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THE INC. LIFE

3 Common Themes That Empower Both Women And Men

Figuring out constructive ways to navigate the professional workplace in the world of #MeToo, gender inequality, and systemic bias

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BY Rebekah Iliff - 11 Jul 2018

3 Common Themes That Empower Both Women And Men

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Is there anything more fundamental to our collective well-being than the quality of relationships between men and women? Last year, our society stumbled into unmapped territory in gender relations - as women told story after story of horrific abuse and predation at the hands of men in their lives, we witnessed the birth of a long-overdue movement. We heard millions of voices rise in unison to say "#MeToo," and our country will never be the same.

But the real work is just beginning. Men and women need to figure out a way to navigate this new territory together, and there's no use in pretending like it will be easy or straightforward. There's a lot of anger in our country right now - anger among women who have been abused, coerced, and dismissed by their male colleagues, as well as anger among men who feel besieged and demonized when many have done nothing to deserve it.

While much of this negative feeling is natural (and to some extent, unavoidable), we should do our best to transcend it. We'll never move forward if men and women treat each other as adversaries instead of allies.

I recently decided to reach out to a few men I admire to get their take on #MeToo, what it means for professional relationships between men and women, how to eliminate bias in the workplace, and how to chart the best path toward real equality and harmony in our society. When I culled through my conversation notes, three themes emerged that I believe may help guide our conversation as we move forward together as humans.

Theme 1: Embrace unique female strengths, but treat all women as individuals

Perhaps it's controversial to say this in 2018, but men and women aren't interchangeable - and that's a good thing!

For example, according to Gallup's CliftonStrengths assessment (which draws upon survey data from more than 14 million respondents), "Women rank higher than men do on the Developer, Discipline, Includer, and Empathy themes." This means they're more likely to identify and cultivate positive qualities in others, they often emphasize planning and organization, and they tend to have a deeper understanding of experiences outside their own.

When there are more women in the workplace, companies are better able to leverage these strengths. Robert Weiss (LCSW, CSAT-S), digital-age intimacy and relationship expert, echoes the findings of the CliftonStrengths assessment when he points out that, in his experience, women are generally better than men when it comes to "compassion" and "community building." He also says the presence of these traits can improve the behavior of male coworkers: "The only way to be more like women is to have women around."

While companies should embrace traditional feminine virtues, they also have to recognize the individual differences among women. While there are population-level distinctions between men and women, as Gallup notes, "Differences are much greater within genders than between genders." Plenty of women are assertive and competitive, and they shouldn't be reflexively accused of trying to emulate their male colleagues. That's just who they are.

Stuart Leviton, an attorney and Chief Operating Officer of SeekingIntegrity.org defines bias as "acting on preconceived notions that may not have proof in some objective sense to any particular person." Expectations should be reset with every individual.

Gary Belsky is the former Editor-in-Chief of ESPN the magazine, and currently the president of Elland Road Partners. He explains how preconceptions and double standards can damage a woman's career: "I was a big personality boss, and as far as I know it's never hindered me. But I suspect that if I was female some people would have described me as over the top or even crazy."

Women have to contend with double standards like this all the time. For example, a 2012 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that fictitious candidates for a lab manager position were less likely to be selected by a sample of 127 biologists, chemists, and physicists if they were named "Jennifer" instead of "John."

We should take advantage of the distinct strengths women bring to the workplace, but we should never expect them to fit neatly into defined gender roles.

Theme 2: Transparency and open dialogue are essential

How can we possibly have a productive conversation about gender in the workplace if people are afraid to speak their minds?

We often hear about the importance of diversity, but that word usually refers to attributes like race and nationality. While those are critical elements of diversity, companies frequently overlook one of the most important drivers of innovation: diversity of thought. As a 2017 Deloitte report puts it, "Research shows that one of the biggest sources of bias at companies is a lack of diversity of thought." If a company wants to facilitate real diversity and inclusion, it has to welcome a broad range of ideas and perspectives.

This is particularly true when it comes to an issue as wide-ranging and consequential as interactions between men and women in the workplace. Belsky says he created an inclusive environment at his company by having "open and frank conversations" and creating "safe spaces for difficult conversations." Leviton argues that constraints on what men and women can discuss make for "unnatural" communication: "We have to figure out a way to have open and honest dialogue instead of just making it illegal - that's how we stay stuck in bias."

We also perpetuate biases by failing to communicate expectations clearly and respectfully. Weiss notes that it's vital to get everyone in the organization to agree on certain bedrock principles and standards - something that can't happen without open dialogue: "When everyone is aligned and there is no hidden agenda or motives, then there is integrity." He also discusses the value of establishing "shared values, beliefs, [and] clear structured boundaries and guidelines."

I began this piece by mentioning the vast reservoir of anger seething underneath the surface of our discussions about gender in the United States - much of which is natural and justified. But we're entering a stage in this movement where outrage will only get us so far, and it could even be inimical to progress by causing backlash among men and leading to an endless cycle of recrimination. This is a concern that Leviton shares: "For men, my fear is that they will withdraw as a defense mechanism rather than engage to grow and change. If men feel attacked they will naturally be defensive."

Case in point: I reached out to roughly a dozen men for this piece, all of whom I know fairly well. Most of them didn't want to go on record about this topic. That's a shame because they are all men of integrity and leaders in their respective fields.

The best way to help men engage and prevent them from withdrawing is to include them in discussions about how to eliminate bias in the workplace and form healthier working relationships with their female colleagues.

Theme 3: Fight for change, but celebrate progress

When the Peterson Institute for Economics surveyed 22,000 firms around the world in 2014, it found that "almost 60 percent of these firms had no female board members, just over half had no female C-suite executives, and fewer than 5 percent had a female CEO." It also found that firms with more women in corporate leadership positions were more profitable. Women have been reading statistics like these for decades, and it often seems like these chasms will never be bridged.

As if the situation needed to be made even more unbearable, over the past two years, women have discovered that there's an epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. As #MeToo stories continue to flood the headlines and our Twitter feeds, millions of women are realizing that their stories are much more common than they thought. This has only adds to the sense of despair and exasperation.

Women have more than enough reasons to be frustrated with the status quo, and this has led to a powerful sense of urgency in our country. But we can't let this urgency to sour into impatience.

Leviton makes a good point: "My fear is that women who are hopeful will be disappointed and will not give it enough time to see their hopes and aspirations realized." At a time when we're perched on the edge of a revolution, that would be unfortunate.

Massive social transformations take time. Ken Kuznia is the founder and CEO of Point Blank Recruiting, and he draws a parallel between the fight for gender equality and the Civil Rights Movement: "I'm hopeful that our culture will evolve and mature. As with race equality, it certainly won't come without growing pains." Belsky made a similar connection.

The Civil Rights Movement is instructive: While there are still grotesque racial disparities in our society (from incarceration rates to educational gaps), this doesn't mean the fight for civil rights wasn't incredibly successful - from the fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham to an African American president in less than 50 years. Similarly, just look at how much progress women have made in a single lifetime - a century ago, women didn't even have the right to vote. And women didn't start pouring into the labor force until the 1960s (though they played a major role in the explosion of industrial activity during World War II).

Now 40 percent of managers and almost 40 percent of MBA graduates are women. Women also comprise 56 percent of the college students on American campuses. Although only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs, that proportion is an all-time high. And we have never seen a more concerted effort to move women into positions of greater professional responsibility and authority - around 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have employee resource groups, many of which were established to give women access to female mentors (such as the Visa Women's Network and PepsiCo's Women's Inclusion Network).

None of this is to say women (and men) shouldn't fight as hard as they can for gender equality. There are still huge disparities that need to be narrowed and cultural shifts that desperately need to take place. We should never lose the sense of urgency I mentioned above - it's what drives progress and reminds us how far we still have to go.

I encourage all women to discuss these issues with a man they respect - whether it's a mentor, coworker, friend, or family member. While it's important to hear the harrowing stories about predators, bullies, and serial abusers, it's time to hear the stories of a few good men as well. Instead of constantly bludgeoning men with ugly examples of what not to do, let's show them how to do better.

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