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Eavesdropping on Men Talking About Women

“Geez, she is SO ambitious! Asking for a raise so forcefully? That takes balls!” said Jerry. Mike, Steve and Dave all chimed in with similar comments…but more crude and graphic. Standing on the sidelines, stunned, Eli finally interrupted. “What are you guys talking about!! Aren’t you ambitious? Haven’t you demanded a raise? What is wrong with you?” Dave spoke for the group, “Yeah, but that’s different.”

Five men and one woman are having a succession planning discussion. The topic is a female VP in line for bigger opportunities. Her male SVP says, “She has turned the business around, she’s a great developer of talent and she brings great management into the department.” A series of Yes, But questions and remarks follow from people who have less contact with her. The male CEO finally concludes, “Look, I’ll grant that she is smart and talented but I just don’t see her as a strong, fire in the belly type leader. We are too executive top heavy. I want her gone.” The lone woman picks her jaw off the table and says, “Are you kidding me? She turned around a part of our business, she gets great results, people are lining up to work for her. How can you go from all that to let’s get rid of her?” The CEO was firm, “I don’t get her style.”

I’ve got tons more where those came from. All true. All recent. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again…women are not the problem. Traditional thinking men are the issue. Women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So all you good men out there, here’s how you can help change your organization’s culture.

  • Speak up. Consistently challenge outdated and sexist views of women…especially when they come out of the mouths of your male colleagues. Don’t be the silent bystander. Silence is viewed as agreement. Stand out from the gang.
  • Actively and vigorously advocate for talented women. Even if you are not a superior broadcast the accomplishments of your female colleagues. Women are not inclined to boast so your public kudos can have an impact. If you are in promotion discussions and you notice that the usual male suspects are the ones being considered, voice your strong confidence in a few women. Change the dynamic of the conversation.
  • Always insist on a diverse slate of candidates in hiring situations. Keep the process open until you have strong female (for that matter, people of color) contenders. Never, ever be content with a cast of white men. You may recall, there are “binders full of great women” candidates out there.
  • Listen, really listen, to a woman’s point of view. Although there is now much science to validate this, we all know that men and women think differently. Resist your urge to be expedient and take the time to hear a woman’s perspective. You’ll be amazed at the holistic and nuanced ideas that can lead to better decisions for the company.
  • Get outside of the all-male bubble. Whether it is on the golf course or drinks after work or key meetings…make sure that you are having important discussions or informally hanging out with women too. We humans are pack animals. We are most comfortable with our own kind. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that is not good enough for the business. You’ve got to mix it up.
  • Think of the bottom line. You know the stats: women are the majority of the workforce, they make an overwhelming number of consumer spending decisions, all companies with a critical mass of female board and executive team members outperform companies without them. It’s simple: your business needs women at all levels of the organization…especially at the top.

I believe that these dynamics will change only when the men deal with their own. When a woman cries “sexist” or challenges the male status quo men get (understandably) defensive. It’s a no win. But if men hold each other accountable for double standard remarks and ridiculous biases things could change. It’s not unlike every other kind of social change. Each group (women included) needs to make themselves strong, clear headed and worthy of the rights they are fighting for in order to be seen as attractive and unquestionably capable. Then it is up to a sympathetic group of others to advocate to undo an obvious wrong. (Think civil rights, same sex marriage) I wish change happened differently; that it would be a complete no-brainer that there is an imbalance or injustice. But we are just human beings and haven’t evolved to that place….yet.


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