Saturday, September 14, 2013

We are Still Leaning Into or Away From Gender Questions

Hands up please if you have heard something about the controversies surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. Keep your hands up if you have actually read it. How many of you formed an opinion or jumped to conclusions without having read the book?

I haven't read virtually any of the controversy, and I haven't watched the TEDTalk she gave prior to deciding to write the book. Sources tell me (I just love saying that) feedback after the talk led Sheryl to clarify with evidence many of her claims, which as far as I'm concerned shows an admirable receptivity to critique.

Being in the tech world, I can't help but have heard a lot about the whole thing, however I prefer to form my own opinions by going to the source. So I read the book. Sometimes I agreed strongly; sometimes I disagreed. I'm going to focus today on some areas where I resonated with what Sheryl had to say.

Perhaps one area where I have changed the most over the years and where I completely understood what Sheryl was talking about, was when she talked about how pretending that gender doesn't exist, doesn't make it not exist. We are acculturated, especially in the computing industry, to just try and fit in, to believe in a culture of meritocracy.  Sheryl points out - quite accurately in my experience - that gender is always there, just below the surface. It pops up, because as humans, we judge other  humans subjectively even when we think we don't.

I periodically have people tell me "there is no difference between men and women". I used to believe this. I used to operate as if there was no difference, which meant, in reality, that I was trying to be one of the guys. As far back as grade school, long before my life as a computer nerd, I found that the guys never believed for a second that I was a guy no matter how hard I tried to convince them otherwise. It wasn't because I really wanted to be a guy. It was because I learned early on that guys were often doing what I wanted to do and the girls weren't.

Somehow I missed the message that I should want to be doing what the girls were doing. So I busted my childhood butt to be one of the guys. It didn't work as planned, not in 6th grade, nor later in 10th grade, nor as a young software engineer in the 1980s. Just when I would think I was being accepted as an equal, something would come up to remind me we were not the same. In 6th grade it happened when suddenly the rage among the guys was the Playboy Bunny. That little black rabbit head started appearing everywhere in the classroom.

I remember the moment I found out what the bunny referred to and realized there was a problem. I had no idea what to do other than ignore it and pretend it didn't exist. It was about that time the guys threw me out of their fort in the woods and told me I was not welcome. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident but it was not. I wish I could say it doesn't ever happen in 2013 but sometimes it does.

Memory of my bunny  moment flashed through my head as Sheryl wrote about going out to dinner with the tech guys to drink whiskey and smoke cigars, only to find it made her sick. These experiences are not uncommon, and as most of us who have been around a while have come to learn, they aren't simply extracurricular activities that can be ignored. They are part of how important relationships are built and business gets done.

So with regard to those people who tell me there is no difference between women and men, I have come to realize that in most of the cases I encounter, these people are well meaning and are expressing an ideal. But that ideal is not reality. Stating it, and thinking that will make it true, is delusion.

Strong words? Yes. Sheryl talks also about how there is a danger, both perceived and real, to speaking openly about gender. As she puts it, you are wading into deep and muddy waters; it can be a no-win situation. Tar pit is what comes into my mind. On the other hand, there are a lot of very good reasons (discussed at some length in the book) for speaking out.  Professional as well as personal. I suggest you read the book and judge for yourself. Go to the source.

If, after reading Lean In, you want to talk about it with other interested people, Sheryl Sandberg's book is the subject of Global Tech Women's next virtual book club on Friday September 20th at 9am Pacific Time. Everyone is welcome.

In addition to all the practical reasons Sheryl discusses for speaking out, I will add that acknowledging what "is" can be a powerful thing. Living either in denial or ignorance doesn't lead to happiness. Becoming attuned to what is in front of you, in your here and now, has the potential to do so however. Not instantly - there is no free lunch. You have to decide what to do with your reality and taking action is work. Sheryl would call this leaning in.

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