Calling Each Other Out and Calling Each Other In: The Grit & Grace of Accountability

“We’re good at calling each other out. But can we call each other in?” That was the question someone posed in a recent webinar I attended on the #metoo movement.

On that webinar, I heard wonderful men of all races and ages say that they genuinely want to become more aware and skillful in gender relations, but they withdraw because it feels too dangerous. I also heard women who want to express support for men, but stay silent to avoid being excommunicated for being anti-feminist. And I heard women who are just so frustrated that they read men the riot act or walk away in peeved silence.

How can we bridge this gap if we’re hiding in our corners or taking each other’s heads off?

We long for a higher standard in our behavior toward each other, and I think there’s something healthy and hopeful about this new call to accountability. But our way of holding each other to that higher standard is so limited. Calling each other out – through shame and blame – seems to be our grit-laced go-to for accountability.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many situations where unequivocal public call-outs and fierce corrections are the right response. Harvey Weinstein (who is being arraigned as I write this) and Matt Lauer come to mind. These aren’t well-intentioned guys who are fumbling to get it right. They are drunk on power and heedless of the pain they cause. And while these are very public figures, we’ve known (or known of) those guys in our own lives. Behavior like theirs should be met with righteous grit: unambiguous line-drawing, public outcry, and no-kidding consequences. The act of “calling out” belongs here and I’m all for it.

But as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “There is a difference between malice and a mistake.” Much of the sexist behavior I’ve encountered hasn’t come from a malicious dominating intent, but rather from a lack of inner and outer awareness. I’m going to call this ‘garden variety’ sexism. You know: the offhand remark, the interruptions and mansplaining, the feedback about your ‘tone’ (that your male counterparts never receive).

When we encounter garden-variety sexism, we have a choice to make. Do we call him out, pushing him into the cold light of blame, or do we call him in to a deeper conversation? A lot depends on the context, and those options are the opposite poles in a much wider range of responses.

Calling each other in is for situations where decent but flawed people mess up, and where we see (or hope) that a more respectful relationship is possible.

But what does “calling someone in“ even mean? What does it look like?

  • It means speaking up on behalf of a stronger relationship, not from a place of blame.
  • It means asking for permission to confront. “Bill, you said something in that meeting yesterday that’s still not sitting right with me. Would you be willing to talk it over?” It’s a simple and powerful alignment move that we often overlook.
  • It means preparing for the conversation about intent vs. impact. What’s tricky about garden-variety ‘ism’ behavior is that it’s often done unconsciously and without intent. But a lack of intent doesn’t erase the impact. Talking this distinction through can be a real opportunity for two people to understand each other and true up their actions.
  • It means being humble, knowing that most of us have injured or marginalized someone who was different from us. I may have a legitimate sexist beef with you, but as someone who is white, straight and cis-gendered, I have to remember that I’ve got no high horse to sit on.
  • It also means keeping it real. Calling someone in doesn’t require you to swathe your message in hearts and flowers. Be factual about what happened. Be clear about how it affected you. And after you’ve heard each other out, be specific about what you want to happen differently going forward.

What about you?

Think of a time when you said or did something that someone else experienced as hurtful or demeaning. How would you have wanted him or her to address that with you?

Can you recall sexist situations in which you responded either more wimpily or fiercely than the situation required? What did you learn from that?

How do you make the distinction between when to call someone out and when to call him in?

What does each mode invite you to attend to, summon, or manage in yourself?


Interested in developing your own or your team’s capacity in this area? Contact me today!

#metoo: Coming To A Workplace Near You?

How surprised were you by the number of #metoo’s on your social media a few weeks ago? I found the magnitude of those affected by sexual misconduct absolutely breathtaking.

Behind every #metoo, there is the face of at least one aggressor. My own #metoo represents four different men over the course of my life whose sexual actions put me in direct harm or imminent threat of it. That doesn’t count the scores of men I’ve forgotten about whose comments or leers made me just garden-variety uncomfortable. I am not unique. Think of all the #metoo’s you experienced in your small world, and extrapolate that out. That’s a lot of harassed people. And for every one of them, there are one or more harassers.

Given the extent of sexual predation coming to light, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there are troubling sexual power dynamics in your world and workplace. I’ll bet that some of your coworkers are feeling (re)traumatized by what’s been in the news. Others may feel relieved. Some folks may be in denial, while others are hiding under their desks hoping they don’t get “the call.”

In a new way and with new urgency, people are questioning what conduct is OK and not OK. But I’m not sure I buy that question. It’s not that the lines of acceptable behavior have suddenly changed or blurred. What’s changing, I think, is that we’ve reached a tipping point in our tolerance for crossing those lines. The rules of physical engagement at work are, and always have been, pretty straightforward:

  • Shaking hands is the language of physical connection in the western workplace. Stick with that.
  • If it’s not your body, don’t touch it, comment on it, or share your fantasies about it.
  • Don’t look at someone’s body like it’s your favorite meal.
  • Don’t sexually touch or comment on your own body in front of someone else.
  • Don’t make any career opportunity contingent on a sexual act. Don’t even insinuate it.

In this current tsunami of truth-telling, we realize that this is too big to be just an individual problem – it’s a cultural problem. Our society has a long-standing illness that has allowed and excused sexual misconduct by people (so far, mostly men) in power. It’s absolutely important to hold the individual perpetrators of sexual misconduct to account. At the same time, there is a larger conversation needed, in which we take a harder look at the cultural dynamics of power in this country.

This is a potent moment in which to examine how powerful people use sex, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate others. If you want to investigate your own behavior in this realm, here are a few questions you might ponder:

  • When have I said or done something of a sexual nature that could have made someone feel unsafe, insecure or devalued? What are the cultural beliefs I’ve inherited, such that that behavior seemed OK to me?
  • Do I find myself levying criticisms or doubts about the women who are coming forward now? If so, what assumptions might I be holding about them?
  • Have I ever tacitly allowed or condoned someone else’s inappropriate behavior?
  • What is the most impactful action I can take now to stop sex from being used as an intimidating force in myself or my sphere?
  • What am I willing to put at risk to do that?

Here also are some questions that leaders can use to engage their teams and organizations in self-reflection:

  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be giving people in our organization permission to wield sexual power over others?
  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be discouraging victims of sexual harassment from coming forward?
  • What are some of the things we should be looking out for to indicate possible sexual harassment?
  • What are the most powerful practical commitments we are willing to make as an organization to stop sex from being used as intimidation?
  • What will we need to put at risk in order to carry out that commitment?

As unsettling a time as this is, it’s a time of clearer seeing. With truth comes the possibility of reconciliation, that we might create a more just and vital way of living and working together.

Bias, Bias Everywhere

I love the Olympics. The competition is (mostly) clean; facts determine the outcome; bitter rivals embrace out of deep respect. When the Games started last Friday, I was so happy. And then we started talking about them. Ugh. The media commentary has been a parade of unconscious bias; now I’m feeling cranky.

Here are a couple of primo headlines:

“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” – Chicago Tribune

“Was Gabby Douglas’s National Anthem Stance a Silent Black Lives Matter Protest?” – Vulture Entertainment News (a division of New York Magazine)

And some charming commentary:

“Baker, a Team USA swimmer, lost the earring Sunday during a preliminary swim. Scuba divers later found it in Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool and gave it back. A video of the dive can be viewed here.  The 19-year-old North Carolina native won silver Monday in the 100-meter backstroke.” – United Press International

“They look like they could be standing in a mall.” (of the competition-crushing US Women’s Gymnastics team)  – NBC News

“And there’s the man responsible.” (of gold medalist and world record swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband and coach) – NBC News

And that was just in the first four days.

Unfortunately, these sports writers and commentators are simply airing the biases we all walk around with. Most of us live in cultures that minimize women’s achievements. We downplay and disbelieve their excellence. We obscure women’s merits by fixating on their appearance, fashion choices and roles in the home.

And we pay women less – a lot less. The members of the US Women’s Olympic Soccer Team are each paid $1,350 for every game they win. Their counterparts on the men’s Olympic soccer team receive $9,375 each for a win, $6,250 for a tie, and $5,000 for a loss. Forbes’ columnist Bill Conerly recently wrote an article outlining the economic justification for this compensation scheme. While some of his points may have been valid, his final summation was this:

“Some of the men might not bother to show up for paltry pay, but the women are likely to be less particular—because their regular jobs pay so little.”

Seriously, Bill?

Most of our brains are riddled with prejudicial “mind bugs” (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Banaji and Greenwald) that drive our thinking without our awareness. Mind bugs are partly an adaptive function of the brain and partly a result of cultural messaging. So I’m not surprised that Olympic commentators have biases. What amazes me is how unaware of them they seem to be. Statements like those above shouldn’t be let out of the house unsupervised, much less televised to the worldwide millions.

To be clear, this isn’t only happening in the media. It’s happening every day in our workplaces, communities, families and in our own heads. And women are most certainly not the only targets of bias. The bottom line is that most of us are good people who are acting on slanted perceptions: partial world views that are invisible to us but harmful and hurtful to others. None of us is immune.

So what’s a well-meaning, “mind bugged” person to do? Here are five simple but demanding ideas:

  1. Own your “stuff.” Claim your place in the human race and acknowledge that biases operate in you. If you want to see what your biases may be, you can take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. There are multiple tests, measuring the presence and degree of your biases on dimensions such as race, gender, age, weight and religion.
  2. Be on the lookout for biases in your actions and words. Listen to the language and metaphors you use, because they’ll reveal a lot about your thinking. The more aware of our inherited mind bugs we become, the more we’ll be able to stop them from backseat-driving our words and actions.
  3. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. “Women aren’t as competitive as men.” “African Americans commit more crimes than whites.” If you find yourself ascribing to generalities like these, do a little research and test your assumptions against objective reality.
  4. Switch it around. That thing you’re about write or say – would you express it that way about a member of another group? If not, check yourself. To quote the “Babe” blog, if you wouldn’t write the headline, “Fiance of former Miss California scoops his 25th Olympic medal,” then don’t write that headline that says, “Cory Cogdale, wife of Bears Lineman, wins bronze.”  If you wouldn’t describe a white person as “articulate” or “uppity,” then don’t describe your African American colleague that way. Call her by her truer names: “compelling” or “principled.”
  5. Raise your speaking standards. The Buddhists have a wonderful concept called “wise speech.” For speech to be “wise,” it must meet three criteria:
    • True. Almost by definition, bias does not reflect a holistic view of reality. So facts are the great mindbug antidote. Whoever you’re judging isn’t as bad as you’re making out to be. Whoever you’re praising probably isn’t as awesome, either.
    • Useful or necessary. If we think something disparaging about someone, we can ask ourselves whether saying it adds any real value to ourselves or others.
    • Kind. Oral sniper fire can be so satisfying in the moment. But is it really what you want? If you invest the energy to enact the principle of ‘wise speech,’ you’ll be a more effective and sensitive communicator. And the world will be a quieter place, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What about you?

  1. What are the mind bugs that your culture and upbringing have embedded in you?
  2. What or who do those mind bugs prevent you from seeing fairly or objectively?
  3. How do you monitor your own biases? How do you get feedback?
  4. What are three steps you could take to reduce or better manage your blindspots?


“I Like Him, But You Scare Me”

When it comes to achieving equity – gender or otherwise – in the workplace, we all have a role to play.

Two of my coaching clients, Anne and Richard, work in the same company. They recently scheduled a meeting with Jeff, one of their corporate lawyers, to hammer out a contract. As Richard and Anne entered Jeff’s office for the meeting, Jeff looked up and said jovially: “Richard, I like you. But Anne, you scare me.”

Taken aback, Anne asked Jeff why. His response? “Because you have a reputation for knowing what you want and not settling for less.” She laughed it off, but it irked her.

A bit of background here: Richard is a smart, driven and opinionated guy. Not one to fret about hurting people’s feelings in pursuit of his goals, he’s “grit” all the way. While Anne is also confident and driven, she is fundamentally a grace-based person. She cares about relationships and works hard at them. She’s miserable if she offends someone, and will do whatever she can to make things right. When it comes to relationships, Richard is a lot more “scorched earth” than Anne will ever be.

But it was Anne that made Jeff nervous, which left her wondering: Why is a woman with clarity and confidence considered fearsome, while a man with those same qualities is considered awesome?  

Sadly, this is not a new question. What’s amazing to me is that we’re still having to ask it; I hear these stories all the time from my female clients. Most of the time, the scenarios play out unconsciously, which is what makes them so hard to address. Often without knowing it, we (men and women alike) hold different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior. As a result, we unconsciously fling out bias-ridden feedback. We also respond to these drive-by bias moments in a variety of unhelpful and unconscious ways: retreating, ignoring, blaming, or demurely sucking it up.

With greater self-awareness and small acts of change, everyone’s got an opportunity to step up to workplace equality. Taking Anne’s interaction with Richard and Jeff as a case study… here are some of the opportunities before us:

  1. For the person levying the criticism (Jeff)
    Jeff’s not a bad guy; he was just acting unconsciously. But unconsciousness itself is the problem, because it’s the engine of implicit bias and it has a powerful impact. So there’s an opening for Jeff to do some soul-searching here. Did he even notice the surprise on Anne’s face, which signaled that he had misstepped? What biases did his greeting reveal? How might those biases be affecting the success of this specific interaction, his behavior more widely, or his effectiveness with other women clients? And if he did have some legitimate feedback for Anne, how could he have delivered that in a way that she could actually hear and learn from? In other words, Jeff’s got a responsibility to examine whether his biases are getting in the way of his own or others’ effectiveness, as well as a responsibility to deliver feedback in a responsible, actionable manner.
  2. For the bystander (Richard)
    Richard did what a lot of folks do when someone ridicules a woman: nothing. In staying quiet, he missed the chance to restore the tone of respect toward Anne. He could have said something like, “Anne knows her own mind, and I respect that about her. And I’ve never worked with a more collaborative, competent colleague.” By staying silent, Richard tacitly gave Jeff the green light for his offhanded comment.  By speaking up, he could have sent a clear message and changed the dynamic significantly.
  3. For the woman (Anne)
    Anne’s instinct was to dismiss the feedback by labeling Jeff a jerk. But it’s possible for Jeff to be speaking from bias (implicit or explicit) AND for Anne to do some self-reflection. Might she legitimately be doing something to get in the way of the collaborative relationships she really wants? From the other angle, was she too demure?  Should she have confronted his behavior more directly? I’m not saying that Anne should accept responsibility for someone else’s bias; I’m saying that she should ask herself whether there’s a growth opportunity embedded in the feedback.

If we want a workplace in which everyone is treated even-handedly, we all have a role to play.

What about you?

  • How often are you willing to courageously question potential bias: in yourself, in others and in the organization’s norms, systems and practices?
  • What stops you from doing that more?
  • What’s one small “practice” you could undertake today to watch for and confront bias to a greater degree?


Women’s Equality: Blame Won’t Get Us There

Today is Women’s Equality Day. I’m glad that this day exists. It commemorates the game-changing moment, 95 years ago today, when women gained the constitutional right to vote in the US.  It’s important to celebrate that and to remember that there are still many women in the world without a political voice.

But I’m also sad that there’s a Women’s Equality Day, because it confirms that true gender equality still eludes us. Whether it’s a moral issue or a business issue for you, equality matters. And it’s painful to confront the distance we have yet to travel.

As we connect with our disappointment, it’s tempting to assign blame for why things are the way they are. But in my experience, blame doesn’t get us anywhere we really want. Why? Because it slams shut the possibility for change. While blamers are finding fault, blamees are attacking back or running for cover. Meanwhile, nobody’s learning. And if nobody’s learning, nothing’s changing. As one male client, who cares very much about women’s equality, said to me:

I live in fear of saying the wrong thing and being labeled an insensitive jerk. So I disengage; I stay quiet instead of speaking up; I play it safe and keep my distance.

Even this man, a staunch believer in women’s equality, shuts down for fear of incurring the blame blowback of ‘getting it wrong.’ That means that he doesn’t engage, doesn’t grow and doesn’t work for change.

How do we confront bias against women (and other so-called minority groups) in such a way that opens up mutual understanding, accountability and action? I think we start by changing how we relate to bias itself: not so much as someone’s fault, but rather as a shared phenomenon in which we’re all participating. It’s not that there isn’t fault to find; it’s just that fault-finding doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.

Bias is the result of a convergence of both personal and systemic influences:

  1. individual beliefs and values
  2. individual behavior
  3. culture: collective values, mindsets and patterns of behavior
  4. structures: the policies, laws, physical and organizational structures, media, etc. that we build to carry out what the culture values

These influences interact dynamically, continually affecting and being affected by each other.  After years of history and habit, these influences weave tightly together to form very solid social patterns. Some of us benefit from those social patterns and strive, consciously or unconsciously, to keep them intact. Others of us aren’t well served by the patterns and we rail against them. And as we’re protecting or railing, it’s natural to fault each other for being oppressors or malcontents.

… As if the mud-slinging will help. As if the problem lies only in our personal shortcomings. As if the solution were that one-dimensional.

In the quest for gender equity in organizational life, the questions are larger than “Whose fault is it?” And the stocktaking needs to be done by men and women alike. Based on the four influences above, here are some questions that we can engage in together to examine and shift the complicated phenomenon of bias.

Personal beliefs

  • Are there certain behaviors that I tolerate in men that I recoil at in women? Or vice versa? What do those differing reactions tell me about what I deem “OK” and “not OK” from each gender?
  • How does that impact my openness to people as they are?
  • Do I ever expect more or less from women than I do from men? If so, what assumptions are driving the difference in my expectations?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of my beliefs and assumptions most inhibit a fuller openness to women, and how can I start challenging those beliefs?  

Personal actions

  • Are there women that I could or should be advocating for that I don’t? Why don’t I?
  • Have I ever shied away from giving a woman feedback that might have helped her succeed? And if I did give feedback, was it specific and behavioral enough to enable her to take clear action?
  • Who tends to sway my opinions and thinking most often? Is there a gender dimension to who I listen to and don’t?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two things can I start or stop doing to more actively support the women I live and work with?  


  •  Are there customs, events or practices in our organization that women don’t seem to attend or fully participate in? Might that indicate that these practices are exclusionary in some way?
  • Do we use language or ways of communicating that might exclude women or make them feel uncomfortable? How would we know?
  • When women have raised concerns about how they’re treated, how quickly or consistently have we taken action to address them? Have we given negative labels to women who have expressed their discontent?
  • Who are the formal leaders and informal power brokers in our organization? If women are sparse there, what might that tell us about the exclusive nature of our culture’s values?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two of our patterns of collective behavior most work against a level playing field for men and women?  What new patterns do we want to establish?  How will we hold ourselves and each other accountable?  


  • Do any of our employment, promotion, performance management or development practices make it harder for women than men to excel or advance?
  • Have we established mechanisms to measure whether men and women experience this organization differently?
  • Are more women than men leaving the organization? If so, what do they tell us in their exit interviews? If they say it’s “Too late” to give feedback, what were the signals that we missed along the way?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of our practices and policies seem to create barriers to women’s success? How should we update those practices to support an equality agenda? How do we ensure that our structures are continually updated to reflect our changing cultural values? 

Blame is the quickest way I know to stop the journey toward equality. By looking at bias as a shared phenomenon, rather than as someone’s fault, we can step out of the fray and get curious about our patterns of interaction. Perhaps then we can look at bias together, without finding fault, and martial our collective creativity toward the equality that most of us really want.




Do Women In Your Organization Experience Bias?

The problem with talking about sexism at work is that so few men are sexist anymore. Few, if any, of the hundreds of male executives I’ve coached show any signs of the belief that women are less capable, qualified or worthy than men. So why are women’s claims of gender-bias still rampant?

One reason is that institutions (and the cultures that grew up within them) still carry the DNA of their founders and architects. Most organizations were originally built by and for men, because that’s who worked there. It’s natural and rational that the structures, policies and the ‘way we do things’ would favor the people for and by whom they were designed. But as the workplace has become more and more diverse, organizational systems and cultures have stayed largely unchanged. This has created (intentionally or not) a state of privilege  for men: they’ve retained the luxury of working within a construct that was created with them and their interests in mind. So when ‘different others’ say that they experience life in X organization as inhospitable, men often don’t get it. It’s simply not a part of their own experience.

At the individual level, I think men’s hearts have changed and are changing. But the systems they built have been slow to evolve. It takes a strong intention and determined will to start chipping away at the many subtle ways that organizational life preferences one group over another. Why is it so hard? Because it’s difficult to see these powerful intangibles of organization life – especially if they conform to your shape. And it’s painful to change them – especially if they work in your favor.

This month’s Harvard Business Review has a great article on gender bias in the tech industry (“Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem” It’s full of advice on how organizations – tech and otherwise – can interrupt systemic bias.

The first step? Determine whether gender bias is happening.

Women are the most credible experts about the extent of gender bias in your organization. The Harvard Business Review article lays out four patterns of gender bias. So consider asking the women at work whether they experience any or all of these patterns:

1. “Prove it again.” This is the dance by which women are required to prove and re-prove their competence far more often than their male counterparts, in order to be seen in an equal light. Of the 127 women that the authors interviewed, about 2/3 had experienced this pattern.

2. “Tightrope.” This is the stylistic double-bind that a full 75% of the women in the study reported experiencing. In order to be seen as contenders for high level jobs, women must demonstrate ambition and assertiveness. They can’t be “too soft.” Yet when they do come forward with an assertive style, they risk being labeled as ‘aggressive,’ ‘abrasive’ or ‘bitchy:” labels which can stop a woman’s career in its tracks. The tightrope can have very tangible consequences, such as in salary negotiations, where women are simultaneously encouraged to advocate for themselves and disapproved of for doing so.

3. “Maternal wall.” In one study, a hiring panel considered the resumes of two equally qualified candidates, one of whom was a mother. The study found that the woman was “79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.” The researchers reported that 59% of the women they interviews reported hitting this maternal wall.

4. “Tug of war.” Research indicates that woman who have experienced gender bias are more likely to distance themselves from other women. They’re less apt to reach out to other women, offer mentoring or support, or even align with them. If you’re an ‘untouchable’ trying to make it in the organization, then the last people you want to be associated with are other untouchables. The result? Women turn against each other. 45% of the women interviewed reported experiencing this.

This article is a goldmine of guidance for examining and reducing gender bias at work. It directs us away from the guilt- and blame ridden conversation about individual attitudes and points us more productively to the systemic level, which is where I believe the bulk of bias still resides.

He Leads “Like a Girl”

Thanks to Mo’ne Davis, a thirteen-year old soft ball player with a 70 MPH fastball, it’s a little harder to use “throws like a girl” as an insult.

I’m looking forward to the day when “like a girl” is no longer a criticism in any domain of life. Including and especially leadership.

Several years ago, I was teaching a leadership course to a group of managers within an organization. The organization had just come through a crisis: one of those defining moments in a company’s history when a leader stepped up admirably in a difficult time. What made this leader’s response so skillful was his use of what I would now call ‘grace.’ He led with humility, empathy, kindness, and personal accountability. Despite the chaos, he did not bring in the corporate version of armored tanks and military-grade weapons.

The way he led his organization through turmoil was a galvanizing moment for the organization and a whopper of a teachable moment that I could use in the course for illustration.

In a moment of naiveté, I said to the participants, “This leader’s actions are a testament to the power of feminine leadership.” Before I could expand, the room erupted into laughter. And I mean the belly kind. It was like the notion of a man leading through the feminine was hilarious. Embarrassing. Absurd.

The laughter hit me hard. I don’t even know the name of the emotion I felt, but it was unpleasant and overwhelming. When the uproar subsided, all I could do was to ask, in all sincerity, why the term ‘feminine leadership’ was laughable.

At that moment, I discovered first-hand that we are still not equipped for a conversation about masculine and feminine, because of  how deeply our culture still  discounts the latter. I discovered that acknowledging the feminine aspect of a man’s leadership was tantamount to calling him a woman. Which I wasn’t. But which, if I had been, was considered an insult to him.

When I look at Mo’ne Davis, I see that “throwing like a girl” looks pretty amazing. And yet I realize that until throwing, running, thinking or leading in any way ‘like a girl’ is as deep a compliment as doing it ‘like a guy,’ we still have a very long road ahead.



‘Uninstalling’ Subtle Sexism

The public discourse surrounding New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing has been fascinating to watch. Though we still don’t know exactly what happened and why, one of the prevailing theories is that Abramson was fired partly because of her “brusque” manner and “pushy” approach to confronting top management about compensation.

Abramson’s firing has reignited the conversation about gender bias in the workplace. But I’ve been surprised to see how many articles assert that we have some sort of new problem in our organizations: articles entitled, “The new war on women” and “The new forms of subtle bias”. But I don’t think that Jill Abramson shows us a new problem – simply that the quest for equality needs to continue in ever more subtle and conscious ways.

The process of eliminating sexism (or any other “ism”) at work is kind of like the process of uninstalling a software program from your computer. Even though you’ve uninstalled the main program, countless bits of code remain in the computer’s memory. So it is with organizations. Even though most workplaces have eradicated overtly sexist policies, the organizations still carry an enormous amount of biased “code” in their corporate cultures, behavioral expectations and application of corporate policy. These remnants of bias are difficult to detect if you are a member of the dominant culture that wrote the code in the first place. But they are eminently palpable to those who were not yet at the table when the code was written.

Here are a couple of examples of how sexist organizational code may have played out for Abramson:

  • Jill Abramson had the reputation of being “brusque.” Would we be criticizing a man for this same behavior – especially in an industry (journalism) which rewards driven and competitive people? Assuming that Abramson’s predecessors also exhibited significant ‘grit,’ were they chastised for being pushy, or were they excused, praised or promoted for being bulldogs?
  • Allegedly, Abramson’s superior, Arthur Sulzberger, was offended that she brought a lawyer into the room when she raised a concern that her male predecessors had been paid more than she. Two questions here. First – would you be equally offended if a man brought a lawyer in? Second, if Abramson’s bringing a lawyer into the room was unusual, then Sulzberger might have asked himself why Abramson felt that she needed this kind of protection to raise a compensation issue with senior management.

This happens at the individual level as well. Many of the male executives that I work with are perplexed by women’s ongoing claims of bias. I can see why. Few, if any, of them have overtly sexist attitudes toward women. But just because they don’t have an explicit belief that women are ‘less than’ doesn’t mean that they don’t have plenty of subtle sexist code in their behavioral DNA.

One of the most direct ways to confront the subtler remnants of bias is to ask yourself this question: “Would I (we) speak/behave/react in this way if this were a man?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s time to look for the remnants of sexist code. For example:

  • Would you normally comment on a male colleague’s appearance? Would you compliment him on the attractiveness of his suit or a recent haircut? No? Then don’t comment on a woman’s appearance either. Recognize women for their work, not their wardrobe. Whether it’s Hillary’s “cankles” or Sarah Palin’s “hotness,” just don’t.
  • If you’re making deals or wielding influence at a place or time that a woman doesn’t have immediate and easy access to, then you are operating on “old code.” Sure, it’s probably easy and natural to conduct business over a cigar and 18 holes. It takes discipline to conduct the “real business” at the table where everyone actually has a seat. Do that.
  • If you’re working in a team, don’t look to the woman to be the notetaker. It’s a subservient role that she’s used to and you’re used to seeing her in. So even if she’s got “the best handwriting,” even if she’s organized, even if she offers – go against the grain. Ask a man to scribe.

I don’t agree with those who believe that Abramson’s firing signals a ‘new’ war on women or a ‘new’ form of sexism. I think it simply points to the bias that still exists in a world where more explicit forms of sexism are fading away. But just because an organization has uninstalled its more explicit sexist programming, it doesn’t mean that the remaining bytes of sexism aren’t powerfully shaping women’s daily experience and running room at work. So if we want to make organizations more productive and vibrant, we need to actively look for those lingering bits of biased code and then take action to erase it from our personal and organizational hard drives.

“Let Her Speak” – A Job Aid for Men

Last week, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against “SB5”, a sweeping anti-abortion bill before the Texas Senate. At one point during her 13-hour filibuster speech, several Senators tried to interrupt her. According to Texas law, any interruption in Davis’ speech would disqualify the filibuster, and the bill that she was trying to prevent would pass. In response to the attempts to silence Ms. Davis, a large crowd of onlookers in the State Capital building chanted: “Let her speak! Let her speak.” And speak she did: for 13 hours straight, amid all the chaos, successfully quashing SB5.

As I heard the crowd chant, I realized the larger truth and wisdom of the message, “Let her speak.” It made me think of the scores of times I’ve heard men in organizations request guidance on how to deal effectively with their women counterparts. I realized that the onlookers in the Texas rotunda had offered up an important key to the guidance men are looking for. Building on the crowd’s spontaneous wisdom last week, here is a starter kit for men who want to be more skillful in working with women.

Let her speak.

Simple as that. Make sure that the woman at the meeting table has as much opportunity to speak as anyone else. Let her enter the conversation, and let her finish her thought.

Listen with high expectations of her value.

Several years ago, I saw a wonderful cartoon in the New York Times. It showed a boardroom table at which were seated several men and one woman. The caption read, “That’s an excellent point, Ms. Trigg. Perhaps one of the men would like to make it.” Most women will tell you that that still happens today. So men, please expect that the woman’s opinion will be of value equal to the man’s, and listen accordingly. Don’t roll your eyes or consult your email while she’s speaking. Don’t mentally critique her hair cut, vocal tone, attire or body parts. Don’t wait for another man to make or validate her point. She has something to say: ask yourself to hear it with the expectation that it’ll matter.

Listen for the gold she may bring.

The more senior she is in the organization, the more likely it is that she’ll be one of the few women at the table. As a result, she may be offering a different perspective, a minority opinion. The minority opinion is so tempting to ignore. It’s a fly in our efficiency ointment, slowing us down. It’s also inconvenient, making us consider something we don’t, can’t or don’t want to see. But it also has great potential power to warn us of a cliff we don’t see coming, to give us critical information for a more sound decision, or to revolutionize our thinking altogether. Whether it’s a woman, person of color, or just a person with a routinely different point of view – listen hard to whomever brings the ‘inconvenient truth’ to your table.

So for anyone who wants to work with women more effectively, here are a few starting tips. Let her speak. Listen with high expectations. And listen for the gold she brings. For she is as able and likely as anyone to turn this conversation on its ear. Just ask the Texas State Senate.


It’s getting better for women – AND we’re not ‘done’ yet

Here’s a very interesting article in this week’s The Glass Hammer.  It’s emarkable that antiquated and biased attitudes toward women are still alive and well in the national discourse.    Kudos to the Catalyst organization, who is finding new ways to move the dialogue forward.  Importantly, they are actively working to integrate men into the conversation about women: