the moment by responding, ‘Thank you for reinforcing my point,’ and proceeded to drive the conversation forward.

“This interaction was both teachable and empowering, and reminded me that there will be times when good people make mistakes, but I have the power to speak up for myself when something isn’t right.”

Microaggressions are never micro to the people who experience them, she tells HRD. According to data from SurveyMonkey, 26% of employees have been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work – and 36% of workers have witnessed one in their workplace. Why then are leaders so blind to the damage and destruction they wield? And, more importantly, how do we confront microaggressions when they’re thrown in our face? 

“I make sure my word choice is thoughtful and I lead with empathy and understanding when managing a challenging interaction,” says Gelaye. “If not addressed directly, micro-aggressive behavior can create an unwelcoming environment for everyone involved. I encourage people to choose their first brave move to speak up for themselves or on behalf of someone else who may be troubled by these experiences – the more we do this, the faster it becomes part of the natural way we all work together. It’s good hygiene not to let bias skew our decisions.”

‘Girls who will one day become women’

Now, perhaps more than ever, that voice is integral. According to data from the Pew Research Centre, 50% of women have experienced gender discrimination at work, with that figure rising to 74% for women in computer-related fields. This Women’s History Month, employers should be looking at new ways of promoting authentic diversity – setting aside gimmicky perks in favour of tangible, data-driven action.

At Amazon, Gelaye tells HRD they’re making waves when it comes to inclusivity – with peer groups popping up to offer allyship, support, coaching and mentorship.

“It’s inspiring to see such a wide variety of opportunities for women to connect with one another and engage in programs relevant to their interests and experiences at Amazon,” she says. “There is a growing network of women around the world who lead and serve in our employee resource groups or what we call, Affinity Groups. For example, we have our Women in Finance and Engineering groups, our Families at Amazon network that includes our Momazonians; and there are many women who are part of our Amazon Warriors and Glamazon affinity groups – just to name a few.”

And new community groups continue to form, according to Gelaye. Just last month, Amazon’s Black Women Employee Network launched to create an environment for Black women around the world to stay connected.

“Women at Amazon is our flagship affinity group for employees across the business, from operations to entertainment to tech. This group has a global footprint and has created a welcoming environment for all employees – binary, non-binary and allies.”

‘Achieving both personal and professional aspirations’

But the collective struggle is far from over. In the technology sector at large, misrepresentation and bias remains a core concern for leadership teams – with women being made to feel like they have to choose between parenting and career goals.

“Women have made tremendous strides in tech and open doors for generations of women to thrive,” adds Gelaye. “However, there is more that can and should be done to increase the representation of women in the tech industry. I saw a LinkedIn article that mentioned ‘as of 2022, women make up 28% of the tech industry workforce.’ This statistic demonstrates we have made gains, yet there is more we must do to include women and girls in the future of tech on all leadership levels.

“Additionally, there are a number of women in this industry who have had to contend with the tension between career matriculation and being care givers at home. Because of this, some women choose to leave the workforce or step down in their careers. Women should be able to fulfill both their personal and professional responsibilities and aspirations.”

Similar to Imposter Syndrome and Tallest Poppy, pulling someone down because they stray from antiquated gender roles is not only ridiculous, it’s downright toxic. In order to stem the tide of bias and discrimination, leaders need to walk the talk and give employees the space to embrace their own authenticity at work.

“When I started my career in tech, I quickly realized that as a Black woman I needed to excel in my assignments while maintaining my authentic self,” says Gelaye. “Although I’ve had to be persistent and unapologetic about the latter, being authentic has taught me that I have the power to create great outcomes while encouraging others to do the same. At Amazon, we embrace diversity and recognize we have space to get better – this has not always been my experience in tech. 

“What I love is that we are using our superpowers and skills as Amazonians to intentionally focus on diversity. I am proud to work for a company that cares about creating space for all people.”

‘Pay it forward’

As E.M Forster said, spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. The role of mentorship in levelling up female leadership is unprecedented – it’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them to. For Gelaye, mentorship isn’t an option - it’s a part of holistic career development.

“We all need mentors no matter our professional industry or personal stage of life – particularly women,” she tells HRD. “Personally, I have hard-earned perspectives and lessons I am proud to share that hopefully help influence the next generation of women leaders, mothers, techies and so on. My mentors are a core part of who I am today and I am grateful for the time invested and opportunities created for me to grow and thrive – I hope they feel it was a sound investment.

“At Amazon, mentorship is a natural part of our culture. Through our coaching and feedback methods or our formal programs established across the business – mentorship is helping employees achieve their professional goals, quicker.

As a life-long mentee and now a mentor, Gelaye says are three key takeaways she’s gathered from her experiences.

“First, I encourage my mentees to identify people they may be afraid to approach and create a plan to engage with them. Work with your mentor to establish a realistic goal and lean on them to help you achieve it. Second, you want to reward your mentors with action. When your mentor gives advice follow through and show them that the time they are investing in you is worth it. Finally, pay it forward. If you’ve benefitted from mentorship, become a mentor.

“Ultimately, it’s how we all grow.”

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