"We Would Never Penalize a Woman Like That"
I have had several conversations recently with male leaders that have been a bit maddening. Maddening because they get right to core of how hard it is to shift the gender equity paradigm in the workplace.
I’ll share three with you here….
In the first, I was describing to a male leader a work environment that held high-achieving women back from promotion if they took maternity leave, because they needed to see a consistent track record of performance without interruption - and maternity leave was considered interruption. As a result these women were held back by as long as 2 years - more if they had another child before promotion. The man replied immediately by saying his company would never penalize a woman like that. And yet his company offers no paid maternity leave to its employees, and anyone who works less than full time has no path to promotion.
Another leader, who is an active, public supporter of advancing women, told me he believed women made the choice to end their careers when they chose to have a baby. Never mind that men cannot make the choice to give birth instead of the woman. Or that same sex couples have babies, and some people choose to adopt or use a surrogate. It was a black and white issue to him.
And finally, I had a senior man insist that he and his firm tried hard to recruit women but no good candidates were interested. His firm is all male. When I asked how he and his colleagues recruit he said they reach out to their network of friends through their business network and their country club. No active effort to reach past the familiar.
Of course, hearing comments like these this can make you want to yell, get in people’s faces or tell them to just get out of the way. But it is totally counterproductive to do so. And if you are a woman you can end up feeding into the fear that any woman doing gender parity work is a man-hater deep down.
These are examples of classic unconscious bias in action. All of these men were active in meetings and events to advance women. They said they want to do right by women and I believed them to really mean that. They truly do not recognize that their assumptions are part of what is creating the problem. So this is an opportunity for education, not in a preachy way, but in a way that helps them see on their own how they need to change.
When you are faced with this pushback, step closer. Ask questions. Listen. Brainstorm with that person how to make it better. It is an opportunity to start a spark that can begin authentic change.