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Women: Looking for empowerment at work? Here’s a surprising solution

When I travel, I use the opportunity to connect face-to-face with people from past work lives. This keeps me active and engaged with my CHAMP network, even when we don’t have an immediate overlap of interests. And I love hearing what my friends are learning through new jobs, challenges, and relationships.  During one such trip, I scheduled coffee with a former colleague whom I greatly admire. M___ is smart, works with integrity, and leads with authenticity. On this occasion, M___ had just returned from a large conference for women in business. Her employer was a key corporate sponsor. I was looking forward to hearing her second-hand messages of empowerment and inclusion, so I asked about it right away.

Author’s note: This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Network Beyond Bias.

Preaching to the Choir

“It was great, but I got so angry,” M___ said. My confusion must have been evident. She continued, “I’ve been to this conference a few years in a row now. All these amazing women go on stage to talk about how difficult it is to be an ambitious woman in corporate America.

“They talk about work/life balance struggles. Someone gives statistics about how many women will get frustrated and leave the workforce to care for children or aging parents. They all use words like resilience, empowerment, and determination. There are stories about subtle sexism, blatant sexism, and sexual harassment. We hear how we won’t close the pay gap or reach C-Suite gender equity in our lifetimes.

“And there we all sit: hundreds of women who have all experienced discrimination, harassment, sexism, pay inequality. WE. ALREADY. KNOW. I kept looking around wondering, ‘Where are all the men who need to hear this? Do they not see a problem? Or do they just not care?’

Singing a New Song

At this moment, I was being invited to join the White Women’s Choir. My line was supposed to be, “I KNOW!” But it suddenly felt wrong. My synapses were firing in a different direction. So I said instead, “M_____, your company recently sponsored a conference for African Americans in your industry. Did you go to it?”

“Well… no.” The gears began to click into place in her mind. “I didn’t attend the one for Asian-Americans either. Nor the one for Latinx and Hispanic professionals in our industry.”

We were back on the same page. I admitted, “I didn’t either. But I’m guessing they each focused on all the ways their constituents are being discouraged, frustrated, and undervalued at work. I bet there were a lot of statistics about pay inequality and benefit plans that don’t meet their needs. And everyone in the room had probably already lived that data in real time. At some point, one of them whispered to a friend, ‘Where are all the white people who need to hear this? Do they not see a problem, or do they not care?’

“You and I aren’t seeing their struggles because they’re not daily realities for us. And men don’t see ours for the same reason. Let’s change that. We should go to the MLK breakfast and the Chinese New Year celebration and the Pride Parade. Let’s invite men to go with us to the women’s conferences. Let’s stop focusing on our own problems and start being allies to others.”

After our conversation, I started attending meetings for organizations that were outside my own identity group. Subsequently, I began volunteering as a mentor within professional associations for underrepresented groups (veterans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, for those who were going to ask). At a large event, I grabbed a microphone and invited 300 men to attend the next women’s conference. M___ has made similar changes. We haven’t changed the world yet, but we have changed ourselves. I believe that’s the right starting point.

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