This title might suggest that I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But they are all pieces of the same puzzle. Lately, my Twitter feed and real life both have been full of commentary on the state of gender equality. This has become important to me. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, it has impacted my life – I see the inequality everywhere. Unfortunately, it is not a simple problem to solve.
Sheryl Sandberg tells us to lean in. Ann Marie Slaughter says women can’t have it all. Many others talk about breaking glass ceilings, a lack of women in leadership roles at large companies, and all the things women must do to keep themselves and others from holding them back. But much of this discussion has been by women, for women. So it was with relief that I read It’s Not the ‘Confidence Gap’by Elizabeth Plank, which talked about how this is a societal problem, not just a problem for women. And I firmly agree. If we don’t start addressing these things as cultural issues rather than women’s issues, we’re not going to get very far. Still, here’s yet another woman talking about this. There are far too few men speaking out about how they have too few women peers.
Not Just Women’s Issues
Everyone needs to do better. It’s not just about telling women to have confidence, it’s about men AND women supporting that confidence and creating an environment that is safe for everyone to excel and lead. Women can do as much damage to the cause as men – there can be a bit of competition among female leaders. Instead of welcoming other women to the top of whatever ladder they have climbed, they sometimes push them away. This is partly because some women can be very catty, but partly because there can be a feeling that there is only room at the top for so many women. That attitude has to stop. Men can help create a safe and welcoming environment so that women can nurture each other instead of competing for a limited number of positions. A woman needs to feel safe to be a woman, and not a man in a dress and heels.
But it doesn’t start at the top, it starts at the bottom. We can’t solve this issue of having too few women represented in the C-suite, as speakers at conferences, and in other leadership roles by having explicit quotas for women in these positions. In some fields the percentage of men vs. women in careers leans heavily towards more men. In those cases, we cannot expect to have 50% of the people in top positions, speaking at conferences, or being role models for girls and young professionals. Ultimately,the problem is that there are too few women to choose from in the first place. We need to find ways to make these fields more evenly split between male and female so that we can get to the point where we have just as many women at the top of these fields as we have men.
Women cannot solve the gender inequality problem themselves. Men have an important role to play too. Men can be mentors and sponsors to women. They can speak up when they see sexist behavior in others and seek out women who have leadership potential and encourage them. When men and women both recognize patterns that have allowed gender equality to persist, we can start to make changes. Neither men nor women can do it alone. There has been plenty of writing and discussion by women for women. It’s time for the discussion to include both men and women. One place this is happening is at Bentley University’s Center for Women & Business, which recently published Engaging Men to Advance Women in Business, the first in a series of pieces “on how men in positions of organizational power and influence can help advance women to create a more balanced business model for future success.”
What can you do? Whether you’re a man or a women, you can’t sit idly by and hope that someone else will solve the problem of gender inequality in the workplace. Be more cognizant of your behavior and take steps to rectify the things you do to perpetuate the problem. Go beyond complaining. DO SOMETHING. For example, instead of simply letting women or girls you know opt out or lean away from traditionally male professions or male behavior, ask “why.” And don’t accept “it’s too hard” or “there are no other girls/women” as an answer. Even if you are not someone who aspires to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the keynote speaker at a major conference, encourage and support your peers who do, and especially the women. In our current environment, women need all the support and encouragement they can get to become leaders. Let’s create the environment our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews need to move beyond this inequality. If we try hard enough, maybe we can even make it better for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, husbands and wives.