A few months ago, while my brother was visiting me in Baltimore, we found ourselves talking about the experiences of men versus women in bars. He expressed how rapidly he would come to my defense (as he has many times over the years for women he cares about) if he ever heard a man say something inappropriate to me. When he saw my hesitation, he – in typical brother fashion – looked at me and said, “What.”
I felt conflicted in my response. One part of me loved the vision of my brother of all people coming to my defense. The other part of me scoffed at the girl who couldn’t stand up for herself. I told him, “I appreciate what you’re trying to say, but I think that would feel weird to me.” He said, “Weird? What do you mean?” “Disempowered,” I said. “I would feel disempowered.” He said, “What would you want me to do?” I said, “Be there. And let me choose to speak or not speak or walk away or ask for your help.” He said okay.
Do you know what the most surprising part of that conversation is? My brother cared enough to ask. I have an unusual number of strong, wise, feminist, masculine men in my life. A surprising number of men have inspired me to live into who I am becoming. Women, too – but it’s the men who are surprising. They’re surprising because I also have an overwhelming number of men in my life who are quick to explain away their complicity in society’s gender inequality. Do you know what my brother said at the end of our conversation? He said, “Yeah. I guess it’s not about me.”
That’s right. It’s not about you.
About a year ago there was a conversation going on in my company about wages. As small a company as we are, we were quickly whittling our way into a sizable wage gap. A female employee asked for a raise that I didn’t feel we could afford. She deserved it without question, but the situation was messy because of the politics of asking for raises and the balance of the company’s growth and hiring and, most significantly, my own fear. When I finally finagled a raise for her and another employee at the same time, I explained why it had taken me a while to come to the decision. I explained how I had sought the advice of other company leaders and that I needed to be careful about risk and about “upsetting the apple cart.” After receiving their raise letters, the other employee – a male – asked me to step aside to discuss the situation. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Angela, you’re making the decisions now that will determine who we are as a company in 20 years. Whatever decisions you make – and whoever’s advice you receive – make them for who you want to be then, not for who you’re afraid to be now.” It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received, and I thought, “This isn’t about me.”
It’s not about me.
Every woman I know wakes up every day with the implicit knowledge that she needs to prove she deserves to be here. From the mother who drives her kids to school each morning and remains text-available throughout the workday, to the CEO who stares at her face in the mirror wondering if her eye make-up looks like she’s trying too hard. Almost every woman I know has a secret. From her fear that she shows too much emotion in front of clients, to the abuse she never told her husband about, to the abortion that would devastate her friends and family if they knew. Most women I know are aware when she starts her day that any number of terrible things could happen to her – no matter how careful she is. Most women I know can recall the most recent time she silenced herself when a man was speaking.
Just recently, a woman close to me explained that she has never, ever felt unsafe because of her gender and she has certainly never been made to feel subordinate to a man. For her, this could be true. Some women struggle to relate to the experience of other women – and this woman, in particular, has made an active choice to remain unaware.
But it’s not about her.
This International Women’s Day is about forging a more gender-balanced world. It’s about equity between people of all genders – fairness according to their needs. While workplaces and governments are increasingly enforcing policies that demonstrate the importance of this issue, a recent study by McKinsey says corporate America has made almost no progress improving women’s representation since 2015. The same study encourages companies to take 6 actions to make progress:
- Get the basics right—targets, reporting, and accountability.
- Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair.
- Make senior leaders and managers champions of diversity.
- Foster an inclusive and respectful culture.
- Make the Only experience rare.
- Offer employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives.
These are positive actions to take, but on their own they’ll only work as well as diversity programs have worked over the past three decades – meaning, not at all. Balance, equity, and fairness are issues influenced by psychologically entrenched perceptions of ourselves and others. While policies and procedures can help change the conversation, bias can be outlawed only as much as human beings can be forced to love. We can’t. Systemic change begins and ends with the individual. How then, do we generate change at an individual level?
We have to change our brains. And doing so requires a deliberate effort to break away from the default pathways in our minds that have long offered comfort.
To break away, we must first ALERT to implicit bias. To “alert” means to be momentarily disoriented by experiencing something other than what we expected. When it comes to gender bias, our implicit assumptions are often so buried that it’s nearly impossible to alert to them. To do so, we have to consciously put ourselves in situations where our assumptions can be challenged. In some cases, this can be as simple as the conversation my brother had with me about coming to my defense in a bar. His assumptions were challenged and he was surprised by the outcome. Having said that, it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressor. We are responsible to educate ourselves. Try a posture of openness and curiosity. Try listening without preparing a response. And try playing this mantra on repeat: It’s not about me.
It goes without saying that alerting to implicit bias is only the beginning. Once we experience a moment of disorientation, the next step is to ORIENT to our new understanding in a nonjudgmental way. Alert moments are often accompanied by shame. It’s not pleasant to realize we’ve been acting on misinformation our whole lives. When shame is accompanied by judgment, we dig in our heels against change and reinforce negative understandings. Rather than judgment, we can simply orient ourselves by asking, “Who am I in light of this new information? How might this experience affect my behavior?” At this stage, it’s useful to ask a trusted friend, family member, or colleague to participate in critical reflection and help navigate past judgment into a proactive, self-compassionate posture.
Alerting to new understandings and orienting to their effect on behavior leads to an essential third step: ACT. What now will you do? Alert, orient, and act is a formula that triggers the development of new synaptic pathways in the human brain. However, synaptic pathways develop slowly as new behaviors are repeated again and again. Change takes time. It takes wanting a new normal badly enough to commit to the discomfort of leaving behind default pathways to forge a better way.
The road toward gender equity is a long and exhausting one. We often feel isolated and afraid, but we are strong and we are fighting. And this time, #balanceforbetter is not about you and it’s not about me. This time it’s about us. This time, it’s about the collective effort of all genders to alert, orient, and act – ultimately effecting change at an individual level and empowering a widespread social movement toward genuine gender equity.