I spoke this week at a corporation in Washington, D.C. I have spoken there before and I love the CEO, CPO and many of the employees I have met. In my opinion the company is way ahead of most in the areas of gender equity, and they’re working hard on racial equity as well. But when I finished my time there, I felt the same unease I have felt after several of my recent engagements. In this particular case, I didn’t feel I was at my best for the presentation, which was frustrating, but that was only a part of what made me uncomfortable.
When I am speaking on issues of LGBTQ acceptance and religious tolerance, I know what the problems are, and I know the solutions. And the best part is that I see change on the horizon. When it comes to gender equity, I do not have the same confidence. As forward thinking as this company is, I’m not sure I have the words to effectively communicate the urgency of the need for gender equity.
Part of the problem is that it is difficult for men to truly understand the magnitude of the problem. I find that well-educated liberal white males are some of the last to realize their significant ongoing contribution to gender inequity. Just today a friend told me of a non-profit CEO who told his employees that his replacement would be a man of color. He missed the fact that he is not the one who gets to make that decision. It is the board that will choose his successor. Even when white men believe they are doing what is right, they often do not see their own inappropriate influence. They have been “woke,” so they believe, and they feel they have already addressed the problem. I think of the infamous words of Donald Trump, “I am the least prejudiced person you’ll ever meet.” Uh, huh.
If “woke” men had adequately addressed the problem, we would not still have women paid 79 cents on the dollar of what men are paid. We would have more than 5.5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 6 percent of Silicon Valley companies led by women. At the rate America is going, it will be 100 years before we have pay equity, let alone any other kind of equity.
When it comes to living as a female, I am a novice. I lived decades as an entitled male, and I have only lived six years as a female. But that does not mean I do not see my power diminishing. My words are not weighted as heavily as a man’s. I am not judged on the aggregate body of my work, but only on my most recent offering. I am constantly having to prove my abilities. I am more often interrupted when I speak, and when it comes to being hired or booked for an event, there is a much higher bar for me than for men with the same level of expertise.
Recently I made a recommendation to a nonprofit that was on the whole, rejected. In my previous work I had made very similar recommendations dozens of times. Not once, ever, were the recommendations rejected. Were they accepted in the past because the recommendations were sound, or because I was the long-term CEO of the organization overseeing the nonprofit, or because I was a powerful white male? More than likely it was all three.
I do believe things can change, but it is going to require both men and women to make adjustments. Today I will write about the major shift we would see if men embraced personality traits more commonly associated with women. For instance, deference is difficult for men. Men equate deference with defeat. But if men could learn the value of deference, we would get much closer to gender equity. I realize a lot of men are allies of women. But they don’t take the additional step of becoming accomplices. An ally is still in charge of what he is doing. He is the one who says, “Go get ’em! I’m with you.” But he’s doing it on his own terms. An accomplice defers. An accomplice says, “What do you want me to do to assist your cause. You decide.” Being an ally is not deferring. Becoming an accomplice is deferring.
A second trait men should develop is learning to compromise. Nowadays, compromise is seen as defeat. Just a few decades ago we had politicians who knew compromise was a valuable art form signifying wisdom and maturity. Not anymore. Now men provide egregiously partisan quotes like Mitch McConnell’s infamous, “Winners make policy; losers go home.”
A third trait men could develop is the ability to truly listen. Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men. There are a lot of reasons there are more female psychotherapists than male psychotherapists, but I imagine one of the reasons is that there aren’t enough men willing to be quiet and listen for a full hour. We could make major strides toward gender equity if men would not speak until every woman in the room has spoken and finished her thoughts. It would also be wonderful if men would stop interrupters. Nothing will change bad behavior more quickly than a well-placed, “I don’t believe she has finished talking yet.”
A fourth trait is something men complain about, incessantly. Ever since #MeToo became a part of the American vocabulary, I hear men say, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say and not say anymore. It’s maddening!” That is a good thing. Women and minorities have to give up one or more parts of themselves when they go into a meeting dominated by white males. They have to give up their language, accent, preferred form of dress and other parts of themselves, just to accommodate the desires of the dominant culture in the room, white males. Now, for the first time ever, those men are having to give up some comfort. Finally there is an opportunity for white men to feel appropriately self-conscious.
A fifth trait I’d love to see men develop is the understanding that power is not a zero-sum game. In my most recent TED talk (which by the way, should be out on video in the next week or so), I had planned to finish the talk with the following lines: “Men, we will not achieve gender equity when you give women more power. We will achieve gender equity when you give women your power.” When I tested the talk out a time or two, men bristled because they saw their power diminishing. Before the TED event I changed the line to ensure the audience that power is not a zero-sum game. I said, “Men, we will not achieve gender equity when you make sure women have more leadership opportunities. We will achieve gender equity when you make sure women have your leadership opportunities.”
Will men hear what I am saying? I don’t know. When I was crafting my latest TED talk, I told Briar, my coach, and Helena, the curator, that I wasn’t sure I could create a talk that men would truly hear. They didn’t let me off the hook. They said, “You need to try. This is important.” And so it is. Achieving gender equity is worth the effort. We have a long way to go, but I do see a hope on the horizon.