Amanda Bennett is a freelance editor and writer.
So there I was at one of those Washington dinners where the powerful are feted. It was one of the old-fashioned events where alternate-sex seating left me parked between two (maybe) famous and (aspirationally, at least) important men.
On my left, a once-upon-a-time ambassador to a Strategically Important Country; on my right, the head of a Really Big Well-Funded Think Tank, who seemed to have been abandoned conversationally by his dinner partner.
“Stanislaus,” I said, coming to his aid. “Franz Josef and I were just talking about . . . .”
And at that, I disappeared. Stanislaus (not his real name) and Franz Josef (ditto) locked eyes, locked me out and began conversing animatedly across my plate. This went on for some time. I had mischief in me that night, so I decided to play. I shifted forward, placing my head slightly between them. Seamlessly, and seemingly unaware, they moved forward, too, and continued their conversation. I moved again. They moved further. How far would this go? The barramundi (not the real entree) was threatening their ties — and my dress — when I decided I had Leaned In enough.
I straightened up. “Okay, guys,” I said, looking to my left and right. “Time to talk to me now.” They snapped to attention, puzzled, as if awakened from a dream.
So what of it? A dinner table is just a dinner table. An evening sandwiched between two mildly rude and clueless demi-celebrities is hardly the end of the world. But what happens when it’s not just the dinner table but the conference room table? Or the boardroom table? Or the negotiating table?
What happens when a man’s casually assumptive, visceral reflex that nothing said by the woman sitting next to him could possibly be as interesting as anything said by the man sitting across the table extends — as it still does — to the absence of women’s voices in decision-making?
What do we lose?
Well, at the very least, I think the guys seated next to me lost a chance to have a more interesting evening. I’m not famous. I’m not important. But I do have ideas about things, and I am cheerfully willing to banter. And just imagine what was lost to the guys who years ago droned on to a certain woman who later novelized the experience of being “seated forever, trapped between two immensely powerful men who think it’s your function as their dinner partner to draw them out. You ask them about the SALT talks. You ask them about the firearms lobby. You ask them about their constituencies. You ask them about the next election.” Uh, that was Nora Ephron, guys. “Sleepless in Seattle” Nora Ephron. “When Harry Met Sally” Nora Ephron.
The SALT talks? Really?
What if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had thought well enough of the voices of women when it counted? Would a woman have said: Hey, hold on a minute. Let’s think about the 45 percent of our fans who are women and might be able to picture how they would feel if they were cold-cocked in an elevator?
Well, he’s hearing those opinions now. And he’s hearing them because women are telling them. Only he’s having to hear it on places like ESPN, from women such as Hannah Storm, who spoke recently of the effect of the Ray Rice video on her three daughters: “I spent this week answering seemingly impossible questions about the league’s biggest stars,” she said last month. “Mom, why did he do that? Why isn’t he in jail? Why didn’t he get fired?”
There’s nothing new about the fact that a woman like Storm is a sports anchor with a powerful platform. There’s nothing new about the fact that women take issue with the decisions of men in power. What is new is that many more women like Storm are becoming increasingly confident and, yes, feeling entitled to say: You didn’t ask for my opinion, but I have one. And it’s worth something. Would it save some anguish if we skipped some steps and moved them a bit further up the decision-making chain?
In any case, I’m grateful to Storm for showing me something. At the end of another D.C. event, I turned to my table-mate in mild exasperation and said, “We’ve been at dinner for two hours, and I know everything about you. I know where you went to school, how you got into business. I know your views on the nonferrous metals industry (not his real business) that is your passion. But you don’t know one single thing about me. Why not?”
His matter-of-fact answer: “I talked. You listened.” He didn’t deny he wasn’t listening. But neither was I speaking. I had a voice. I just wasn’t using it.