If you haven’t seen the MSNBC interview with Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, I recommend that you do so. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e98u2lI3mfk at minute 18. Watch the whole thing) He sounds like a moral and ethical leader and doesn’t use much CEO-speak (products, ROIs, etc). He spoke of business being the most potent platform for social change and his passions are focused on equality. Equal access to great education, affordable housing, paying more taxes to support the “village”, equal pay, equal representation. Trust and purpose are the foundational drivers for his beliefs and his business endeavors.
Benioff repeated a line in this interview that I read about a few years ago. When it came to his attention that men and women were not paid equally at Salesforce, he directed his staff to fix it. And they did rather quickly. His comment about this remedy was “it’s not hard”. If I had a nickel for every time a leader moaned about how hard it was to (take your pick) hire more people of color, promote more people that weren’t white men, focus on human factors as often as new products, seek staff from less traditional backgrounds etc. then I would be a wealthy woman. And yet here is one of the most prominent CEOs remarking in the most casual way, “it’s not hard”.
So, why do most leaders believe that it IS hard to create equality within their companies? I have a theory. It takes effort for someone in the majority to imagine what it must be like to be an Other, someone who is not granted power by accident of birth. Why would they see power as a zero sum game rather than something that is expansive enough to make room for all? Why so exclusive? Fear? Discomfort? Control? Lack of consciousness?
Sometimes I think it boils down to a profound lack of curiosity and knowledge. Do traditional (sic. white, male, Christian) leaders study history or different cultures or minority experiences? What is on their book shelves? What movies do they watch? What neighborhoods do they live in or go out to eat in? How do they travel? Who are their closest friends? How many languages do they speak? What are their deeply held beliefs about equality?
There is so much talk these days about how we all live inside of our bubbles. I wonder if that is especially true for those leaders who claim it is so hard to create equity in their companies. But do you know who doesn’t live inside of a bubble because they can’t? Women and people of color. Every day we walk into work which is based on white, male norms. We who are Others must become (at least) bicultural and bilingual. When we walk into work we shape shift into the predominant norms and leave the rest of our beings at home. How many leaders do the same thing? How many leaders know enough about Others to be fluent in their cultural norms? How many are curious enough to learn these new languages? Another way to think about inequality in the work place is that Others must always adapt while those in power don’t.
And just watch what happens when an Other forgets to tuck away all that other-ness at work. Angry, aggressive, emotional, uppity black, woman or other minority, they are labeled. Others have learned the rules of the game very well. But this is neither fair nor equitable. Holding so tightly to age-old practices or norms is archaic and unjust.
For those leaders who have good hearts and intentions, who want to become more receptive and expansive to differences and who fundamentally understand the value in this, I have some recommendations. None of them are hard.
- Read things you wouldn’t usually pick up. The history that most of us were taught is so incomplete and inaccurate. Read more contemporary books on the true story. “White Rage”, “The New Jim Crow”, early feminist history, Japanese interment, anything about slavery or the holocaust, European conquests across other continents. Fill in the gaps in your education. And make sure it is by legitimate scholarly types versus conspiracy theorists.
- Expose yourself to culture and arts from other traditions. This could be an art exhibit, ethnic food, travels or literature. Fictionalized literature is often an easy way to get a feeling for time, place and experience of different realities. Travel to a country that doesn’t speak English so you can feel the discomfort of navigating without comprehension.
- Ask questions and deeply listen to the women in your inner circle. Ask them about how they transform to male norms, how they struggle to be fully themselves in work situations or their tales of sexual harassment and discrimination. When they tell you “it’s just part of being a woman in a man’s world”, don’t buy it. Push for a deeper conversation about the pain and anger of it all.
- Try to comprehend that not everyone is Christian. Yes, the world is a Christian majority. But religion is not one of those things that folks can so easily shape shift around. Not everyone hums Christmas carols or goes to church on Sundays or believes in Jesus Christ. Don’t speak of Christmas as secular or the winter solstice. Don’t think those Others don’t have high moral standards. Even if they are atheists.
- Tamp down the urge to be defensive or ‘splain how it is. I appreciate that it is sometimes uncomfortable to be lumped with all those white men who are truly oppressive even when you are one of the good guys. But unless your actions are consistently driving towards equality in your work place, then you are not helping. It really isn’t hard (pick what applies) to call out someone who makes an offensive/discriminatory remark, to realize that you haven’t interviewed any women for that open position, to advocate for someone who is different, to privately speak to other men who are misbehaving, to keep your hands to yourself, to make room for Others at the table, to be compassionate about different experiences, etc.
I was so heartened to hear Benioff’s remarks and to notice how matter of fact he was in his tone. He has a big megaphone and is doing what he can to do good in the world and in his company. Equality is at the core of the issues he wants to tackle. It is refreshing to finally hear someone say the opposite of “it’s complicated” which means “leave it alone.” Back in my earlier protesting days we had a chant. “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I’ll add to that, “and it’s not hard.”