Thriving with Hearing Loss in the Corporate World: Discussion with Monica Dreger of Airbnb

monica dreger widex hearing aids
March 19, 2024

Monica Dreger, the Global Head of Research at Airbnb, brings a unique blend of intuitive insight and finely honed listening skills to her career, rooted in her background in behavioral psychology. Her professional journey has been marked by a dedication to understanding consumer behavior and strategic planning for renowned brands like Mattel, Nickelodeon, and Unilever.

However, alongside her successes, Dreger’s personal experience with hearing loss has been a defining aspect of her life. Growing up in Europe, she initially didn’t recognize her hearing difficulties until returning to the United States for college, where the absence of subtitles while watching TV with roommates highlighted her hearing was not typical. This realization spurred her journey to seek help and normalize the use of hearing aids, ultimately leading to her advocacy for hearing health awareness.

Monica highlights the transformative impact of modern hearing aids, which have significantly improved her daily life with features such as discretion, Bluetooth connectivity, and freedom from battery anxiety. As both an advocate for hearing health and a Widex Sound Ambassador, Monica encourages others to advocate for their needs and foster supportive environments in the workplace and beyond.

Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to This Week in Hearing. I’m Shari Eberts, co author of Hear & Beyond Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today we have a very interesting guest, Monica Dreger. Monica is the Global Head of Research at Airbnb. With a background in behavioral psychology. Her career has been dedicated to understanding consumer behavior and strategic planning for major brands like Mattel, Nickelodeon, and Unilever. Despite her professional success, Dreger’s personal journey with hearing loss has been a defining part of her life. So thank you, Monica, for being here to talk about your career and your hearing loss journey and to share what you’ve learned with our community. Thank you. Thank you for having me. This is exciting. So every person with hearing loss has a story, and I was hoping you would share a bit of yours with everyone when it started, how it progressed. Yeah. So my story has been a slow process of discovery. I grew up with hearing loss, but without the awareness of it, no one in my family had hearing loss. So I just kind of grew up thinking, ya know, I didn’t know any better. That’s how people heard. That’s how kids heard. and I was living in Europe, and when I went to the US, it was the only time that I understood that things are a little different. So in Europe, watching TV, which was a big indicator that I can’t hear everything is captioned, right? So again, like, that’s how I watch TV. That’s how I thought everyone watched TV. And then when I went to the US for college, and it was my first dorm, we’re watching a movie. And then I was like, where are the subtitles? And they were like, what are you talking about? and I couldn’t follow any of the shows, and I couldn’t follow anything. And that’s where there was dorm life, which was noisy and everything. And that’s when I realized that things were a little different for me. but I didn’t know that kids or young adults could have hearing aids. I thought it was an old person problem. So even the awareness of, like I can’t hear other people. I just thought I had to suffer silently. That’s what you do. You just don’t hear anymore. so it took me a long time to realize that there was a solution for it. And it comes on so gradually for people sometimes, too, that you may not even be aware of it. You were definitely aware of it because you had that sort of “where are the captions?” experience. The other thing is, I think I thought hearing loss was like an all or nothing. So I could hear and can hear. It’s not an all or nothing for me. So the quality of hearing and understanding what people are saying, that’s kind of my problem. But I didn’t even know that that was a thing. Wow. Yeah. There’s so much misinformation and just a lack of information about hearing loss. So this is great that you’re able to share your story and help raise that awareness. So thank you for doing that. So can you talk a little bit about your career path? So what roles have you held that led you to this current position of Head of Research at Airbnb? So I started out as a therapist behavioral psychology. I worked within the domestic violence and I often say that my first two jobs have to do heavily with hearing. So the path of least resistance is rarely the path of the greatest reward is kind of how I look at things. I started as a therapist kind of having to hear and in a group environment. And then I went on to research and started as a moderator in qualitative research, which again, has to do with hearing people in a room. so that’s when I really understood that I need to seek out some help because this isn’t working for me. it was interfering with the quality and just me being able to do my work. so with that, that’s how I got into research. I’ve been blessed with having worked at really interesting and amazing companies. I was always passionate about disruptive industries and game changers. So I worked at Unilever on Dove during the time with a real women campaign, which is dear to my heart. So it was taking out the supermodels and really putting in what everyday women look like and not being intimidated or kind know, embarrassed by it. So that was on Dove. I worked on Nickelodeon during a know, in the media, how kids were portrayed, how parents were portrayed, the dynamic or relationship between them on a lot of shows. So I worked on my, my pride is working on Barbie. During the transformation of Barbie I was able to be there at the time and really influence kind of, you know, the Barbie that we know now. So moving from one Barbie that looked a very specific way to Barbie now that has 35 different skin tones, 97 different hairstyles, nine body types and being really proud of that work. and while working at Mattel, I also worked on creatable world, which was a direct linked from doing research with kids that know in the toy industry. Everything is presented to us. and we don’t get to create the story that we want in the doll industry. So we created creatable world, which is really a blank canvas that kids can decide, like, I want it to be a boy character, I want it to be a girl character, I want it to be gender neutral, I want it to be short hair, long hair, and really there in the power of the storytelling. And then after that, the next kind. Of disruptive industry was the sharing economy. and that was really booming. And I was really interested, so I moved to Airbnb, which I’ve been there. I’ve been here now for about three and a half years. and it’s a really interesting time and in trends and understanding, kind of like, what is home sharing and home ownership going to look like in the future? And so it’s exciting. That’s terrific. And it’ll be exciting to see how you disrupt that even further because it seems like you have a really good track record of just making things more inclusive and more available for a broader audience. So that’s really wonderful. Yeah. How did you like the Barbie movie? Oh, I loved it. I loved it. The Barbie movie was years in the making. It wasn’t an overnight thing. So even when I was there five years ago, we were still talking and beginning to talk about a Barbie movie and what it would look like and how would you depict it and kind of the relationship between being able to make fun of yourself in a positive way but also being really strong and female friendly and positive. So there’s a lot of things that. I loved about it that’s terrific. So you mentioned a little bit about how you were doing therapy and you were doing research and listening is such a big part of that job description. So how do you handle your hearing loss at work? You’re doing research again here at AirBnB. How do you handle that? Yes. so I am not one to be timid about it. I’m very open with my journey and sharing it. So that’s the number one thing. And part of it is because I think awareness and familiarity are key especially since when I was growing up, I didn’t know, I thought it was. Like an old person issue. So I think the more people just. See and experience and talk to people that have hearing loss and are kind of like what the audiology calls the younger group, which I love. Younger group I think is really helpful. and it helps break the age taboo, too. The other is because of this awareness, and I’m very open. I feel like I’m approachable for questions. And again, the more we break down kind of this unknown the more it becomes real, the more people feel comfortable asking questions, the more it’s not an issue. It’s like someone wearing glasses. It’s exactly the same thing. Instead of the eyes, it’s the ears. and then the other thing is really advocating for yourself. I feel like I’ve learned to do that throughout the years in a way that is beneficial for the company, not just myself. you never want to be disrupting kind of how everyone works for your own needs, but it’s also like there’s more people around that are probably in your situation, or even if they’re not, will be included in that wide scope of support. so advocating has been a big thing. Even making sure that the audio in the rooms and the conference rooms and the speakers are high end speakers, and they work well, that people in the meeting room are directly speaking to the microphone and not off in the corner. I try to role model and try for those around me to role model, like speaking one at a time, not having little side conversations. That’s very uncomfortable for me and for others. So just role modeling good behavior, I think, is and making them understand. I’m not trying to be difficult by saying that people should talk one at a time. This is why a great example in a meeting. so I rely on closed captioning too, but they’re not great. And I remember I had a meeting where I was the only one on Zoom, and everyone was in person. And I screenshot what the closed captioning and sent it over, and it made absolutely no sense. It wasn’t even a sentence. And there was something in there on like marijuana, which clearly no one was talking about. not even close. So I was like, look, this is what I hear. This is what I think. So having that showing and demonstrating in a light way of like, this is. What I have to go through kind of helps people. And after that example, people were like, okay, let me make sure that we’re all talking one at a time, because we don’t want her thinking we’re talking about something else. That’s terrific. I love that. I think self advocacy, it’s the skill that you can learn. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally for people. They may be a little bit more timid, but you just can’t tell people I have a hearing loss. You have to explain to them like, you do what it is that you want them to do to help you communicate better with them. So I really think that’s your role modeling in such a good way for that. What’s the reaction been like? Some people who have hearing loss in the workplace say that they try to advocate for themselves, but that it’s not that well received all the time. Have you had any experience with that? In my case, it’s been well received. The thing that I come across is you have to keep repeating I think people are well intentioned. It’s just that we’re all moving very fast. We’re all kind of thinking of our own struggles in our little world. so having that top kind of minded awareness just goes out the door a lot of times. So it’s slowly repeating it in a way that’s not kind of hammering it on the head, but just jokingly about it. But keep advocating, keep repeating Rarely does change happen in one go. so I keep telling myself this is a marathon, this isn’t a sprint. We have to keep advocating and keep telling the same stories and keep reminding people and keep role modeling time and time again for the end result. Yeah, I love that. So as you look at sort of the corporate world, you’ve worked in many different places, so I’m sure you’ve seen different challenges at different places. Can you talk a little bit about what more can be done just to promote an inclusive culture for people with hearing loss in the workplace? Yeah and that’s great. I think actions are what’s needed a little more. again, I think it really has to do with just having a level of awareness for people is understanding that there are hearing losses of different capacities. It’s not an all or nothing, and I really believe in inclusive design as a method. So what you’re helping and the actions that you’re taking might benefit a lot of people that are having hard times now, listening in this Zoom in real life environment and stuff like that. So that’s another thing. I think right now, for example, the thing that I find the most troublesome, or concerning is that we’re in this hybrid world where some people are in real life, some people are. On Zoom, and I’m comfortable with one or the other. I can adapt. Zoom actually has been like the best for me. It’s been really good. but the hybrid is very difficult. the hybrid is because we’re natural people. When we’re in a room, especially after the pandemic, still, we want to interact, we want to have the side conversations we want to all talk together. That has been my biggest struggle. And that’s where I, again, will take leaders aside and just make sure that the speaker is in the middle of the room or people know where it is. The technology is there to help the environment that people are talking one at a time. just having proper hearing etiquette, as I call it. so I think that is key. Closed captioning whenever needed. I would love if during our all hands, there was actually someone there that could. Yeah, sign language would be great. And that’s, again, for the optics of people. I think it’s important for elevating that awareness level, too. Yeah, no, that’s great. That’s terrific. So can you talk a little bit about what impact your hearing loss has had outside of work? I think what it brings mostly is this empathy and awareness to all people around me. And hearing losses, many times you can’t see it, you wouldn’t be able to tell for me, I have long hair. It covers. Yeah, right. You wouldn’t be able to. And I can manage in social environments. sometimes I get it wrong. But. Sometimes I get it right. You know, the, the rule of like how, you know, speed reading is how we speed here and we put together in our minds sentences, and for the most part it can get by. So I think knowing that it’s not a visible disability, so it brings a keen awareness to those around me. And that’s why I often call it kind of like my superpower, is because I have that empathy bug into me at all times. it’s also a great icebreaker for people when they do realize, because after a bit I’ll be like, what? And then I say, okay, I’ve said too many what? Because I don’t hear that well. And I’ll show them my hearing aid. And that is like, we spend ten minutes talking about that, which I think is, again, I personally really like. And it’s really educational for my kids too. having a mother who, in hearing environments in loud noises, in areas that are, in restaurants and loud bars and stuff like that, they’re keenly aware of that. we’ll try to find a space that is accommodating to me, or many times they’ll whisper into my ear, they have a 6th sense of when I can’t follow and will kind of help me along. And I think that creates great empathy for them too, and understanding of those. Around them in a way that. Can’t be told or taught. Yeah, I have the same thing with my kids growing up. Whenever we would go out to the restaurant, they would all be helping me, trying to figure out where should mom sit so that she can hear everybody and put a back wall behind her back and everything. I think it’s right. They’re learning such empathy, and I also feel so supported by them because when they’re part of sort of that journey and making things easier, it brings people closer together. When you have vulnerability, right, when you take out your hearing aid and you show it to someone, you’re being vulnerable and it helps other people be vulnerable back. So I love that. Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. And it’s so true. And it’s teaching them vulnerability too. And teaching them and vulnerability plus strengths, because I try not to hide away from it and try to really advocate and make it. It is a part of my identity and others don’t feel comfortable doing that. And therefore I can do that for others. And I think just showing that to my kids is important too. That’s wonderful. So did you want to talk about your hearing aids at all and sort of how they have made life easier for you? Yes. you can’t tell at all. They’re so discreet which I often say that wasn’t even something that I was looking for yet they’re so discreet and wonderful. I mean, the game changer to me is really having gone through decades of batteries. I think I had the anxiety of the batteries. I don’t know if you went through it. I had them in the car, in the bag, at work, at home, upstairs, downstairs. It was just battery anxiety. So I think I still have batteries in places just because I’m not, like. I’m still found them all. They’re still hidden somewhere. I’m sure they’re in so many different places because it was such a huge issue and then having to take them off and having to in the middle of something. So that, to me, is definitely a game changer and revolution to the way I am every day. I also use the Bluetooth a lot. I am fairly often on the run. I don’t say I’m the best planner in the world. I live the moment and run. I’ll jump in the car and go, and then only after I’m like, oh, I forgot this and this and this. So not having to have that concern in the back of my mind is really good that I can use it as a backup. I’m also in meetings, on phones, on Zoom calls, all the time. So just not having to lug one more thing like that, AirPods and stuff, is really exciting. That’s awesome. Well, excellent. any final advice that you have for people who might be facing their own hearing challenges in the workplace? Yeah I know it’s easier said. Than done, and when I say advocate. For yourself, I don’t mean in a loud way. it can be very kind of behind the scenes and just reaching out to who at your company would have the knowledge that’s needed. So I went and talked to the accessibility team in my company to understand what tools are there available. Am I using the latest technology? Do I have the right, if needed, for Zoom? Is there something else? And I think that opened up a huge door for me to understand kind of what is available, what’s not. And again, it doesn’t have to be know, loud amplification of advocacy, but just small kind of things. And having a personal conversation with your manager to make sure that they’re aware and they can accommodate with little things that would help you. Because my mom said at one point, “you know Monica, imagine your brain is working so much harder than everyone else. Imagine if your brain didn’t have to do that extra work.” and that, to me, was a huge eye opener. And probably the reason why I do advocate and try to keep awareness high is because I don’t want people to have to do that extra brain power so they can focus on the work that they need to do and the work that they do love. So that is just a little bit. On why I think everyone should be a little bit advocating for their own needs. I love that. And it can be your hearing loss needs. It can be your other needs, right? Everyone should feel comfortable advocating for what they need in honor to communicate and be their best in the workplace. So I love that. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for being on the podcast today and being so open about sharing your experiences. And I wish you lots of continued success in your career and your hearing loss journey. And I would just say to the listeners, to learn more about Monica, you can reach out to her on her LinkedIn. So thank you again, Monica. I really appreciate it. Thank you. It was great talking to you. Thank you so much.


Be sure to subscribe to the TWIH YouTube channel for the latest episodes each week and follow This Week in Hearing on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Prefer to listen on the go? Tune into the TWIH Podcast on your favorite podcast streaming service, including AppleSpotify, Google and more.

About the Panel

Monica Dreger is the Global Head of Research at Airbnb. With a background in behavioral psychology, she navigates consumer behavior and has driven strategic initiatives for major brands like Mattel, Nickelodeon, and Unilever. Alongside her professional success, Dreger’s journey with hearing loss has been a significant aspect of her life. Through her advocacy, Dreger aims to normalize hearing aid usage and promote early intervention for better management of hearing loss.

Shari EbertsShari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: BlogFacebookLinkedInTwitter.

Leave a Reply