Throughout my career, I’ve found myself presenting in meetings where I am one of only two women. At some point in those meetings, when I get the opportunity, I ask my colleagues, “Would you please point out something that’s really wrong in this room?”
It doesn’t take long before someone says “Ha! There are no other women.” I ask, “How many of you have daughters?” Many of them raise their hands. And then I say “How many of you want your daughters to grow up and be in rooms like this with no other women?” All the hands go down.
I am sure many of you have had similar experiences.
There are two things to point out. First, clearly this is not the discussion we should be having in 2015. Second, men are perfectly happy to work with women. The latter point is often bypassed in discussions about why women are underrepresented in business.
In fact, often the only person who stays silent when I ask these questions is the other woman in the room. Why?
On June 1, I’ll be a keynote speaker at the annual Women in Technology Summit (WITI) in San Jose. I’m excited to be part of this conversation among 1,000 brilliant women, and I’m looking forward to encouraging them to take active part in dialogues.
Part of what I’ll be talking about is the role of women in the new world of disruption and innovation. What role are women going to play? And one of my key points is this: women, if you want to be heard, you’ve got to speak up. Roar!
Women’s silence happens at every level, in companies of all sizes. It’s an issue I’ve been passionate about both in my work in technology and as a longtime founding board member (now Emeritus) for the Anita Borg Institute.
It’s not because men are opposed: Everywhere I go, men want to know “How do we hire more women?” “Where do we go to find solid women candidates?”
At the WITI conference, I’m going to be asking women to explore this question with me: “Where is change going to come from?” It’s not going to come from magically being given it by men, or from third parties or HR departments. It’s going to be from us speaking up about it at every opportunity.
We need to show that we can have a vibrant and honest conversation, because if the conversation is about change, we have to take ownership.
Women have started speaking up, in various ways and with various levels of success. Some developed bingo cards lambasting lukewarm support for women in tech during the 2014 Women in Computing Grace Hopper Celebration. Others created a funny Tumblr account documenting all-male panels at events. But this kind of approach is more a symptom than a solution, and it risks alienating real allies.
When men have a problem, they are more likely to say something on the spot, work it out and move on.
I want women to feel they can do the same thing: speak up on the spot. Let your voice be heard. It’s not about a rebellion; it’s not about wearing pink shirts and saying that we’re expecting justice. It’s about bringing it up in a productive way and creating awareness. If that awareness is created in every forum, everyone will eventually hear the message: “Hey, we need your help. Let’s work together.”
In a recent Buzzfeed post, a young female reporter writes about feeling intimidated by a male actor who she says made her feel uncomfortable during an interview. She didn’t feel she could say anything to him at the time, but she wrote about it later — and the actor’s lawyer got involved. How might it have ended differently if she had felt empowered to call out his behavior while it was happening?
How much better might Ellen Pao have fared if she had spoken up about feeling harassed while it was happening rather than filing a lawsuit (which she ultimately lost) five years later?
The barriers women face are real, and so are the consequences for many who speak out. If you’re the breadwinner for your family, the last thing you want to do is risk being fired. But that’s precisely why more women, not fewer, need to find the courage to speak. We make up 50 percent of the workforce. That’s a lot of power — but only if more of us make our voices heard.
The best place to start this conversation is everywhere: in forums, in large, small and medium companies, in start-ups, at conferences, during cocktail parties.
When we bring it up, men, too, have a chance to say, “I don’t like this.” I’ve written before about intimidation and its chilling effect for both men and women. When you feel intimidated, you lose your voice, and I can point to the fact that in some meetings, there’s never an opportunity to even raise the issue. Until many people are talking about it, both men and women will continue to feel too intimidated to speak up.
These conversations won’t take away from productivity. They’re not a side issue, and this is not just a gender issue. It’s part of the dialogue all businesses have about building the most well-rounded, productive teams.
Research shows that teams with more women make better decisions than those without them, as do teams where many members of the group speak up, rather than just one or two. Companies want the value of all the individual perspectives that both men and women bring.
I want women, wherever their lives or experiences have led them, to be able to use their voices. But first, we have to find our voices. We’re so used to being great team players that we sometimes even forget to think about our unique strengths. We’re missing out on a lot of leadership when women don’t feel they can take charge.
By not talking, we’re taking the issue off the table — and meeting rooms without women continue to feel normal. But no dad wants his daughter to have to be the lone woman at work, and any dad would want both his sons and his daughters to be able to speak up when something is wrong at work.
I want to hear women’s voices and hear them roar! I hope to explore what causes us to not take action. Do many of us think we’re not suited to do it? Are we raised to not speak up for ourselves, instead being told since kindergarten to play nice? When do you bring it up? How do you bring it up, especially if you’re not an executive and don’t feel empowered?
I loved what series creator Matthew Weiner did with Joan in the “Mad Men” series finale (spoiler alert!). Until now, she has spent much of her career as a team player, quietly putting up with intimidation from superiors at the office. In the last episode, she finds her voice — and uses it and her gumption and unique skill set to chart her own course. That gutsy move will open doors for other women in the future.
The lack of women’s voices is a difficult problem, and it won’t be solved with bullet-point solutions or “how to” recommendations.
If we work together and speak up every single time — not complaining, but just raising the awareness — if thousands of women in thousands of meetings bring it up, that’s when the change will happen. It won’t end discrimination, but it’s a good start.