We Don’t Get Any Closer to Gender Equality When Men are Walking on Eggshells.
By Jessica Gendron, President
There I was, wandering the halls of a large convention center, looking for a small board room for my first meeting of an Education Task Force I had been asked to join. I was nervous. Not because I doubted my expertise or skills, but because I would be the only woman in the group…ever. This group had already been working together for several years and it has always been all men. I knew many of the men on the task force and had worked with them on prior occasions, however, never in a group environment. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to me. I wasn’t sure how honest or opinionated I would be able to be. I wasn’t sure how awkward it be as they all navigated around saying what they wanted to say in the way they wanted to say it – without offending me.
I walked into the room and they looked at me like I was an alien teleported to earth. I had a brief moment of fear, not because I felt inadequate or under-qualified to be in the room, but maybe I had toothpaste on my face? Perhaps I had spilled coffee on my shirt? Their weird looks quickly turned into warm smiles and greetings, after all, I knew these men and they asked me to join the task force for my expertise.
We sat down and got to work talking about the history of the task force, goals of the group, and expectations. The chair then asked if anyone else had anything to add, expectations wise. I sat forward in my chair and said:
“Listen, I know that I am the only woman in the group and I know you all are good people, but let’s not make this awkward because I’m a girl. Be yourselves. Say what you want to say in the way that you want to say it. I don’t want you to feel like we have to be guarded here. We have an audacious goal and we don’t have time for you all to tiptoe around me because I’m female. You can challenge me. We can disagree. You can curse. You’re not going to offend me.”
It was like I instantly let the pressure out of the room. The chair thanked me for addressing it and everyone took a big exhale of relief. I believe our group was so much more successful because I gave them permission to be themselves around “the girl”.
But what’s the point here?
I know there are countless men in the workplace that want to treat women fairly and equitably. They want to be allies, but they don’t know how; They’re afraid to screw it up and look dumb or insensitive in the process. So out of fear, they tiptoe around us. They walk on eggshells afraid to have a conversation, ask a question, or even say the wrong thing.
[Unpopular opinion] The #MeToo movement hasn’t helped women advance, either. I won’t debate the merits of the campaign, the progress we’ve seen, or its impact on countless women, myself included, when it comes to assault and harassment. However, it’s also had a backlash, where many men now operate from a place of fear, avoidance, and caution around female colleagues and employees. As a result, we’re excluded from more conversations, left out of important working groups, and miss out on important one-on-one facetime with male leaders.
That doesn’t help our cause. This doesn’t get us closer to gender equality.
I think we’ve got to let the pressure out of the room a little. Men don’t learn how to be better allies for women in the workplace if we don’t allow them to screw up and then have open conversations with them about how they do things and say things differently. Men tiptoe around us because we’ve put ourselves on different teams; Like a schoolyard game of tag – where we’re constantly trying to catch each other “off base”.
Men and women have to start being on the same team.
Ladies, we have to give a little bit more grace to the men in the workplace [this may also be an unpopular opinion]. We have to help coach them on how to be better allies, call them out when they’re wrong, and help them understand how to do better. We can’t just wait for the opportunities to nail them to the wall for operating like a guy always has.
There were countless times in the task force that the men would look at me to make sure I was okay with something that was said. When I wasn’t, I made a comment, but most of the time I was fine with it. We have to help our male colleagues learn where the line is – FOR EACH OF US. We have to stop expecting men to be allies for women, if we’re not going to be their ally in learning how.
Men, you have to stop operating from fear and avoidance. I know that most of you are good and well-intentioned, but you’re scared to say something stupid that will make women hate you – or worse – get you fired. You have to work to find female allies in the workplace who are willing to help you learn where the line is, what’s acceptable, and what’s not. It’s not fair to just tiptoe around us, exclude us from meetings and conversations because it’s easier. We’re working hard over here to advance, but we need your help and allyship. We need to you wade in the mud with us.
Overall, we all have to take responsibility to create equitable workplaces. The truth is that change doesn’t happen if everyone continues to live in their comfort zone. Change only happens when people are willing to get uncomfortable, to suck at something new. That means that the journey toward gender equality and equity in the workplace should make all of us uncomfortable. If we’re not uncomfortable we’re probably not trying hard enough. We have to stop tiptoeing, but we also have to give each other permission to fail forward. We have to be on the same team on the journey. We have to be willing to be allies to each other as we create safer, more respectful, more inclusive, and more equitable workplaces for everyone.
Let’s be brave enough to suck at it. Let’s be brave enough to do something new. Let’s be brave enough to stop walking on eggshells and start blazing new trails.