You Go First
Posted March 13th, 2013
If we are still discussing this whole topic of gender balance within organizations by the time I leave this earth, I swear I will haunt the halls of corporate America until it is resolved. That is how passionate and committed and, frankly, pissed off I am that we have not gotten ourselves beyond this “issue”. And I put “issue” in quotes because that’s how people refer to it these days. But it’s not an issue, it’s an epidemic that has run rampant for way too long.
I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for her willingness to be a lightning rod for the topic of gender in organizations. And I applaud others like Avivah Wittenburg-Cox , Margaret Wente and Courtney Martin for putting their voices out there so boldly. We should all be so courageous.
We should all have the chops to go first.
So I’ll join them. I’ll be a lightning rod if it means accelerating the snail’s pace of change.
It’s a “both/and”, people, not an “either/or”.
If you listen really closely, you’ll hear it. Scratch that, you don’t need to listen closely at all at this point. …just step back and look at the arc of what people are talking about when it comes to gender in organizations. There are two distinct conversations that are happening simultaneously – one is the topic of women “leaning in” and the second is the need for some radical and systemic change in organizations.
It’s an “and”. But for whatever reason, we are wedded to this pathological predilection of discussing it as an “either/or” proposition – either it’s a “women’s issue” or “a man’s issue”, “it’s about women needing to lean in” or it’s about “organizations systematically discouraging women from assuming positions of power”, “it’s about women not raising their hands” or it’s about “about predominantly masculine cultures in organizations that don’t recognize the value women bring”.
You feel that? The tug of war? The finger pointing? The “it’s not my fault, it’s yours” mentality? The “if…then” proposition? The waiting game? The blame game?
No wonder we’re stuck.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wrote that while “women might hold the keys, men generally still control the locks.” She offers this metaphor to underscore her belief that women should stop blaming themselves for not “leaning in” and suggests that it’s time to “focus on the locks”. I respectfully agree and disagree.
It’s a “both/and.”
Organizations DO need to re-haul and revolutionize their mindsets and systems to better attract, leverage, and retain women. AND women DO have some work to do in order to more fully rise to the occasion.
While organizations have their heads buried in the sands and pretend the emperor has no clothes, we have the perfect opportunity to do our own work as women to further hone ourselves as leaders. Because yes, there are tons of bright and talented women pouring out of our universities, with advanced degrees and insights that will rock our world. But let us not forget that they are often cloaked in the “gender neutral” (at best) mindsets that have us see ourselves as “leaders” (read: “the same as men”) instead of “women leaders”(who might bring different and unique perspectives to the table).
We are missing some essential pride in what makes us different, and that, I suspect is critical to our success. When I watched the PBS documentary, Makers: The Women Who Make America, I was buoyed by the pride I saw in women from the sixties. I envied the way they rallied together, united for a cause, and created solidarity and sisterhood. The idea to me was both attractive and foreign. And then they featured the Melissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo (one of only 26 in female CEOs in the country) and one of the first female engineers at Google. She’s clearly brilliant, accomplished, and a leader, and yet she also discounts any relevance to the fact that she’s a woman. In doing so, she essentially discourages women from doing the same, discrediting the need to examine gender in organizations and shaming women for their their pride in being a woman, labeling them as “chip on the shoulder…militant feminists” and suggesting that this term had outlived its purpose.
Why should we expect organizations to see the topic of gender as relevant if some of our top female leaders discount it so actively?
Until we recognize the fact that we’re all culpable in this situation – we’ve all conspired to create it, maintain it even (if only through our silence), then we will remain stuck.
And stuck sucks.
Here’s the lightening rod I’d offer up: I think we’re making this entirely too complicated. Because we’re good at that as a society, no? We’re suspicious of anything too simple. So I’m going to boil it down to some key invitations to BOTH sides of the same discussion.
A call to women:
Identify with being a woman and a leader. See that you are bringing unique and valuable perspective because of the fact that you are a woman.
We need to start valuing ourselves more – our perspectives, our needs, our ideas, our well being, our financial worth. Period.
We need to get over “not being ready” and push through our own self-imposed barriers that keep us back for fear of not being “enough” (good enough, smart enough, connected enough)
We need to burn our Super Woman capes like women in the sixties burned their bras. This means we need to let “good enough” and “I’ll figure it out” move into the reserved parking spot for “perfect” and “getting it right” and “I’ll do it myself.”
We need to ditch the martyr role. Because really, where has it gotten us except sick and tired? We need to question our own logic of why we need to do something, be something or say something. Amazing things happen when we say no, opt out, and make ourselves unavailable. People might flounder for a bit, sure, but ultimately they will rise to the occasion. Maybe not like how YOU would have, but they will find their way. They will fill the gap you created. But if we don’t create that gap, we are robbing others of their opportunity to shine.
We need to eradicate the word “selfish” from our vocabulary. And while we’re at it, let’s do away with its cousins, “decadent”, “self-indulgent” and “privileged”, shall we? Those words are bastions of shame and humiliation that keep us playing small and prevent us from getting our own basic needs met as humans – like letting our lights shine bright and mighty. We need to get over feeling guilty, ashamed and self-conscious for getting our needs met. We need to see that by keeping ourselves whole we are actually doing the world a service. It’s not “selfish”, it’s service. We are of no use to this world if we continue to run ourselves into the ground, feed ourselves last, and deplete our own resources daily. We need to assume as much responsibility for our own care and feeding as we do for our loved ones and our communities.
We need to increase our capacity to be with failure – our own and others. The fear of being caught failing or falling short or, heaven forbid, letting someone down, has become a ball and chain that keeps us from flying. Embracing it in ourselves will enable us to stop being so critical of others. But each of us needs to go first, and it will trigger a chain reaction which will build a community of support and encouragement among women – courage and the willingness to be vulnerable has that effect on people.
A call to organizations:
Incremental change is NOT working. Task forces, committee work, lip service, mentoring, empowering programs, token strategies…none of them are cutting it. We are losing women daily in droves because of our refusal to make more radical whole-scale change. And this will hurt us, and ultimately, it will hurt our economy and impact more than just our bottomlines. We need women now, so get on it. Make it an overnight priority instead of an eventual vision. In shopping for precedents and trying to be moderate and placate the masses, we are delivering watered down versions of what we already have.
We need to get our heads out of the sand and start looking at what the world needs from our organizations. It’s all around us – and it’s not evident, look at how women run their businesses. Not only have the times changed, but the values have changed with them. The workplaces in our organizations are built on outdated notions of what families look like and what they need. And the culture and reward systems within them reinforce those stale perceptions, applauding people for working long hours, sacrificing their health and happiness, and motivating workers and share-holders to sell themselves out to get ahead. We are so off base.
We need to give people what they want from work: connection, creativity, stewardship and health. Read Seth Godin’s Icarus Deception if you don’t believe me. Our needs have changed radically as a society, but our organizations have not changed with them. Ergo the boom of the small business. They get it.
Organizations as they exist today are seriously missing the mark. The win/lose and zero game mentalities that govern them is biting us in the ass. Fulfillment and Profitability need not be on opposite sides of an equation, one taking away to give to the other. Nor ought Individual and Community be on opposing sides, one sacrificing for the sake of the other. We don’t need to sacrifice revenue to increase creativity, nor do we need to decrease productivity as a means to promote stewardship and community engagement. It’s all connected – each piece yields the other and visa versa.
Look at how women run their businesses. Learn from them. Notice that giving back to the community is an integral part of a woman’s business model and not an afterthought or a nice to have. Look at the micro loan programs for women all over the world, and notice how when you give a woman a dollar, she uses it to invest in herself, her family and her community. She SEES herself as part of the whole, therefore she models her business according to that belief.
People want connection not isolation, and that doesn’t happen by simply forcing people to stay in the same building from 9-5 each day. It’s about seeing how we are all interconnected, not just in within each organization, but within the world.
You go first.
And I will, too. Be courageous. Be the lone nut and make a movement. You go first, offer people something worth following, and create the tipping point we so desperately need. Now.