“Learning diversity” – Using Fiction as a Tool

As a white woman who grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago I was not exposed to much in the way of diversity throughout my youth. Every so often, a church mission trip would take us places that seemed utterly foreign to me as if we had traveled to a different planet. But these were places that existed ‘elsewhere.’ They were not a part of my world.

One experience in childhood, however, did open my eyes to the fact that others did not enjoy the same privilege I enjoyed. My grandparents took me on a vacation to Mexico, ostensibly to see the amazing tourist attractions – the pyramids, the beaches, the fancy hotels. Instead, what I saw, what I remember as a jolt of electricity in my belly, was women sitting on the streets with their babies. When I asked Grandma why this was, she explained matter-of-factly that they didn’t have a home to go to.

Even college offered me little in the way of exposure to people different from me. In my small, midwestern, academically elite school I rarely had cause to think of experiences beyond my own. I do remember one choir trip to the South where we attended a Southern Baptist church service. I remember the incredible and unbounded joy expressed during this service – out loud! And realized again that my experiences were not universal.

All of this to say, I have had to work hard to “learn diversity.” It has become a passion for me, and I have been taking up any opportunity I can find to learn. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, attending seminars, participating in conversations and discussions. And every so often, it can get overwhelming. I need a break.

For me, that means reading. Usually cozy mysteries. Always fiction. This time, I decided I would try something different. I went to my library app and searched under popular fiction and the first book I could find that was available right away has led me on a whole new journey. I have now overloaded my library holds with books written from perspectives that differ widely from mine. For now, I am sticking to the ‘female’ perspective (in quotes because the meaning of that word is also under exploration), to contemporary fiction, and if at all possible, to American fiction. I feel like this is where I need to start.

The two books I will share below are simply where I have started. I know there are many, many options out there, and I’d love to hear from you what fiction books have opened your eyes to new ways of understanding this world we live in.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The first book I read was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Not only is this a beautifully written book, it is captivating and such a great read. The story makes personal the bullet points we see in every diversity presentation – the incarceration of black people, especially men, is disproportionally high. In this case, a black man who we know, without doubt, is innocent is sent to jail for committing rape.

The story follows the lives most affected by this conviction – the man himself, his wife, and their best friend. We also hear about the parents of both the husband and the wife and their struggles to deal with this tragedy.

The story is so compelling because it feels so real. It feels like a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story. I felt as though the author allowed me, for the hours it took to read the book, to understand and feel what the impact of this injustice can do to real people. It literally derailed a life, tore apart a marriage, and caused stress, confusion, and chaos in the lives of so many peopled.

The story helped me to get inside the reality of what is happening to so many people, people different from me, in our society today. It helped me to see beyond the bullet point on the PowerPoint slide and to feel the pain of individuals who are faced with this kind of injustice.

I highly encourage everyone to read this book.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

My choices of book to read are dictated by the availability at the public library. That said, I am very pleased that the next book to pop into my queue was Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner. While not a tale of racial diversity, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences introduced by the fact that the family was Jewish, that one of the women was a lesbian, and that the other was childfree by choice.

This story follows the lives of two sisters who’s stories alternate as they move through time, the major events of the decades passing by in the background. As time progresses, the lose themselves, then find themselves again several times, in various ways.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot – I’d love for those reading the book to experience the empathy as these two sisters follow their journey – sometimes experiencing incredible pain, other times overwhelming joy. Suffice it to say, I learned quite a bit from these two characters.

I felt through the story the pain of having to suppress significant parts of your identity simply to fit in, to be seen as “normal.” I learned the difficulties behind the healing after significant personal tragedy. I saw a world where women faced the difficulties of trying to get ahead in a male dominated world decades before the present day.

This book only offers small windows into these different experiences women might face in their lives, and yet it is so well written that you feel strong empathy with each passing challenge the sisters face. I am grateful to have had a peak into this window, and hope it helps me to act with even greater empathy towards others.

……

Fiction gives the authors the latitude to fully explore issues of diversity, to provide a different vantage point to explore the amazing things that make each of us unique. I know I have read many books of this type before – I simply chose these two books because of the incredible quality of writing and because I happened to have read them recently.

What fiction books have you read that have opened your eyes to a new way of thinking about your neighbor? I’d love some suggestions!

As always, stay positive! Pass along a smile!

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Women in the Workplace – Lack of Fit

This post is going to require some work on your part. Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult. But before moving on, I’d ask that you open a blank Word document or grab a pen and paper before you read on.

Your first assignment: Picture a CEO. Jot down some of your thoughts regarding the image in your mind. Just a few sentences or adjectives will do. DO NOT overthink this, just go with your first impression. We’ll get back to this later.

Now for a story. Have you heard this? Its an oldie-but-goodie. A man and his son are out one night, driving along a dark, winding road when suddenly a major storm moves in. A deer jumps out of the woods in front of their car, and the father, in an attempt to avoid the deer, swerves and smashes into a tree. The emergency personnel rush to the accident and tragically pronounce the father dead at the scene. The young boy, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As he is wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon looks down at the young patient and exclaims, “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son!”

How can this be? If you are like most people, the first time you heard this story you were confused. Didn’t the dad die at the scene? Does the boy have two dads? No. In fact, the surgeon is the child’s mother.

Why is it that our instinct is to assume that the surgeon is a man?

Back in 1973, an astute social scientist named Virginia Schein was asking questions about why more women were not being promoted into leadership roles. At that time, Dr. Schein worked as a manager for MetLife in New York. The prevailing answer to her question at the time was that women simply did not wish to be leaders. Dr. Schein believed there was more going on below the surface.

In a series of research papers published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Schein asked research participants to list the most important traits of a successful leader.

Go ahead and do this for yourself. You can simply add to the CEO traits you listed above, or if ‘Leader’ brings to mind something new and different, make a new list.

Next, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with men.

Do this yourself as well.

Then, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with women.

Again, jot some ideas down.

Finally, she compared the lists. What she found uncovered an uncomfortable truth – the list of the leadership traits and the male traits were very similar, while the list of the leadership traits and the female traits varied significantly. This led to the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ theory that has been proven in many studies since then.

One of the interesting parts of the initial research – all of the participants were men. Likely she had a problem similar to the one I faced in my attempt to include women of color in my studies – she just could not find enough female leaders to include in her studies.

But it does highlight another problem – the dominant culture will be the group to define the rules of the game. Research seems to indicate that it isn’t that male qualities are the best leadership qualities, but that since men are in leadership, they will necessarily believe that their qualities make for the best results.

Opinions on the “best” leadership qualities have changed since the 1970s. Back then, words like commanding, or assertive, or even aggressive were common. Nowadays, you likely included something along the lines of collaborative, or even supportive, or perhaps even inclusive.

And yet, even with leadership qualities that are more aligned with the female stereotype, I’d ask you to look back at your description of a CEO. Did you picture a man or a woman? Some of you did, in fact, picture a woman, and you are wonderful for that. Most people, however, pictured a tall, white, older male. If you did, don’t worry – you’ve just uncovered a hidden bias! Now you can work on adjusting it.

The impact of the ‘Think-Manager, Think-Male’ phenomenon is significant. It means that when company leaders are looking to fill a management position, their inherent bias toward picturing men in the position will lead them toward male candidates more readily than female candidates. This is true no matter the gender of the hiring manager.

It means that men will be considered for roles they aspire to while women will only be considered for roles they have already proven themselves in. It means that men will be supported despite failures and a woman’s failure will be seen as inevitable.

The solution to this issue is a catch-22. To get more women (or any other minority, for that matter) into leadership roles we need more women (or other minorities) in leadership roles. If the images we see when the letters CEO are uttered are not just white males, but truly reflect the diversity of our society, then we will disrupt the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ paradigm. To get there, we need to recognize our inherent biases and actively work against them. When choosing our leaders, we need to ensure we are intentionally looking in all directions for the best candidate, regardless of their personal qualities.

For a final assignment, I encourage you to consider ways in which you might stretch your mind when considering candidates for the next leadership role you will help to fill. Write them down. And then when the time comes, use them.

As always, keep it positive!

Selected further reading:

HBR – Alice Eagly: Women as Leaders. Dr. Eagly is an expert on gender and leadership.

Fast Company – The Gender Divide

Psychology Today: Why Women Make Better Leaders than Men

Inc. Magazine: 7 Traits of True Leaders

Girls and Ladies and Guys and Dudes – The Language We Use

Dictionary of the English language

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember my mom teaching me that when I was little – I was a very small, physically timid, sensitive kid. I wasn’t aggressively bullied, but I certainly had my share of taunting. And it hurt. I tried to believe my mom, but somehow, I just couldn’t shake the mean things those kids said to me.

In reality, we all know that words DO hurt. While physical pain may heal, the destruction wrought by cruel, demeaning, mocking words can last a lifetime. Sometimes this language comes at us deliberately with the intent to cause harm. I saw this happen way too often between the 4th grade girls my daughter hung out with (or didn’t, because they were mean). And I remember being the same when I was that age. Kids can be cruel.

There is also quite a bit of rhetoric in our current political environment that seems intended to be cruel. This language is overt, deliberate, and is used to gain an advantage.

But there is another side to all of this – the unintentional harm that language can cause. This tends to happen ‘under the radar’ and it happens all the time. Slights, inadvertent uses of words that someone finds offensive, the inappropriate use of a cultural reference…these are sometimes hard to spot and generally result from lack of exposure, lack of understanding of another group’s culture, a simple misunderstanding, or personal preference. The amount of offence taken can vary from person to person, even between those of similar characteristics.

It can sometimes seem that we have become, as a society, overly sensitive to the language we use to refer to each other. And yet, it is important. As the demographics of our country change, as diversity becomes more and more a part of everyone’s lives, the understanding of how to relate to each other becomes an urgent matter. The words others use to define us carry meaning and intent. This is why certain words are offensive when spoken by some, and yet not offensive when used by in-group members.

At a recent diversity workshop I participated in, this question was posed to the people of color in the room: How do you wish to be identified? Each person had a different, personal, response. Some people were passionate about the words used to identify them. Others did not, to a certain point, care. The problem was, how do you know who is who? How in the world do we navigate such an impossible minefield?

This has also come up in several recent conversations I have had with friends and colleagues. In one, a friend referred to me as a “gal.” She quickly added, “…unless you hate being called a ‘gal’. I should have said ‘woman.’” In another longer conversation with several women, one of them referred to us all as “chicks.” She then quickly added that she meant nothing disrespectful by using that word (as far as I know, none of us felt disrespected in the least) – and a long, incredibly interesting conversation ensued, covering many things including the use of ‘girl vs woman vs guys vs dudes’.

During this discussion, we also covered when and where we police our language – where we tend to be more cautious about the words we use. Each of us had a different take on this which led to such a rich collection of thoughts and ideas.

Given my focus on women in the workplace, I thought it would be interesting to share this discussion with a larger audience, and invite my friends in to share their thoughts in their own words.

A word about these friends – we are all women, we are all white, and we all belong to a group that believes in providing non-judgemental support for each other. That is roughly where the similarities end. We are from different states, from coast to coast. Our upbringings differ widely, our educational levels are not the same. Some of us work inside the home, and some outside. Some of us have kids, some do not. Some of us are married (even more than once in some cases), some of us are not. We might have similar political leanings, but we don’t talk about that.

I considered editing their responses, but I love their incredible ways of expressing themselves – I am just going to leave them as is. In order to keep this to a somewhat reasonable length, I have not included all responses, but have tried to be sure all viewpoints are covered as best I can.

Some take-aways:

  • Everyone is different, and kindness and respect dictate that we should recognize this;
  • Our understanding of the world and of ourselves changes over our lifetimes;
  • The words we use matter;
  • As Megan states: “HOW we speak to others about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive” because we all come from different places, have had different experiences, and really just want to get along.

How do you like to (or usually) refer to groups of women? (girls, chicks, women, guys, ladies, dudes, etc)

Anna: For me, how I refer to a group of women depends on who those women are. When I’m speaking about the group I grew up with – the ones who knew me when I was a skinny, braces-wearing, wannabe cheerleader – that group is my girls. When I’m speaking about my village of soul sisters that I developed in adulthood, they are ladies. And when I am speaking about the larger female and female-identifying group, most often I refer to them as women. These distinctions are not something I think about, but rather are conventions I’ve developed over time based on familiarity, comfort, where I am in my own life, and, in a sense, external standards of political correctness.

Emily: If I’m in a group of only women, I usually use the word “ladies.” But I’m also a major fan of gender-neutral terms like, “folks,” “y’all,” and “friends.” When I refer to myself, I usually say “person” or “human.” Occasionally, when I’m frustrated by someone treating me a child—general infantilizing of women and/or infantilizing of millennials—I’ll refer to myself as a “grown-ass woman.”

Erin: I use “friends” if it’s among friends, “everybody” or “us all” or even “peeps”. “Ladies” in business environments, typically. Trying to work more “them-friendly” language into my life – that’s slow going.

Jill: I have given a great deal of consideration to the words that I use to describe people because I want to be accurate and inclusive in my use of language. When I am consciously thinking about it, I typically use the word “ladies” to refer to a group of women. I landed on this word because I like the slight connotations of formality, sophistication, and respect. To me, the word “women” feels a little impersonal, although I think it is also a perfectly acceptable word to use. “Gals” feels like an old-fashioned word that it is an afterthought to the far more common word “guys.” Occasionally, I will slip into saying “you guys” when I am talking to a group of women, although I am in general trying to remove that expression from my vocabulary because it implies that being male is a default.

On the other hand, I have been calling my close friends (mostly women) “dudes” since the time I was in high school. To me, the word dude is an indicator of inclusion in certain subcultures (i.e. stoners, surfers, skaters, particular music scenes). Often when women use the word, it is a way to subversively express a sense of belonging in those spaces, which are frequently male-dominated. I still use the word “dude” or “dudes” when talking informally to people of all genders, although I have recently come to consider that calling a transwoman a “dude” could be very offensive because it does, on balance, still have male connotations.

Megan: In the past, I’ve usually tried to say ladies or women, but in the last year or so, I’ve been trying to curb my usage of calling women ladies, though I haven’t been entirely successful. As I’ve been reading more feminist books and really evaluating my usage of language, the term “ladies” has begun to represent a group of women who act in accordance of the rules set out by our patriarchal society to me. In my opinion, while there’s nothing wrong with calling a group of women ladies, the majority of women I know and love don’t necessarily ascribe to patriarchal norms and in some cases, are actively trying to shake them up. Thus, ascribing a word that represents “proper femininity” to them doesn’t seem fitting to me. I’ve also heavily used “you guys” as well, which I’ve been trying to break myself from, but it’s proved much harder.

Then the usage of calling a group of women “girls”, by men irritates me to no end. While I understand that often that men don’t mean anything by it, it feels like a term that is diminishing to women. If a woman uses it, I’ll admit I side-eye it unless it’s someone I know well and understand that their usage of it isn’t representative of the way that they respect women. I sometimes use chicks, but that’s rare – I’m more oft to use “dudes”, though I’m much more likely to call a single person “dude” versus a group of people “dudes”. I’ve had conversations with several of my friends who are very active on the use of language in social justice about the usage of “dude” and largely we feel like it is a West Coast generational thing to use it, though we haven’t looked closely into it. However, now that I’m not on the West Coast, it does feel more foreign to me to use the term dude when referring to someone. I only use that term when I know the person (or group) fairly well though.

How do you refer to yourself? Any thoughts on why?

Erin: I used to be adamant about being called a “girl” until recently. Then I grew up. But now I just don’t care. Call me whatever you want, I know who I am and who you’re talking about.

Jill: I think that the times I am actually most offended are when men refer to women as girls because it is infantilizing. I am occasionally bothered when other women refer to me as “honey” or “sweetheart” because I feel like it implies that I am naive, inexperienced, and need to be cared for. I have always looked young, and I am particularly sensitive to people treating me like I am a child.

There are also contexts in which men refer to women as females, bitches, sluts, whores, etc., which are dehumanizing and thus offensive. However, there are ways, where in the proper context, humor can be used to take those words back. I think it is common for women who are very close to each other to call each other bitch, as in a context such as “Hey my bitch, want to go out for lunch?”

One time, while we were waiting in line at a nightclub, a man (boy?) came up to my four friends and I and referred to us as “five vaginas.” I was honestly more baffled by it than offended because there is no context in which that would be an appropriate way to refer to other people.

Megan: I refer to myself as a woman, since that’s how I identify, though I have been known to call myself a badass every once in awhile too. Who knows though, with our language changing, especially around gender, a new term that I love and feel represents me even better may be just around the corner.

Have you ever been offended by a term someone used to describe you? When/where/why?

Anna: Generally, I get offended when someone I don’t know refers to me in a familiar manner. Even though my husband, for example, calls me babe at home, it’s absolutely not acceptable for a stranger, especially a strange man, to call me babe.

There was another specific instance I remember being extremely offended by a reference. I was in law school in Seattle in the mid-2000s and ran into an African-American NFL player in a club in one of the more posh areas of the city. He called me “Candy.” This was the first time I’d ever met him, so he was not a friend, and every Candy I knew of had been a stripper. Interestingly, when I let him know he’d offended me, he did apologize and explained that the term was apparently a common name/nickname in his community. I’m not sure if he was sincere or not, but that instance still sticks out in my mind.

Emily: I have several friends and colleagues who use the word “guys” to refer to any mix of genders. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this offends me, but I definitely notice it and feel a bit of a sting. The problem is that the person who most regularly does this is one of my supervisors (a woman), and I don’t feel like I necessarily have the power to call her out on it.

Erin: Nope. I honestly just don’t care about that in the least.

Megan: I don’t know if I’d say offended because I understand that language can be generational and regional, but I’ve definitely been annoyed before. Moving from an area in the Pacific Northwest that is pretty conscious of how people refer to one another down to the South has been quite eye-opening for me. Right after we moved, I had an affluent older middle-aged white man call me “sweetheart” and “girl” and I was annoyed. I didn’t know this man at all and it felt presumptuous to call me “sweetheart” and diminishing to call me (a grown woman) “girl”, especially since I was buying bourbon at the liquor store.

When and where do you find yourself policing your language? Any particular reasons for this that you are aware of?

Anna: I definitely police my language around people and groups that I’m not familiar with. Because I don’t like it when people I don’t know take liberties with their references around me, I try to stick with the most common or politically correct terms and then wait for the person/people to correct me or let me know of their own personal preference. For example, I always start with African-American, Native American (or Alaska Native), and/or Mr./Ms./Dr. I have had people who preferred to be called by their first names or referred to as Afro-Cuban or Indian, and I always make an effort to remember their preference and respect that going forward.

Erin: I try not to police myself as it triggers my social anxiety in a big way. If people are offended by me, then so be it. My language tends to be pretty bland and I’m generally okay with that.

Jill: One of the main ways that I have really started trying to police my language is around issues of inclusion for trans-people and non-binary people. I think there is a shift occurring in language (at least in some circles) where we are either removing gendered language or acknowledging that people exist who are not strictly male or female. Still, it is hard to rework your brain to use new linguistic devices such as alternate pronouns. I think this is particularly challenging in situations where I know people before and after their transition. However, even though it may be awkward and result in an occasional blunder, it is still important for everyone to attempt rewiring their brains to include all gender identities. I have been to a few live performances where the introduction includes language such as “ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between and beyond” or “ladies and gentlemen of all genders,” and although that language is still a little bulky, it takes the important step of acknowledging the existence of all people.

How have you seen your ideas on this change over your life?

Anna: Both of my parents were the children of Army officers and were raised in a very formal environment, so they, in turn, raised me to err on the side of formality. My sister and I were some of the only kids who always referred to our friends’ parents as Mr. or Ms., and we always made an effort to refer to people based on more neutral characteristics such as city/state/country of origin rather than race or physical attribute. I have found that beginning from a place of formality, similar to at least trying to speak the native language when in a foreign country, lets people know you’re trying, and starts off the relationship on a more amiable foot.

Emily: I used to use the word “guys” to refer to all humans until I read an argument against it in college. I used to call my female friends “girls” until I read an essay about how we never call grown men “boys.” I think I’ve definitely done some learning and growing, and a lot of that came from being called out.

Erin: See [my response to the previous question] above re: girl. So much that my first husband had to take me as his “girlie” in our vows and not as his wife. That relationship had problems and lots of them were me.

Megan: Absolutely. Before university, how I used language to represent myself and others was never given a second thought, especially since I grew up in a conservative, patriarchal environment. Once I got to my very pretty liberal university and into my field of study, my mind was blown about how language can be used to represent us in both positive and negative lights. And after reading a few of the other responses for this blog post, I’ve realized how my language now may not be best epitomizing how I want to convey meaning and representation.

What else should I be asking/would you like to share?

Anna: The one area of language that I think is talked about less often but is becoming increasingly controversial is the issue of cultural appropriation. The most recent example is the use of “tribe” in the self-improvement community, which is perceived to be appropriated from Native Americans vs. taken from anthropology. Similarly, the use of certain cultural references in sports has also been under scrutiny. While the lines are a little more clear when it comes to whether or not to put a label onto someone else, it seems to be less clear when it’s alright to take a word from someone else and put it on yourself.

Erin: I like it when my current husband calls me “wife” or “wife-cakes”, if that helps. 😀

Jill: In professional settings, I think it is best to default to using more formal and less-gendered language, such as women/ladies or people/folks. Occasionally I think that when gendered language is misused, the intention behind is, ironically, an attempt to create a more friendly or impersonal workplace. However, attempting to imply a more intimate relationship in a professional setting has the potential to violate boundaries. I also think it is important to use the same principle when considering intersectional identities. Often the best course of action is to have thoughtful conversations about the words that people prefer. These conversations do not have to take a lot of time, and yet, they can go a long way in creating a feeling of inclusivity.

Megan: I want to share that I feel like HOW we speak to people about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive. There are so many regional and generational differences in language, that often people just need to be educated on why certain terms could be construed as offensive. And our language now is evolving around representation and gender at such a quick rate that it can be difficult to keep up if you’re not constantly reading or in academic circles, so not everyone will be up to date in how language is best used.

So, as for me, I feel my language evolving. When I am on social media, I often correct a “Hey girl” to a “Hey Lady,” or even just “Hey!” After reading these responses, I’m going to give the word “Lady” some thought too.

And let me say – I know there are many, many other viewpoints out there. As mentioned above, we are all women/gals/chicks/females, and we are all white. This is a limited sample. I’ve already been asked by some of my editors to pose these same questions to other, more diverse audiences. I hope to do that in later posts.

I am interested in your thoughts and ideas on this. What do you think about the words around identity? Have you seen your ideas shift in recent times? Where do you see yourself policing the language you use? Be sure to share.

As always, keep it positive, and have a great day!

Women in the Workplace – Are women their own worst enemies?

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

When talking with men in the workplace (and even some women) about why women are not making it to the CEO level, I sometimes heard the phrase, “Women are their own worst enemy.”

I bristled every time I heard this remark. I had certainly seen women behaving badly toward other women, and in fact had been the victim of a particularly vicious woman. But certainly this was a singular occurrence, right? What men were doing to hold women back, either consciously or unconsciously, was much worse, right?

It turns out there may be some truth to that quote. In fact, it has been given a name: the Queen Bee syndrome.

Before I go on, let me say this: while this article argues that the Queen Bee does still exist in our workplaces today, my studies show that this plays just a small role in keeping women from reaching the top of organizations. There are many other forces, discussed in previous and future posts, that are bigger culprits. However, it is important that women are aware of the Queen Bee syndrome so they can both prevent themselves from becoming one and protect themselves against them.

First, let’s define Queen Bee syndrome. The term was first introduced in a paper by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayartne, and C. Tavris in 1973. A Queen Bee is a woman who has risen to at least some level of power and then acts to protect her position, treating female subordinates more critically than male subordinates.

Hollywood has given us several examples of Queen Bees, several of which have become cult classics. Films such as Heathers and Mean Girls show what this phenomenon looks like in high school. Beyond high school we have The Devil Wears Prada, Clueless or countless others. In each of these films, women who are in power go to considerable lengths to keep other women from reaching their level. In this context, it is almost a shame that the Queen Bee makes for such great movies.

In the corporate world, most often the Queen Bee operates from a position of scarcity, believing that there is space for only one woman at the top. This means that the target of her protectionist actions are most likely other women. At the very least, she does nothing to support other women. At the worst, she actively works to thwart the advancement of other women in the firm. Most often, she shows incivility and rudeness to other women in the workplace.

Some social scientists have suggested that the Queen Bee sees the only way of reaching the top is to act like the men who have gone before her. In this way, she overemphasizes the male trait of disliking women – or more generally, the feminine stereotype. She sees “feminine” as a form of failure.

The discussion on whether the Queen Bee still exists in today’s workplace is hotly debated in academic institutions and in the press. Some say she still exists. Others say the Queen Bee is now extinct. A study in 2015 by the Columbia Business School showed that the Queen Bee was now nothing more than a myth. The same results were found in a Brazilian study conducted in 2018, looking at 8.3mil workers across the world.

And yet, a study done at the University in Arizona in 2018 is cited repeatedly in the news, with varying titles such as, “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee,” or “Proof that Queen Been Syndrome Exists in the Workplace.” The original article was titled, “Incivility at Work: Is Queen Bee Syndrome Getting Worse?” In this study, it was shown that women are more rude and more uncivil to other women in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had an interesting and provocative response to this study. She claimed that women are held to different standards, and that when they are not “nice,” they are seen as uncivil when men are not. This could be true – there is certainly plenty of evidence to show that women are punished when they act outside of their stereotypical roles. Because of this, and our tendency to quickly judge, we should exercise considerable restraint when naming an individual as a Queen Bee.

That said, my personal experience shows that there is a strong case to be made that Queen Bees still exist.

What is behind this Queen Bee syndrome? It is largely attributable to a lack of confidence and security in female leaders. They may have faced

So, are there still Queen Bees out there in the world?

My personal experience, and first hand stories from women I have interviewed and spoken with say that yes, the Queen Bee is alive and well. Sometimes she is as blatant as she has always been. And in some cases, she is more insidious than ever before, hiding behind an exterior that would suggest she wants nothing more than to raise women up.

Real-life stories of the Queen Bee sound like this:

  • When asking for a promotion that has been earned (and was (much) later granted), she says, “The best workers often don’t make the best managers. Maybe some other time.”
  • After a year of accomplishing major goals, saving the company significant money, and obtaining several industry educational designations, she also promotes a man who has done none of these things, saying “I think he will do a great job going forward.”
  • In a meeting with high-level officers of the company, she tells her female manager that her data is incorrect, and when the manager attempts to explain, she loudly tells her to “Shut Up!”
  • She belongs to several women’s groups, invites young women along, but then promotes men into the important roles in the company.
  • She coaches women to exacting standards on non-essential skills while coaching men on standards that matter to the business.
  • She picks one or two women to support and does so in a very public way, and treats other women with incivility, often out of the public view.

What do we women do when we encounter a Queen Bee? Here are some thoughts:

  • If the Queen Bee is your direct manager, the best advice is to find a new boss. She is not likely to change or to find more confidence. Save yourself a significant amount of effort and time, and find a boss who will support you.
  • When this is not possible, find ways to support her without threatening her status. This is part of the technique called “managing up.” For example, before presenting something to a larger group, be sure to first run it by her and then to give her some of the credit when presenting it (one assumes she will have added a contribution when you run it by her).
  • When the Queen Bee is not your direct manager, but you need to interact with her, always be professional and do your best to develop a relationship with her. Where there is trust, she will not, most of the time, undermine you.

Women will only get to the top levels of our organizations in large numbers when we are able to recognize that when we support each other in the workplace, we all win.

As a reminder, Queen Bees are not the norm. There are fewer and fewer of them in the workplace, to the point that there are studies showing that their number is quantifiably insignificant. Until they are all gone, however, we need to continue to educate ourselves on this.

Have you experienced a Queen Bee? What techniques did you use to help navigate this situation? Please be sure to share.

As always, stay positive, and have a great day!

Bloomers, Toxic Masculinity and the First Female Buddy-Cops – Feminism Served Three Ways

Cagney and Lacey – Season 1

In the last few weeks, I’ve come across some fascinating sources on feminism. I am avidly curious, and these various sources represent some of the diverse directions my curiosity takes me. One is a news story, one is a podcast, and the last is a 1980’s tv show. All of these have the common thread of looking at the struggles women face in society today, especially as they try to negotiate the world of men.

The first is a story from Slate.com that came across my news feed recently. It is a story of a woman from a local town who, in 1820, shocked her entire town and in turn the nation by showing up at church on her bicycle wearing her bright red bloomers. The story is cute and amusing, and was published in part as a response to the current uproar in the media around women wearing leggings to church.

This attention on the wardrobe and body of women is not uncommon. Not long ago, the women of Hollywood revolted against this, discussing the problems with the focus on “who” the female actors were wearing rather than discussing their next projects or their current achievements. There has been backlash against school dress codes that limit girls and not boys.

Many times, the need for these restrictive dress codes, as in the case of the current discussion on leggings, is unfortunately put in terms of how the clothing affects the men in the situation. In the recent ‘leggings letter,’ the mother writes, “I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings.”

As many people have responded, it isn’t the girls who need to solve the problem. It is the boys themselves, and society that supports the notion that men and boys just can’t help themselves. We would all do well to do as the preacher did in the 1820s – support the women in their decision to wear what they want to wear.

The second resource is a podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University entitled Scene on Radio. From July through December of 2018, they produced a series called Men, looking at the gender issue through the lens of what it means to be a man.

The entire series is a must-hear for everyone. Over a series of twelve episodes, they cover everything from the history of how patriarchy developed (spoiler alert: cavemen didn’t drag women by their hair!) to an important audio essay of a father interviewing his preteen son on homophobia at school.

I enjoy the discussions that put our current thinking on its head. For example, the host John Biewen shares, “Even within American culture, some of our ideas have completely flipped over time. A few examples: the Puritans thought women were the hornier gender. Most people would not say that today. Cheerleading started out as a guy thing. And a hundred years ago, Ladies Home Journal recommended blue clothing for girls and pink for boys, saying blue was more dainty, and pink the stronger color.”

Another fascinating story he shares concerns the drawings of skeletons in the mid-1700s (episode 3). This was the first time detailed drawings were being made of the female skeleton. For some reason, the drawing that became most popular was an inaccurate drawing produced by a French female scientist showing a skull that was much smaller than the male version, and a pelvis that was much bigger. In reality, there is very little difference between the skull sizes of men and women, and the pelvis is nowhere near as large as shown in the drawing. The drawing, however, was not corrected and taught in anatomy and physiology classrooms for a very long time.

One of the most fascinating episodes is #7. It is almost hard to listen to, but critical that we consider what is going on here. In this episode, a woman who was sexually assaulted examines the reactions of her friends and family to the episode. It is eye-opening, scary, and absolutely real. In this current world of #metoo, it is ever more important that we examine our reactions to these occurrences.

The third resource is just plain fun. I happened to come across the first season of Cagney and Lacey on Amazon Prime the other day. In the first season, only 6 episodes long, and aired in 1982, Meg Foster plays the role of Det. Cagney. She was replaced by Sharon Gless for the rest of the show’s run.

In that first season, one of the major themes in each episode is Cagney’s battle against the gender differences in the police force. In one episode, the women are excluded from a baby shower for one of the male detective’s wives. They are told the reason for their exclusion is potential jealousy on the part of the wives. They show up anyway, of course, and their appearance causes exactly the uproar their husband’s were concerned about.

Another episode, Cagney and Lacey are tasked with providing security for a prominent woman who was a vocal critic of the Equal Rights Amendment. This character says, “[I believe] that every American women has the right to be a full time wife and mother and not be forced to work outside the home.” Throughout the episode, the characters grapple with their opposing views, with the female cops, in the end, saving the life of their charge by using their unique skills of connecting with the would-be murderer. Perhaps having women on the force wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

These three resources are fun, interesting, and educational, and are all ways of understanding the difficulty women face trying to find their place outside of the home. I encourage you to take a look at all of these. Should you have other resources to share, please do so here! I’d love to know about them, and perhaps share them in a later post.

Please also consider subscribing to this blog by entering your email in the form on this page. That way you don’t miss out on a single post.

As always, keep it positive! Have a great day!

Next-level Diversity – 6 Ideas for What Companies Can Do Next

Diversity can be a puzzling issue to deal with. Even defining what diversity means can be problematic and fraught with missteps, over-simplifications, and mistakes. Lately, I have heard many business leaders describe the diversity they seek as “differences not just in the obvious ways, but also diversity of background, experience, perspective, all of those types of things.”

I have been doing a heavy load of interviewing as I am currently in a job search. I always ask the question (because it is important to me) about diversity in the workplace. Most companies, after using the quote above, will then point me to their Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and will occasionally share the names of some senior level individuals who are African-American or female. 

None of this is bad. In fact, the many accomplishments these ERGs and senior executives have made are impressive. The support the companies put behind them comes through in the sometimes staggering number of ERGs or in the types of programming they put on. For example, at one company I noted that a well-known national thought leader on women’s empowerment had been invited to speak at an ERG event.

This is all good news. Companies need diversity these days. Study after study have shown that diverse companies are more successful than their less diverse counterparts. And with the world itself becoming more diverse, it is in every company’s best interest to mirror their customers.

What I want now is something more than companies have been offering up to now. I am anxious for the next generation of diversity initiatives. More of the same just won’t cut it anymore. Here are just a couple ideas companies should explore next:

  1. Bring up the pride the company has in diversity without a candidate, investor, customer, or partner having to ask. Perhaps display a picture of the current Board of Directors or Senior Leadership Team that reflects that pride. Really any statistic that would help illustrate this would be welcome.
  2. Add a chair on the Board of Directors to be filled by a representative of the ERGs. This person would be responsible for ensuring the voices of the minority groups are included in any high-level company decisions. I can imagine that this might make some executives uncomfortable, but if the company is doing it right, there are already highly qualified diversity candidates at the highest levels that can serve in this roll.
  3. Involve the ERGs in real business problem solving. I can only imagine the incredible results if these diverse groups brought their talents to bear on, say, a new marketing campaign, the product development process, or on a customer service issue that needs to be solved. Plus, the experience and exposure that these individuals would receive being a part of such a project nearly makes me giddy.
  4. Develop a flexible holiday schedule, allowing associates to take off work on the days most important to them. Many companies have switched to flexible days for sick and vacation, lumping them in together. This just takes it one step further to include holidays.
  5. Share how you are specifically developing programs to help diverse employees throughout the organization to move up the ladder and how you support them at crucial points in their careers. With women, for example, there is a significant danger of them opting out as they move up the corporate ladder. What has the company done to keep this from happening? What programs have been explored? There are similar issues with other groups at various levels.
  6. Hire a diverse candidate to be CEO. There is certainly no better way to show the company’s commitment to diversity than to show it starts at the top. I’ve seen several companies point to the level just below the CEO as an example of diversity. Although this is wonderful to see, this is no longer enough.

I am certain there are other ways companies could show their next level commitment to diversity. What ideas do you have? What has your company done in this arena so far? What has worked? What hasn’t worked? I would love to hear your thoughts!

As always, keep it positive! Have a great day!

Women in Leadership – A Question of Ambition

This article is part of a series based on the research described in the doctoral dissertation by Dr. Melinda G. Hubbard where she studied why women continue to face challenges reaching the top level of organizational leadership.

I had a colleague say to me, during a heated debate on the question of equality in the workplace, “If women wanted to be at the top, they would be there.” You might guess, and you would be correct, that this colleague was a white male who was over the age of 55. At first, you might be like me, and simply dismiss him out of turn as a product of his generation, as ridiculous as he sounded and not worth the time and effort to even consider.

This particular colleague, however, was a highly educated man, and a person I respected greatly, so I decided to give him a chance to explain himself. What he said was intriguing and worth discussing.

What he then went on to describe was the seemingly endless number of executive women, who, having reached a certain level, seemed to disappear from the corporate landscape. Some quick online research of our mutual acquaintances showed that some of them had moved to a new company (clearly only disappearing from our landscape). Some of them had left to open their own businesses. Some we knew had left to take care of children or parents. Some had left to do something entirely different.

There is some research on this – the act of ‘opting-out.’ In fact, over the last several years there have been several sensational articles in the press about this phenomenon and the popularity of it among women leaders. The original article was written by Lisa Belkin in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine. In this article, Belkin interviews women who opted out to do something completely different, largely raising their children, giving up on successful careers and expensive educations. Subsequent articles build from here, though, showing that there is much, much more to this opting-out.

Was it a by-product of the glass ceiling? Was it fatigue from fighting a battle they were unlikely to win? Or fatigue from playing by rules that made no sense to them? Or was it, as my colleague suggested, a question of ambition?

Do women really want to lead?

I’ll save you the suspense. The answer is clearly and overwhelmingly, YES. Women want to be successful. Women want to be in charge. Women want to get ahead. Women want to lead. In study after study, researchers have shown that in professions across the board, from judges to scientists to sales professionals to academics that women have just as much, if not more, ambition than men. They want to lead, they want to be successful, they want to get ahead.

In my research study completed for my doctoral dissertation, I urged the women I interviewed to discuss their ambitions for the future. In only one case did I have a woman suggest that she was not interested in continuing to move up the corporate ladder. And the reasons that one woman gave were incredibly interesting in and of themselves. She felt that she would not be adequately supported if she were to move up, and so desired to stay in the role she had.

The rest of the women I spoke with, and the data I collected quantitatively, all reaffirm what the previous researchers have shown: Women are not lacking in ambition. Women want to lead.

This article is the first in a series. In future articles I will explore some of the reasons both my research and the research of others offer for the lack of women in the highest level positions. We will cover personal traits of women leaders, the current corporate environment and social forces that may keep women back or cause women to ‘opt-out.’ Stay tuned!

As always, stay positive!

Women’s groups – why we need them

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I’ve had a couple conversations in recent days regarding the existence of women’s groups. They are everywhere these days – I even belong to several of them. I am on the steering committee for WINGs, Women Investing in the Next Generation, a circle of women giving to the United Way at recognized levels. I am on the board of directors of the Zonta Club of Cincinnati, a branch of Zonta International, a global women’s philanthropy organization. I am a member of the women’s affinity group here at my work. Clearly, I have bought into the idea.

Let me first discuss two objections to these groups. I’ve been presented with many of them, and I want to give them some space and some thought. All of these were presented to me by rational, kind-hearted individuals, so I believe they deserve some exploration.

First, the claim is that these groups are exclusive, and not inclusive. If what we really want is an inclusive society or workplace, why would we support an exclusive organization? On the absolute top surface of it, I understand why the people putting forth this objection have this issue. We are working for an inclusive society/workplace, and these are exclusive organizations. There are important reasons why we have to do this, and we’ll get to these reasons later.

Second, I’ve heard more than once, as I head out to one of my meetings, “You headed to one of your man-hater clubs?” Most of the time this is said in jest, but as we all know, there is always a kernel of truth in every joke. For some reason, there is an expectation that if we have an all-women’s group the focus must on our hatred of men. How surprised would they be to hear that the subject never, ever comes up.

So to answer these objections, why do we need these groups?

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is a story that I am sure has been replayed in just about every home with children in America. It happened in my childhood home – and I was the culprit. Frustrated with my Mom for making me get dressed and go out on a picnic that did not cater to my 9-year-old desire to stay inside and read (yes, I was one of those kinds of kids), just to celebrate Father’s Day, I screamed, “Why do we have to celebrate Father’s Day? We don’t ever celebrate Kid’s day!” My Mom looked at me and said, quite sternly, “Every single day is Kids day! We have to pick one special day just to remember how much we love our Dads.”

In the simplest terms, this is exactly why we need women’s groups. In our society today, and in many of our workplaces, every committee is a men’s committee, every group is a men’s group. Just as “kids days” don’t exclude adults, so too do most “men’s” groups not specifically exclude women. However, because the default is men, we must do something special, something separate to recognize women.

It goes beyond recognition, however. Women need a place to feel safe, to explore the unique experience of being female in the corporate world. There are many academic studies out there that show that there is a dearth of women in leadership roles. This is not because women do not wish to hold leadership positions, but rather it is due to a complex web of organizational factors that hold women back.

Let me give a rather simple example. A young woman is at a company function. A man, senior to her in the company, says “You look fantastic!” as he stares directly into her cleavage. Now, she has a choice. Does she report this or not? I discussed this precise predicament in a previous post. But now lets say that she is part of a women’s employee resource group. She now has access to resources. She has an outlet to explore her options, and get feedback on possible actions. She understands that she isn’t alone, that it wasn’t her fault, and that she has other women backing her up, and helping her through.

I truly believe that most men and women understand the need for women’s groups, but I also know there are some men out there, and possibly women, who need some additional help understanding why these organizations continue to exist and thrive. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunities these organizations have given me to invest in my community, my workplace, and myself. I will continue to participate and support these organizations and the incredible women that are involved in them.

Do you have any experiences you would share about being involved in a women’s group? How have they helped you?

As always, keep it positive and smile! Happy Monday!

Labels: One way to think about them

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Last week I participated in the Truth Rebellion (#thetruthrebellion), an Instagram campaign led by @ashley.beaudin, the leader of The Imperfect Boss (www.theimperfectboss.com). The idea was to examine labels we, as women, carry around with us, given to us by others, that do not accurately represent our truths. By visibly striking that word and replacing it with a word that does define us, we step into our power and take back our control.

This ‘assigning’ of labels can happen in the workplace as often as it happens in our private lives. We often let our workplaces, our bosses, our coworkers place labels and expectations on us that are not our own. I spoke of this in a previous post. I want to be careful to differentiate between expectations about job performance, and expectations around who we are as individuals. These are two different things. My boss is absolutely allowed to expect certain things of me for the price of my paycheck. What he/she cannot do is define who I am or who I want to be.

Some of my favorite word pairs I saw in the several hundred posts include unworthy which became worthy, limited became limitless, failure became risk-taker, naïve became ready to bloom, and loud became voice of truth. Stubborn became strong, busy became productive,  too quiet became good listener, bossy became leader, and reckless became fearless. These are such empowering ways to reframe words that were given to us in an attempt to name our limits, and turn them into words we give ourselves, naming our potential.

My word was emotional. Here at work, well meaning individuals, along with those who perhaps did not have my best interest at heart, have told me I am too expressive, too dramatic, that I wear everything on my sleeve. I have had many conversations with bosses over the years, bosses I have loved and respected, along with those who, to put it mildly, I did not love and respect, where they patiently explain to me that I need to ‘calm down’ and ‘hold back.’

In the next breath, these same individuals will praise my drive and ability to push for what is important. While they ‘do not want to stifle that’ (like they could!), they’d like to see me – what? Perfect my poker face? I suppose that is what it is. Perhaps they are right. Professional presence is important, and personal branding is a big deal. But here is the problem – up until now, I have let them define me. I have let them pick the word. I have given away the power to use what I am to my advantage.

So here is the truth – I am PASSIONATE. I will fight for what I believe is right, and I am not afraid to speak up. When I am delighted, I love to celebrate, and to share that delight with everyone around me. When I am inspired, I want to bring others along with me. When I am shocked or disappointed, I believe others should know that, and you will see that in me. I am professional in the way I express all of this, and I am appropriate and controlled in my responses. But there is never any mistake on which side of an issue I fall.

Today I reject the idea that I am emotional, and embrace the idea that I am passionate.

What words do you reject? What do you claim in their place? Please share!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Happy Monday!

Leaders – Beware of inherent bias

discrimination

Inherent bias is an insidious beast. Inherent bias is the opinions and judgement we each hold deep within ourselves that are a result of our upbringing, our environment, and our experiences. Many times these biases are not explicit. Many times we may not even realize we have them. This is what makes them especially dangerous.

Think about the last time you sat in a public place. Maybe a restaurant, an airport, a ballgame. Think about the people you saw there and what you thought about them. Chances are you only had a fraction of a second to observe them, but in that time you made all kinds of assumptions about that person. At the restaurant, was it a couple on a first date? An interview? A family celebration? At the airport, did you notice how tired a businessman was, or how excited a family was, or how differently people are dressed at the gates for a flight to Seattle versus L.A. versus Milwaukee?

This is not a bad thing – we are programmed to be alert to danger and to act quickly when confronted with it. The problem is when these biases are invoked in inappropriate situations, such as in the hiring decision of a new associate, or the determination of who will be promoted.

There are many studies out there that look at this inherent bias and have proven that it exists. Check out Project Implicit to see some of what might be hiding in your subconscious. Be prepared for some startling results! A study by Corrine Moss-Racusin shows that hiring managers make significant judgement based solely on the name a top of the resume.  “John” has a much higher degree of hireability than “Jennifer”. Another study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan shows that the same is true when comparing “white” names to “black” names. You can guess who scores more interviews.

So what do we do about this? First and foremost, we must acknowledge that this exists, and work to understand how our own inherent biases are affecting our judgement. We need to examine our decisions to be sure we have accounted for these biases. Then, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.

The next time you are in any type of position to make a decision involving the choice of one person over another, I challenge you to stop and consider how you are making this decision. Be sure you have not discounted (or over-emphasized) someone for traits unrelated to the job at hand. This is one way we can all work toward a more equitable workplace for everyone.

Good luck, happy Wednesday, and keep it positive and smile!