Gender at Work

THE BIRD OF HUMANITY HAS TWO WINGS

The founder of the Baha’i faith is quoted as saying:

“The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly.”

I love this quote, but it’s a bit outdated since it was written in the early 1900s. Today we might say that the bird of humanity also has a lot of non-binary feathers that play a critical role in flight. We’re all part of the same bird.

Lifting up women everywhere and strengthening their presence in the halls of power is necessary to stabilize the bird of humanity and help us all move forward together.

Another necessary part of “stabilizing the bird” is to encourage the “male wing” to use some different muscles and re-imagine what masculinity can be.

I’ve been co-leading a men’s group since 2018 and men’s work has been an important part of my ongoing personal development. Men’s work has allowed me to expand my emotional range and resilience. It’s also expanded my range and depth in my one-on-one coaching and team transformation work.

Men have work to do to help shift how we work.

HOW WE TALK IS HOW WE WORK

How we talk is how we live, relate… and how we work.

Conversations are the smallest, atomic unit of change.

In my book, Good Talk, I identified 9 elements of conversation dynamics that, when shifted, can change how conversations work. In this essay, I’ll share a few of these key elements and ways to reimagine them to create more gender-balanced and productive conversations at work.

There’s work that women-identifying folks can do to shift how conversations work (and I’ll share some strategies below), work that all leaders of any gender identity can do… but men also need to do their own work, on themselves.

Let’s say that again: it’s not on women to shift how conversations work at work. There are strategies below to help…but men have a lot of work to do, starting with themselves.

I’ll give you a personal example: I rather like feeling smart.

Not having an answer to an important question is frustrating. I get impatient.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Very few people come to me and say:

“I’d like to get my team to have longer meetings, with less-clear outcomes.”

Sitting in the mystery isn’t really the flavor of the 21st century.

Why?

In my own experience, I noticed that being smart, clever and having the right answer was an easy way to get approval from my father at the dinner table.

Good grades were rewarded. Slacking grades were a disappointment.

Verbal jousting was the family pastime.

Being silent and reflective was a value, too, but not in a conversation — being first off the blocks got you points.

My pre-teen brain imprinted the lesson:

“talking first = good,

listening = not as good”.

“Knowing = good,

uncertainty = not so good.”

I don’t think I’m alone in this, either.

Agility, Design thinking, Sprints, and structured facilitation all offer the promise of better results in less time and all are very, very popular things to train a team on, all for good reason.

Wondering, wandering, asking why, and pumping the brakes aren’t quite as flashy and popular, which is a bummer.

A few years back I interviewed my friend Kai Hailey, then the head of the Sprint Leaders Academy at Google, on my podcast. The Sprint is a key part of Google’s startup culture and helps them move quickly.

Sprints are about helping teams and organizations move faster…but Kai is passionate about slowing down, too. Why? To make sure we’re all heading in the right direction and to consider the long-term impacts and ethics of our products and services.

I think we all suffer from “go go go” disease… but I think that men have a unique role in the creation of this situation… and in transforming it.

MEN’S WORK AND THE MAN BOX

Men need to learn to listen more deeply.

Men need to learn to listen more deeply to women.

Men need to learn to listen more deeply to other men.

And Men need to learn to listen more deeply to ourselves — to recognize, deeply feel and process our emotions with other men — and discover a broader range of capacities….in other words, we need to get out of the “man box”.

When I look at Jennifer Armbrust’s diagrams of the qualities of a masculine economy and a feminine economy, I feel a much greater pull to the feminine economy!

The Man Box is a rigid set of expectations and perceptions of what is “manly” behavior.

We tell boys to “stop crying” instead of “It’s okay to feel sad.”

We tell boys “be brave” instead “I understand that you feel scared.”

Because no man perfectly fits the description, all men are limited by hegemonic masculinity through policing of behaviors seen as “violations” (Edwards & Jones, 2009).

Men are constantly pushing each other to get back in the man box.

Just google “toxic masculinity” if you need a reminder of what men pushing each other back into the Man Box gets us.

You could also google “mass firing over zoom” to see why men need to learn new modes of being — not just in their lives, but at work.

The future of work requires masculinity to find comfort in new ways of being.

MEN WHO ARE FORCEFUL ARE “LEADERS”. WOMEN WHO ARE FORCEFUL ARE HYSTERICAL.

… so we are taught.

Dominance, power, and strength have historically been seen as “male” traits, after all. In fact, there is ample evidence that women are punished for acting too “bossy” or being “pushy”.

Similarly, historically “feminine” behaviors, like vulnerability, collaboration, caring, connection and empathy are not deeply cultivated or encouraged in men.

If a man leans too far in that direction, you’ll get pushed back into the Man Box with accusations of being “too soft” or a “sissy.”

In order for the bird of humanity to shift, in order for new modes of holistic leadership to thrive, men have to step into new ways of working… and to do their own emotional work.

Stepping out of the Man-Box

Men coming together to see each other, and to be seen, to feel deeply and to slow down is a radical act against the norms of masculinity — learning to feel other emotions besides anger and to accept each other as we are, instead of policing each other back into the Man Box.

At one point every man has felt like he wasn’t enough.

Men’s work is just about being mindful and relating intentionally with other people who identify as men, to allow ourselves to just be, together…to stop policing each other and start supporting each other as whole persons. Men…if you’re reading this: Join a men’s group!

GENDER AT WORK: HEDGING, MANSPLAINING AND MANSPREADING

Some people still reading this might actually doubt the proposition that gender affects conversations at all.

Sigh.

Women tend to use what Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works, calls “Disclaimers, hedges and tag questions.”

Power is a fundamental element of conversations, and disclaimers push power away from the speaker:

“You might have thought of this, but…”

Tags like “I hope to” hedge against the appearance of boasting, or to lessen the appearance of power grabbing.

“I hope I can generate some ideas for your project…”

If you want to see what this kind of hedging taken to the absurd maximum looks like, enjoy this instagram reel.

In Western culture, speaking directly and bluntly is seen as powerful and “masculine.”

Women are punished for taking on so-called masculine traits. When they do, men and women describe so-called masculine women as unlikable or “bossy.”

On the other hand, any grammar checker will tell you to take out extra words and the passive voice from your communications:

I think…
I feel like…
It would be great if…
Should be able to…
Basically…

Every leader or manager wants teammates who can say what is really going on — this is the essence of psychological safety. The cost of women feeling like they can’t be direct and own their own knowledge, insight and power is real, from inside a surgery room or a board room or a zoom room.

Ladies: Don’t hedge! Say what you know, and stand in your power!

Dudes: Learn to deal with powerful ladies!

MANSPLAINING ANTIDOTES

1. AMPLIFICATION

2. THREADING

In meetings, women commonly report getting their ideas “mansplained” back to them. This can lead female-identifying people to speak less (what’s the point, after all!?), and hold feelings of frustration and resentment.

Sometimes comments spoken by women are not taken seriously until a man agrees with them, and often men will wind up, in essence, stealing a woman’s ideas — running with them, without any attribution to their source, which can affect the promotion of females, equality of pay scales and the retention of a diverse workforce.

Quite a cascade of effects from one conversation.

This asymmetric gender dynamic happened even inside the Obama White House. Female staffers, who comprised only one third of the staff, had to work to be heard. Frustrated, they began a strategy they called amplification, leveraging two fundamental elements of conversation: Threading (the weaving of conversational narratives) and Turn-taking (being mindful of who speaks when).

Whenever a woman made a key point in a meeting, other women would intentionally repeat it, while giving credit to its author. If a man tried to adapt or co-opt the idea, the female staffers would continue to re-attribute the idea and re-amplify it, bringing the thread of the conversation back to the original sharer.

This careful use of threading and turn-taking left little room for the men to ignore the women’s contributions. The female staffers also seemed to be mindfully leveraging another element of conversations, Error & Repair, by not bothering to attribute malice to the men’s actions or by calling them out or blaming them. They just used turn-taking and threading to fix the imbalance.

Like pouring clear water into muddy water, slowly, the consistent application of this “amplification” strategy delivered clear results.

Not only did the Washington Post report on this strategy, apparently, Obama seemed to notice the shift, and began calling on women more often in meetings. Also, during Obama’s second term women gained parity with men in Obama’s inner circle.

MANSPREADING ANTIDOTES

3. TIMEBOXING

4. TURN-TAKING STRUCTURES

Manspreading usually refers to the wide-legged habits of male commuters — taking up more than one butt’s-width of bench space on a train or bus.

Manspreading exists in conversations, too.

Many “traditional men” would assume that “traditional women” are more talkative…but some research shows that men talk more than women (especially in groups) and that when they take a turn, they speak for longer. In a now-classic study, Barbara and Gene Eakins recorded seven university faculty meetings. They found that, with one exception, the men at the meeting spoke more often and, without exception, spoke longer.

The longest comment by a woman at all seven gatherings
was shorter than the shortest comment by a man.

Read that once more and let it sink in.

Yikes. Not cool, guys!

This manspreading problem is easy to fix, though.

Don’t yell at the talkative dudes.

Don’t get an Elmo doll.

Get out a timer.

It can feel like you’re making your meetings more mechanical, and less natural…but the “natural” way of meeting isn’t working.

Calling on women first in lectures has been shown to balance the levels of gender participation but these kinds of policies have gotten some backlash.

I recommend hearing from *each* person in a meeting for a few short minutes on whatever question, challenge or problem the group is gathering to resolve. Giving people a moment to think or journal on the topic will deliver even better results.

If that adds up to too much time, your meeting is too big, or you have scoped too little time for real conversation.

TLDR: Set up structures that ensure equal airtime for all!

Don’t get caught up in berating offenders, build systems of equitable participation.

Who knew that the most powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy was a timer?

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Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of theconversationfactory.com and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.