July 07, 2011
Women and Leadership Roles: How Emotional Literacy Would Solve the Problem of the "Male Dominated" Tech and Business
I just read Sheryl Sandberg's profile by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (A Woman's Place: Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley's male-dominated culture?).. and some months ago watched Sheryl Sandberg's video on women and success from TedWomen. (For more background, she was also covered recently in Bloomberg or watch her Barnard commencement speech .)
In all these talks, Sheryl notes that women are dropping out of tech and business leadership tracks.
She makes some good points, but only iteratively adds to what we've already talked about for the last 8 years about women in tech.
A little history
About 6 years ago, I came up with a list of things, along with a couple of other women, that we could do to encourage women:
* help women get speaker training
* encourage and submit women to speak at events
* help women pitch their companies to funders and get into the entrepreneurial ring
* help women get mentorship and family support they need to stay on leadership tracks
* help women get into science and technology tracks in school and keep them in those tracks in the working world
* get more women in the room to change the tone of whatever is happening
* when you hire, think about how women will read the ad: kick ass engineer will likely not get women applying
* when you hire, remember the women undersell and the men oversell, and if you even them out they are similarly prepared for the job
... and more recently, riffing on the last two, and I wrote a post last year in response to Clay Shirky's post on how his male students were much more aggressive about asking for help and in pursuing jobs that his female students, where I noted that in tech, often our filter for who gets noticed and appreciated is aggression. In other words, students of both genders need to be aggressive, but if our filters only notice the super-agressive, then we miss out on a lot of qualified people, especially women.
One of the key points Sheryl Sandberg makes is that women need to lean forward. I have seen women lean back even when we have explicitly made space for them. I can highlight one example out of the many I have seen in the 8 years I have been proactively working on this:
In service to the list above, a group of women and I pushed for speaker training by having Lura Dolas who is a premiere executive speaker trainer come to She's Geeky as well as for training for geek speakers at Citizen Space one saturday (coordinated at the time by Tara Hunt). But you know what? We held signups open for women, for a couple of weeks. Few women signed up even though we did lots of personal invites, and eventually opened it to men. All the rest of the spots were gone in a flash. So I get what Sheryl Sandberg is saying: she suggests that encouraging women to "lean forward" would work. I've been trying to get women in tech to do that, with a little different terminology, for 8 years.
I, as well as many others, have emailed (for years) various conference organizers from Mike Arrington to Tim O'Reilly suggesting highly-accomplished women for their speaker line-ups (with links to bio pages from the Speaker's Wiki as well as topic sorts of the many women listed by tags). Mike Arrington is right when he says the very few women at the top of tech are barraged by requests to speak and often turn down event requests. But there are other women who are very well qualified to speak, however the criteria for who is eligible is often heavily in favor of typically male tech behaviors: rabid self-promotion, the ability to speak very early on a new topic or meme, regardless of what they know, and brashness.
Women often eschew these qualities or don't know how to navigate them because they run so counter to women's social norms. So that, mixed with women's usualy less overall interest in having a big "title," which many conferences like to promote in association wifth the event (look: we've got 80 C-level speakers.. come pay several thousand to attend our event !) make women less attractive to conference organizers. Though I would argue that at most events I attend, women speakers share far more data and opinion than the men, and are often much more interesting speakers compared to the men who often hold their proverbial cards to their chests and don't share as much interesting stuff. So to me, the practical reality is that as far as speakers go, women are the brash risk-takers on stage. I often seek women out to get info the guys won't share.
Sheryl Sandberg suggests three ways we can push women in tech and leadership roles:
* keep women "leaning forward" (participating actively) in business, leadership and tech
* stay in the game (ie when they have kids, don't drop out) with a spouse who does as much housework as you do
* think bigger and take more risks
Those three are great additions to the set of things we can all recommend women do. But to me, these lists: our 8 plus Sheryl's 3 (two of hers overlap so it's really about 9 ways to get women more into leadership roles), not to mention complaining about the lack of women speakers at conferences or the lack of women on board's of directors, or lamenting the dearth of women in engineering or getting women to pitch a company, as Women 2.0 tries to support in their annual contest, doesn't get us what we need or want. Which is a healthier ecosystem between men and women in tech and business so that women can more naturally be themselves, contribute, and inhabit leadership roles and overall, products are better.
In fact, over the past three or four years, I'd mostly given up talking publicly about the dearth of women in tech and business. The problem isn't getting solved, despite things like the Speaker's Wiki created so that non-typical speakers could list themselves. For me, the value of that wiki listing is in being able to email a few biographies to conference organizers, which I do often privately. It's a much more positive step than complaining about the lack of women speakers, which I'm so tired of.... But overall, the topic has felt like a waste of time because men in tech look down on women for discussing it, and it doesn't feel like anything ever changes.
Frankly I could see Sheryl getting burned out on discussing the topic (from lack of results) the way so many of us have over the past decade. I give her about 2-3 years to get frustrated and move on to other things, at least as far as speaking out in the New Yorker and at Ted and college commencements and other forums. The topic gets old and you want to be constructive.. so you start thinking about other things you care about that get more traction. It's not that you don't care about women in business and tech leadership roles, but maybe the other things I've done for years like holding personal dinner parties for women business leaders, or the women in tech weekends south of Santa Cruz at the beach, are just more effective at creating connections and support between and for women in tech and business. And they don't have the downside you get when you keep bringing the issue up publicly.
What's new on this topic?
Recently, I've been rethinking: why are we still here in the same place with women in tech? Why is it that our old list of 8 or Sheryl's new list of 3 ways to push women up the leadership and tech ladders may help a little, for the tremendous effort they take, but they don't really effect the overall problem?
What is the deeper problem set here? Why talk about it again? Well, it started for me with a surprising conversation.
I chatted a few weeks ago with a friend who is a man in finance, business and banking (but no tech at all), about the problems women encounter in tech and business generally. I told him I felt often men have been socialized to be on "teams" where there is a team spirit, where they don't look to the coach to discipline someone. Instead, they do it through peer pressure, and they also don't criticize team members unless they violate a big rule that everyone knows.
How does this work in tech? I explained to my friend that often a group of guys will huddle at a conference or some event, and they are playing with their laptops and mobile devices, listening to (mainly male) presenters in sessions, and then back at the group email check and hallway conversations. The guys joke around and mostly none of them looks too closely at what anyone else is doing with their company or their products or pitches. They all joke and get along. There are some guys who do look more closely at products and companies, but you almost never hear them share their real views or anything at all critical of the other tech or guys.
Women, on the other hand, often see the flaws in those companies, or products or pitches and say so. They see how a product or algorithm can exclude or hurt people or create problems for users. How a business model won't resonate with people and why it will take about 2 years to show that no one wants what's on offer. They see what can go wrong. Why? Because we watched our moms and the other moms growing up, and we got socialized to look for the problems and to prevent disasters, and to do things fairly and equitably for everyone involved, because we (the women, the moms) would have to manage the problems, clean up the disasters and take care of anyone who was hurt.
For example, where a Dad might say, "Hey kids, lets climb the tree and we'll jump off onto our new trampoline!" And mom would say, "Wait a minute, the kids are going to jump off an 8' high branch, hit the trampoline at 4', and bounce off onto the ground and probably break things?" She would put a stop to the plan, saying "You can only jump on the middle of the trampoline and not at the edges and no jumping off anything else onto the trampoline." And while mom was a major bummer, she was also preventing broken bones, loss of school days (that might lead to having to repeat a grade if the injuries were really bad), pain and suffering, and oh yeah, if the neighbor kids got hurt, getting sued by their parents for negligence and potentially losing the house and having to move or at least getting into a major fight with those neighbors.
Yeah.. mom is really a bummer here. But in a very good way, because she is socialized to know that she will have to pick up the pieces of problems that get out of hand, nurse the sick, and see 10 steps down the road the implications of decisions. Dad on the other hand, in this scenario, is thinking of the fun.
Now, you can say there are plenty of dads that wouldn't suggest this with their kids, but I actually know a dad, who is a successful risk taker at work who makes lots of money and is considered by colleagues to be very good, who suggested this to his kids, partly because he figured he could manage it and catch any kids bouncing off the trampoline. But his wife put a stop to it. Though one kid did jump off the tree branch later when the parents weren't around and got a compound fracture out of the deal.
When there's disaster, like with the broken bones, it's the mom who usually drives the kid to school every day for three months, instead of having him ride his bike with his friends. She was the one who sacrificed a half hour every morning being late for work, and she knew what the sacrifices might be in advance of disaster striking, when she shut down the jumping-from-the-tree plan.
The real way to think about that mom, and many women's contributions in warding off disaster, is to say those women are caring about the greater good over a longer term. It's a more masculine trait to think about making a splash and more a typical feminine archetype to care about the long term risks.
We all hold both archetypes inside us, women are more apt to express more of the feminine archetype, bringing a way of being conscious of the longer term effects on other people, the longer term business model, the larger effect the business will have on society. Comparatively, men statistically are more likely to embody the male archetype which is often about taking larger, often dangerous risks for shorter term gain in order to break out for the big score and function more in a team mode with the other guys. And our society pushes us through socialization to these gender specific modes by blessing what is socially acceptable.
These gender-specific tendencies translate to a scenario in tech and business where men often show up as more exciting, brash risk takers who if they succeed, shine in the myth of the genius who did it all. Women are often behind the scenes, managing the fall-out of risks, and frankly, putting the kibosh on some proposals (read: bummer) in companies, in tech generally, and in business. And bummer it is if you don't take kindly to women's important role in thinking critically about risks and the consequences.
How many women do you know who you would put in the high-risk-taking category?
But this difference is *exactly* why we want a mix of men and women engineering, directing, creating and sustaining, leading businesses, and shaping policy, so we get a balance of each gender's tendencies which statistically will likely make the company or product or governments far more successful and stronger than if one gender alone works toward success.
So after telling this male friend about men and women in tech, the trampoline story and my general thesis that women are "analyst critics" and that feels like a bummer for the guys, I asked what he thought about the situation.
He said, "Well, whether guys know it consciously or not, most men tend to put women into two categories: bitch or hot. She can be in both, but she has to be very hot to over come 'the bitch' label in terms of whether a guy would talk with her or be 'friends' with her. So, while plenty of guys are socialized better because they are married or with a woman and therefore don't do this 'hot vs. bitch' assessment explicitly, no guy is going to defend a woman if all the other guys decide they don't really like her... no reason given. Or defend her if one guy starts picking on her, either to her or outside her purview, with the guys. Because we are all on the team. However, the unspoken reason is she is in the bitch category because once, once! she 'complained' about something, even if it was done constructively to solve a real problem. She had demonstrated that she could complain any time going forward and the guys know they can't be themselves around her. In other words, they have to be 'good' around her but can 'be themselves' with the guys. So now the set up becomes one where the guys have fun with each other, but are serious when any women are around, even if some of those women have never criticized or done anything to put themselves into the 'bitch' category."
Second, he noted that most men, in the face of even very mild criticism coupled with constructive solutions given from a woman, take her not as her, but rather to a place of fear. This fear is rooted in men's 2-year-old selves, deep down, where their mothers yelled at them or criticized them. So while the woman in a tech project might be saying: "Hey how about doing the project this way where something good can happen, because the other way isn't so good for the users..." the guy goes to a place where the woman co-worker is "his mother," telling him that he's wrong. The man can't hear the woman, because there are too many old filters in the way. And while again, some men have to have more criticism to get that fear going, most men aren't so conscious that they can hear criticism from women of a project, conference or company as being about the actual problem, but rather they take it to be about themselves. The criticism becomes an "ego-threat" and old defense mechanisms kick in. And criticism coming from a woman, well, lands her in "bitch jail", where the man's 2-year old fear is triggered and the woman can't really fix that without changing the larger issue of that man's consciousness about himself.
HIM: "We are all human and feel the emotions similarly in a way: Fear feels the same for men as fear feels to woman. Anger is anger for men and women. But if a man has fear.. he's what: 'a pussy.' If a woman has fear.. 'that's just how women are.' And if a man has anger, 'that's how men are.' But if a woman has anger, 'she's a bitch.' Even if she's just giving constructive criticism. Most men I know interpret any woman's criticism as inches from 'anger' no matter how nicely and constructively it's given, and therefore, she's rapidly entering 'bitch jail.' "
I have to say, I found it pretty shocking that a guy would cop to all this. And he wasn't leaving himself out of the category. Just being brutally honest.
If you're a guy reading this, and you are mad right now, I would ask yourself these questions:
Have you ever felt fear when a woman colleague has constructively criticized your project? Or did you even realize at the time you feared anything? Did you tell her, owning the fear and admitting it was your issue, not hers? Did you make it safe for her to share further criticisms? Or did you just distance yourself from the woman, and not work with her so much anymore, and did she just sort of back off from giving further feedback and instead, move away from the male members of the team? In other words, did she lean back and did you help her to be less involved?
So are you mad because my friend's words hit a nerve.. and this is uncomfortable? Because it only takes a few of these instances for a woman in tech or business to sit back and not participate as much. You may say, she's not tough enough. But she may say: why bother, if no one can take what I have to say.
I have another story, about a friend who is a partner on Sand Hill Road. She never speaks at the weekly partner meetings to review deals, until the end of the meeting (about 4 hours). She's learned that she waits until the chest beating and the competitiveness are over and the guys (the rest of the partners are, of course, all guys) have exhausted themselves and said everything they want to say. Then they look around.. and ask her what she thinks about this week's deals. Then, and only then, are they ready to listen to her. And they do. But she has leaned back. Effectively. I mean, she is a successful partner at a successful and top rated VC firm. But she leans back. Because that's how the guys can take her.
Back to my friend's and my conversation:
ME: Well.. it's true that it's not socially acceptable for a woman to express anger. Most women I know aren't even conscious of their own anger, or how much anger is inside them. They are so used to stuffing their anger, and moving on, that the anger comes out sideways. And men are right to fear that. It's not safe when men stuff fear, or women stuff anger, for anyone, because we are avoiding what is real, but complicated, and not socially acceptable. It comes out sideways for both of us. Men avoid angry women out of unconscious fear, and women try to work with men's fear, but can't, because fearful men won't include women in the real work, reducing women to things that are valued for their looks. That's a lot of sideways behavior.
Certainly I have been guilty of this.. especially prior to doing the emotional literacy work I've engaged in more recently. I have definitely stuffed anger, had it come out side ways, to other's confusion, and not owned what I was doing or feeling. It's probably been scary for men I've worked with, because I've *not talked* about anger, or released the pressure of feeling mad about the unfairness of something ... like not being taken seriously by the men in the room... or like a speaker list where organizers didn't even try to find qualified women, or disregarded dozens of qualified women. Or for example, once when I pitched to a partner's meeting in a Venture Capital firm, and had the senior partner refuse to look at me or ask me questions directly no matter how polite I was. Instead he asked all the questions to my male business partner, who turned every one over to me. Women have all had experiences like this. And we don't get mad. But everyone knows it's in there somewhere. And on and on with examples.
So if emotional literacy is the larger issue, how do we fix this? How do we get unstuck at a deeper level, than suggesting speaker training, or asking women to lean forward?
I'm not proposing we (women) try to change the guys that project the team vibe, consciously or unconsciously, who don't facing their own fear, or aren't honest about their own projections and inability to own what they are doing, or speak and share their fear.
I mean, women could do a big movement to educate men and get them to shift their thinking, a la the 70s, but that's a lot of work for something I don't think, frankly, will work. I don't think women can really change the attitudes and behavior patterns men carry, especially unconsciously.
Instead, I'm proposing we (women) change us. And my friend suggests that he, and other men, have to change men. Because, he too says, "Women can't change men, rather men can only initiate each other and teach each other to feel fear constructively, consciously, honestly and safely, in order to see women as women and not through the many filters they carry now."
So how do we do that? You know when people say: "Change yourself, change the world?" Where if you change yourself, everyone reacts and they are forced to treat you differently and if they don't, you don't care anyway because you've moved on and in a way others are left either changing or being left behind? Yeah. That way to change the world.
So how do we change us?
I'm not proposing that women be more like men.. to be more "fun" or take more crazy risks. Because trying to be something you aren't -- a team player if you've never been on a team, or able to laugh with the guys like a guy, when you aren't a guy, propose highly risky actions -- never works.
Instead, I think the answer lies in facing our own issues, as women, and not only changing ourselves for work, but everywhere. I'm proposing that we look at how we are angry, how we stuff that and don't face it, and aren't honest about it. Which makes us unsafe to many men. I believe that if women were honest about their anger, they would reside in their own power, own it, and reasonable risks and "leaning forward" as Sheryl says, would happen naturally and without a few of us pushing women to do what doesn't feel good to them now. Because most women aren't living in their authentic power which means they haven't faced their own anger or owned it.
As my man friend named it, "Women seem to have slid backwards over the past 20 years.. they are very concerned with their appearance to the sacrifice of their own truths and personal well being." My thought exactly.There's nothing wrong with looking good. But it should be secondary, and yet many young and older women seem to be focused on that to the detriment of their own advancement. It translates into caring more about what others think about you than asking for what you deserve, speaking the truth, and risking criticism to speak what is real and authentic. Which is all pretty much a recipe for holding anger deep down in an unconscious woman.
Not being taken seriously, not seeing women speaking at tech conferences, being on the boards of companies or doing what is high level work, could add even more anger. I know from years ago, challenging the organizers of conferences about how they had none, or one or two, women speakers at an event, didn't work. And women have been angry, when conference organizers react with silence or brush off the issue. But it was an anger women didn't feel they could express, or weren't conscious of.. and yet it was there.. I could feel it. And the men understandably feared that. Because the anger was coming out sideways.. it wasn't clean, owned and direct.
So, HE continued, "If men have taken the feminist messages from the 70s (like "who needs a man anyway?") and defaulted into emotionally illiteracy, where they don't have to own their emotions, or be conscious and share their own fear, then we end up with stagnant gender roles and fear about ever letting those roles shift again. Because the effect of those messages from the 70s have hung around, and a lot of men heard those messages from women as having an underlying criticism of who we are as men and whether we are even needed. For men who come after the 70s, the sons and nephews of men of age in the 70s, those boys are getting their modeling of what men are like, what it means to be a man in the world, how to treat women and how express their own emotions. The effects men felt in the 70s have been passed on to the current generations of men.
"There is a place where it's okay for men to express our emotions in our culture, but there is an invisible line for us, where when men cross it, the rest of the guys all point a stern finger and say to the one guy crossing the line: 'Dude, what are you being such a pussy for?' A guy who isn't emotionally literate will cave. But the guy, if he's emotionally literate, can say: "Hey, I'm feeling some fear / anger / sadness / a threat... " because that man is tired of having to not be himself for the sake of his friends. The truth about this is that there is a quiet revolution in men's circles across the country, THAT HASN'T YET trickled into our business and technology companies across the country.
"And so it's that distinction, that men can't yet be honest and direct. But as men begin to own their own internal emotional truth, to themselves and to each other, they'll realize that women are already there... waiting for them."
The notion is that the genders are secretly eyeing each other, where men look at the women's camp, women look at the men's camp, and if we raise the problem of women excluded from industry (tech, business, etc) and young women regressing to placing their value in the old stereotypical values like: "how do i look, how sexy am i, how desirable to the opposite sex.." this feels like a failure of the attempt women made during the feminism of the 70s to be integrated into male culture, male business and to be seen as equals.
If you accept that that 70s movement failed in a way, then it makes sense that women came into male domains (80's and 90s) and now women are receding from tech jobs from the 2000s on. (There are still women working, but the numbers in traditional male domains are down).
So why is this? Well, one view via my male friend has is that men inherently felt threatened during the 70s and 80s and after. This is partly because of what he called the "fragile male ego" which he says,"...is a reality especially among men who haven't done personal work.. who aren't emotionally literate." But also some of the loudest and clearest women's voices in the 70s and 80s were making men bad and wrong. He says further, "When men talk, we tend to lump all women into one voice.. so the women were lumped together as man-haters in the 70s and 80s."
So to the extent that the women's movement was about "taking power from men" ...this reaction from men happened. And got internalized by men.
So why have men returned to excluding women? My friend says, "Men tended to stereotype what was going on around their own exclusion by 'man hating women,' and reacted out of collective fear, toward women who wanted power." That power being the ability to join men at work, in business, or tech, and be taken seriously.
My friend goes on: "Men have always been at a place of lesser emotional literacy than women, so the dialog men cannot participate in with women is something like this: (to a man) How do you feel about women working in what has been men's world? A healthy male response would be: 'I feel fear of it because there has been incendiary language by a few women and that causes me to want to fight... '."
So in other words, emotional literacy allows for a full bodied conversation, where the whole body is involved in the conversation. Where the emotions in my body can be expressed.. and it's okay on both sides of the genders.
Again, HE said, "But men aren't able to do that yet, with women. But in general they do it with men, but it's limited.. to stomach, sexuality, gut.. but that's it. And many men have been raised by mothers who are emotionally invasive, so there is also a tendency to disbelieve that a women's desire for a full bodied emotionally aware dialog is *not* going to somehow come at a price to the man.
"So men aren't able to have a full bodied conversation with women, and women are waiting on men to get there.. to become emotionally literate.
"The problem is that when men fail to do this work, and when women don't have an equal partner (who is being emotionally aware) then women recede into a place where they try to find their value in the old stereotypical ways: valued for their looks and sexually because an equal dialog isn't really happening and neither party is really seeing each other as fully human."
ME: What about women? Why doesn't it work for us to help men?
HIM: "So if emotional literacy did happen, then men would treat women as more than tits and ass.. and women would feel that and feel able to take the risk of revealing who they are to men. That means women would be intellectually revealing, in board rooms, engineering rooms, with fully available ideas and contributions to the work.
"But the problem is, men can only do this work with men. Women can't help them. Men have to initiate men, men have to work on emotional literacy with each other, men have to make it safe to be masculine and live in their male bodies, and still express fear, even to women."
ME: So while this would change personal relationships a lot, in the context of work, men and women would see each other as humans who all have fear, feel threats, have anger, etc so we could be real about our contributions to projects, technology, development, etc. And women would be included and invited fully into speaking, leadership etc.
So this dialog between my male friend and me gives an idea of how we agreed women generally recede from the business world, because of these generalized dynamics. What my friend said above, and his take on men and women, which we both get are generalizations but also feel are generally true in our working experience, is a way to see that the lists of things women can do, like leaning forward, or getting speaker training, doesn't get at this deeper underlying problem to change what is happening with women in tech and business. Those suggestions are salve covering the underlying tense and uncomfortable relations between men and women in many work and professional situations, and we can see them explicitly displayed on many a tech conference speaker's list.
If men were to become emotionally literate and transparent it would change everything across the board: technology, business, leadership, speaking, conferences, product development, even Wall Street and the recent sociopathic behavior many men there have engaged in with our financial systems, to the huge detriment world wide of our economies and peoples. If women were to become emotionally literate, they would own their anger consciously, allowing men to feel safer in the presence of that anger.
I get that emotional literacy is a very tall order, but becoming aware of the need is a step. Talking about it is another step forward. I get it's very hard work each of us needs to do to face our selves and our emotional truths, so that when we go to work, we are clean and clear.
The upside for our society when men and women become emotionally literate is huge. It definitely extends beyond just tech conference speakers lists. It's just that a conference speaker list is a written testament to the problem at hand. Men and women can't now see each other as just human because of the many thick filters in the way of our communication and shared goals, that hold us in more adolescent gender roles.
One of the challenges with startups and incumbent businesses alike.. is the men are often looking for the splash (an IPO or a big fast score or a big win). But women often anticipate the greater consequences and see the longer term view. If men could invite women into really share the work, with full ability to share emotional and intellectual reality -- without judgements created through a person's own filters and projections, but rather from a place where both sides have emotional literacy -- with full ability to work toward the greater good, and long term success of the company and projects, men would succeed with less risky behavior and achieve more balance, women would succeed by bringing in their more considered approach to receive full acceptance as tech and business co-workers, co-founders and partners, leaders and contributors. And people, society, our economy, would be far more stable and successful by the work of an emotionally literate leadership and creator populace.