(cross-posted on Medium)
It seems like every day I’m getting invited to a class on negotiation skills for women or a seminar about how women can have work-life balance or a colloquium, you guessed it, for women about unconscious bias. On one hand, how fantastic is that I have avenues to tackle these challenges? On the other hand, why the hell is this *my* problem? These types of initiatives & conversations are taking a very myopic view of these very real issues — putting the onus largely on women (and other minority identities) instead of on the power structures and power-bearers that inculcate such a culture. Which then serves to only further entrench the notion of these masculine ideals: the ouroboros of inequality.
What if, instead of teaching women that they have to raise their hands to speak at meetings, we taught men to be more reflective and circumspect; instead of telling women to tamp down their emotions at the office, a man was told that he didn’t appear committed enough to the job because he’s never shed tears over it; instead of pushing women to take public credit for their work, we publicly admonish men who don’t properly acknowledge others’ contributions? I was just invited to a seminar on public speaking skills for women — where’s the class on listening skills for men?
We need to both create more room for women to take on “masculine” attributes — as well as pay equal attention to the inverse: pushing for more freedom for men to take on “feminine” attributes. (And maybe once we do that, we can finally eliminate this binary concept of masculine/feminine attributes, which only serve to hold both groups back. But that’s an issue for another time.) If we’re teaching women that they shouldn’t be afraid to be make firm decisions (and evaluating them on it), why aren’t we teaching men to, say, be better caregivers to their teams (and evaluating them on it)? It’s because the culture values the male attributes (which are set as diametrically opposed to the female attributes, thus fundamentally in conflict), and sets those as the standard.
Over the past couple months, I’ve kept thinking about this interview with a juror from the Ellen Pao trial. She — a middle-aged woman working in tech — completely agreed that the overall culture was antithetical to Pao’s success, yet sided with Kleiner. Our culture has become so accustomed to privileging traditionally male attributes that we’re blind to the ways that manifests as discrimination.
As long as women’s success is measured on men’s playing field, we will lose. Just because some women can win at that game doesn’t mean it’s a fair fight. (Plus, I’m not willing to accept things like an all time high — 5%! — representation among Fortune 500 CEOs as a ‘win’.) We need to forge new paths, not set one narrow path — built by and for white men for millennia — as the only route to success. Paths on which everyone is welcome.
The responsibility shouldn’t lie with the segments of the population who hadn’t even been allowed at the starting line for much of human history. Once again, we’re setting women up in a double (or, really, exponential) bind: the onus is been placed upon individual women to shape their own, specific destiny (you need to negotiate harder for yourself! you need to speak up for your ideas! find yourself a mentor!); the second it appears that they’re advancing themselves at the expense of other women, it’s time for a one-way ticket to their special place in hell (part of a very pernicious, inherently gendered trope). And all the while, men largely escape any accountability at either the personal or the structural levels.
I’m tired of being told to raise my hand more quickly in meetings. Maybe I just do my best work when I’m quietly synthesizing information from others, not brainstorming aloud. I’m tired of being taught tips to avoid ever shedding a single tear in the workplace. Maybe I’m so passionate about my job — and often spend more time with it than my own family — that it’s the main source of my emotional energy. I’m tired of being told I need to demand a promotion. Maybe I recognize that I’m better executing on ideas, not managing people. Maybe we could benefit if all people were more thoughtful about when and how to embody these traits. Maybe all of these traits have their own unique merits, not a male/female, either/or, good/bad diametric opposition. It’s time to stop telling women to lean in. It’s time to start talking about where men need to lean.