On privilege, awareness, debate and moving forward

You might say that my antennae are finely tuned to issues of gender in the workplace as reported by the media, but the latest crop of interesting reads has been, if ever, more depressing than usual. I will not dwell on the vicious backlash against women who brought to the media’s attention physicist Matt Taylor’s poor outfit choice in a press conference about a comet landing – if only because I tend to defend women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want -, other than to quote writer Roxane Gay (someone I will return to) and her essay “Blurred Lines, Indeed” (previously published as “What men want, America delivers“): “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. ”

So, here is a multi-industry selection of recent articles pointing to the inescapable fact that, again in Gay’s words, “the problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly”:

  • In finance: “When I was younger, I assumed that it would change. […] The results of this generational experiment are now in and they are pathetic.” From “Men alone should no longer run finance“, John Gapper, Financial Times, Dec. 3, 2014.
  • In asset management“One in five women in asset management has suffered sexual harassment at work… another third of female asset management staff had experienced sexist behaviour at work on a weekly or monthly basis… 15 per cent had felt pressured to exploit their sexuality at work…” From “Sexism still plagues fund management“, Chris Newlands and Madison Marriage, Financial Times, Nov. 30, 2014.
  • In architecture: “In the UK […] one recent survey found the number of women in architecture firms fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011.” From “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?“, Susanna Rustin, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In technology: “Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since. […]The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled [… ] The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up.” From “Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves“, Sue Gardner, LA Times, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In videogames: “The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. […] Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously.” From the weirdly titled “The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started” (does one really become the greatest adversary of the industry by way of cultural criticism?), Sheelah Kolhatkar, BloombergBusinessweek, Nov. 26, 2014.

This latter article prompted an interesting discussion among some of my Facebook friends, in particular a (male) friend claiming that videogames aren’t really that bad in their depiction of women, and that the academic in question – Anita Sarkeesian – was overrreacting to online haters’ threats, since they are rarely carried out. I find it hard to describe the frustration I felt. Here was a man – a good friend, and not someone I believe would indulge in online hate – telling me, a woman, that another woman was wrong to fear for her safety. Perhaps this is what black males in Ferguson feel like when they are told by white authorities that the police is there to protect them, I replied.

But the point is, I don’t really know what black males in Ferguson feel like. I can attempt the necessary exercise in empathy – as one does, for example, in storytelling of many sorts -, but outside that exercise I can only truly speak to what I feel, if and when I am able to articulate it. If the lottery of life has allowed me a privilege, it is my job to be aware of it, just as it is for others who have a different type of privilege. I learned this in another of Roxane Gay’s essays, “Peculiar Benefits” (you can find it, along with the one quoted above, in her collection Bad Feminist), which suggests the beginning of a personal agenda for each of us who is somehow privileged:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t. […]

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. […]

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

This should be, perhaps, if enough people in good faith agree, a way to move forward.

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/roxane.gay

 

Next Generation Women Leaders: Paris, May 22-24, 2014

SandrineIs your sister, cousin, daughter, niece or friend a university student or young graduate with up to six years’ work experience? Then suggest that she apply to Next Generation Women Leaders, a McKinsey workshop in Paris, May 22-24. The deadline for applications is March 23.

I haven’t seen the full program and speakers’ list yet, but I know from the NGWL Facebook page that participants will be able to meet the super-accomplished Sandrine Devillard (pictured; bio here) as well as other leaders within and outside the Firm. You can refer more participants here (and earn the chance to win an iPad Mini); on top of the event itself, there will also be a series of online follow-ups for applicants who did not get to go to Paris.

Workshops like this are a great way for women to develop their leadership profile. Remmber, the earlier you start thinking of yourself as a leader, the earlier you actually become one!

Spain, women, and reproductive rights: a battleground, again

alberto-ruiz-gallardonIf we needed proof of how fragile and reversible our rights, women’s rights, are today, even in the West, we had it last Friday, when Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón put forth a draft law to set back abortion legislation by 25 years. You can read the details here, but if the law passes, you will only be able to get an abortion in Spain if you have been raped, or if your physical or mental health is at risk.

I am angry to see women’s rights as a political battleground, again; angry that governments seek consensus by legislating women’s bodies; angry that politicians think it is their God-given right to mandate that any woman should be forced to live through the confusion, pain and anger of an unwanted pregnancy, and not be able to choose the lesser pain, if not illegally.

Legislatures where women’s choices are so harshly limited should start introducing some restrictions on what men can do with their bodies, too. See the initiative by Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, who introduced a bill to require men who seek erectile dysfunction drug prescriptions to see a sex therapist, undergo cardiological tests, and receive counseling on the viability of celibacy as a lifestyle option (read more here and here). Says Sen. Turner:

The men in our lives, including members of the General Assembly, generously devote time to fundamental female reproductive issues—the least we can do is return the favor. It is crucial that we take the appropriate steps to shelter vulnerable men from the potential side effects of these drugs. When a man makes a crucial decision about his health and his body, he should be fully aware of the alternative options and the lifetime repercussions of that decision.

This is not irony, this is not tongue-in cheek: this is anger, fighting back through all available means. So let’s remember that we can take to the streets in protest, but we can also use Parliaments and bills and all the legislative apparatus to get lawmakers to understand why we’re so angry.

Freedom badgeAs Jane Smiley wrote after reading a hundred novels, “I saw that the world I thought was established and secure, at least in the West, is more fragile than I thought, because it is newer than I realized.”

We are not established and secure. Keep your guard up. Fight back.

In favor of wearing whatever the hell you want, part 3

We had our own Janet Yellen moment in Europe yesterday: the third swearing-in of Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor. Just the same way as Yellen “Wore Same Dress Twice, Upsetting Local Idiot” (Jezebel), Merkel was criticized (picture below from the front page of Corriere della Sera) for wearing a very similar outfit to what she wore for previous ceremonies of the same type.

So what? They are smart and practical women. They standardize their looks because it saves them precious time, even if they become predictable. I am sure a lot of powerful men have favorite outfits too, and they don’t spend a lot of time worrying whether they’ve worn the same thing before.

Plus, Merkel has been photographed wearing quite different gear to the opera (see this post in case you don’t remember). So why, why can’t women yet wear whatever the hell they want?

Yellen-outfits

Merkel swearing-in outfit

 

FT Innovative Lawyers 2013: Claudia Parzani

Claudia ParzaniOne of the ten winners in this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers survey, among over 600 participants, is Claudia Parzani of Linklaters, chair of corporate association Valore D and co-creator of In the Boardroom, an initiative she developed with GE Capital and Egon Zehnder to provide training and skills to prepare women for boardroom positions. Claudia also created the Breakfast@Linklaters network, featured in this year’s Client Service category.

Kudos to Claudia! I am proud to be participating in her boardroom program and honored to be in her circle.

Update & Correction (Oct. 17, 2013): post corrected to clarify that In The Boardroom was developed through collaboration among Linklaters, GE Capital and Egon Zehnder. The supporting member companies of Valore D can be found on this page.

Behind Boardroom Doors. Essays by Betsy Atkins

BetsyAtkinsIt turns out there is some stuff that they don’t teach you in business school, and that you have to catch up on later, in your own self-directed continuing studies program. Corporate governance is one of those things. Luckily, I just read a book about corporate governance that isn’t a dry, legalistic tome about procedures and standards, but an account from the trenches of real board experience: Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director, by Betsy Atkins.

You can read my review here. The chapter I found most engaging is “My 16 Days on the HealthSouth Board”, adapted from an essay you can read here, as good an account of crisis management as I’ve ever read. If you have an interest in matters of corporate governance, and perhaps you’re just starting out as a board director, reading this book will be like going to dinner with a very experienced director and getting all the precious nuggets from her. Enjoy it!