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Apply the Bechdel Test at Your Next Meeting to Evaluate Gender Diversity at Work

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China’s President Xi Jinping recent visit to Seattle was big news for what it signified about the city’s rising prominence as a global tech hotspot. But a quick survey of photographs of the Chinese dignitary hob-knobbing with executives in the Emerald City reveals that while more companies are talking about their lack of female executives, it’s pretty obvious that we haven’t made great strides in actually solving the problem and fostering workplaces where women can rise to leadership roles as easily as men.

rosies 

(Photo Credit: FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr)

If you’ve read or listened to a movie review with the slightest progressive bent in the past few years, you’ve probably heard somebody use the Bechdel Test to analyze whether or not a movie includes fully developed female characters. I love what this simple tool has done to get more people talking about diversity in Hollywood, but I propose that the Bechdel Test may have another, even more valuable, use case: in the workplace. Using the three simple questions in the Bechdel Test, any employee can perform a quick temperature check on how friendly their company’s culture is to female employees.

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The Bechdel Test, as it is known today, first appeared in a 1985 Alison Bechdel comic strip as requirements a feminist character used to evaluate whether or not she wanted to watch a movie. Basically, she asks the following questions:

1. Does the movie have at least two women in it?

2. Do the women talk to each other?

3. Do the women talk to each other about something besides a man?

Thirty years later, the Bechdel Test has gained popularity in cultural criticism circles, especially since Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, became a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2015. Even though the rules of the Bechdel Test seem simple, only 61 percent of the movies released so far in 2015 pass all three.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article that mentioned the Bechdel Test while my company’s executive team meeting went on in the conference room next to me. Thanks to our spiffy new office and its heavy use of glass walls (like any good Seattle tech company), I was able to see our leadership team play out in front of me, almost as if I was watching a silent movie. This unique view got me thinking whether or not the meeting going on in front of me would pass the Bechdel Test with a one-word substitution:

1. Does the meeting have at least two women in it?

2. Do the women talk to each other?

3. Do the women talk to each other about something besides a man?

At PayScale, we write and talk and collect data about gender equity and workplace diversity all the time. And while more companies have joined this public conversation lately, few have been successful at making great strides in their diversity statistics, especially in leadership roles. Even when they publish data publicly it’s hard to judge whether or not an employer is successfully executing on their promises to create a culture where female employees can thrive and rise to leadership roles. Using a slightly-modified version of the Bechdel Test may shed some light on the reality.

Once I stopped silently patting myself on the back about my critical thinking skills (take that, everybody who questioned my decision to major in Comparative Literature), I ran the test based on my observations of PayScale’s executive team meeting. Yes, there were more than two women in the meeting. Yes, they did talk to each other. And while I couldn’t hear what everybody was saying, I can safely assume that they were talking about the work of director and manager-level employees, and I know firsthand that PayScale has good representation of female employees at that level. I’ve personally been in many meetings with our leadership team and heard our female executives reference the work that other female employees are doing. So yes, they were most likely talking about the work of other women as well as men at the company.

Mark that down as another reason I’m proud to work at PayScale. But I’m not writing this article to gloat. I’m writing this because I think it’s a good idea. Using the Bechdel Test is not only easy and fast, the simple yes-or-no questions are a relatively easy way to get employees, regardless of gender, to start thinking about the way their employer treats women without being clouded by unconscious bias. It’s a gateway into a much larger conversation about diversity that needs to happen at all levels of every organization.

I’m curious to hear how other people rate their companies. Does your employer pass the Bechdel Test? Next time you are in a meeting with more than a handful of people, no matter their job level, run through the three rules. If it passes, that’s fantastic! If it doesn’t, this might be a great opportunity to open up a really important dialogue about diversity with your employer.

Either way, I want to have this conversation with you, so share your results! I’d love to hear reactions and comments in the comment section or on Twitter – talk to me @aubreybach and share results using hashtag #BechdelInTheBoardroom.


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Melissa Morris

I appreciate the sentiment, but I disagree that it’s a good idea to bring the Bechdel test into the workplace. Last year, I received an e-mail sent to a team mailing list from a male co-worker announcing that he was the proud member of a team that frequently passes the Bechdel test linking to a Reddit post. Myself and the other women on the team weren’t very happy about it, and forwarded it along to HR (and action was taken). Qualifiers #1 and #2 are also extremely problematic because poor management could interpret this as #1 We must always have… Read more »

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