I was 23 years old, standing in front of all my colleagues at my very first corporate board meeting, excited and prepared to share my research and ideas.
From across the conference room, I heard the CEO’s voice. “Twirl,” he said.
“I said, twirl.”
I was 23. He was the CEO. So I walked in a slow circle, too stunned to do anything else.
“Great,” he said. “I just wanted to see your ass.”
I came to the meeting armed with information and insights, hoping to make a positive impression. Yet to the man with the most power in the room, I was a body, not a person.
Fast-forward to 2018: As the head of WE Communications’ Global Marketing Team, I was standing next to my boss for a picture. Or trying to — he was too scared to even put his arm around me! “I don’t know what I should do,” he said. “How do we show we’re a team?”
That’s how it was with all our company photos. In every single one, the men looked like they’d been zapped with stun guns — their arms glued to their sides, their hands crossed in front of their midsections.
Now it’s 2022, and as we witness the devasting events in Ukraine, these kinds of interpersonal tensions might seem minor—and relatively speaking, they are. But this Women’s History Month, as we watch the brave people of Ukraine defend their homeland, one thing is clear: We need peace. Whether we are talking about conflicts between nations or between co-workers, it’s more important than ever to create cultures of mutual respect and trust and care.
I wrote this piece shortly before the war broke out, and initially I was tempted to file it away because it didn’t feel relevant in light of everything that’s happening in the world. After thinking about it, I decided to share it because the essential message is this: Most people are basically good, but we are also limited — we have blind spots; we make mistakes. If we’re going to create a world where people of all backgrounds can work together in harmony, if we are going to prevail over the people who truly mean harm, we will need to stick together. Yes, we need to call out wrongs and draw boundaries, but we also need to give each other a minute to catch up — to be patient and forgiving with those who truly want to create a better world.
Unequal power structures are the root of all conflict. That’s why we need equal representation. We need the people in the seats of power to look like the people they are negotiating on behalf of. This is bigger than the vice president’s office or the occasional CEO’s office — the change needs to happen at every level of our society. More representation will bring us closer to equality. And we need to tap the power and goodwill of our collective allies.
The problems of equality in this world can feel huge and overwhelming, but in our own small ways, we can each help move the needle. Here’s how to start.
Women: Presume allyship.
We all know the point of corporate sexual harassment programs is to help clueless men understand what kind of behavior is uncool so that they’ll stop making those stupid jokes and obnoxious comments (or worse). There’s just one problem: They don’t work. A 2020 study by Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin and Tel Aviv University sociologist Alexandra Kalev finds that most corporate sexual harassment programs treat men like potential harassers, leaving them feeling defensive and actually less sensitive to the needs of their female coworkers.
But here’s the good news: When you enlist men to be part of the solution, they step up. Bystander-intervention programs teach co-workers to identify and disrupt sexual harassment when they see it happening, calling out the catcalls and gross behavior in real time. Male leaders were extremely engaged in management training to help them stamp out harassment. Once you treat them like heroes rather than potential perps, they’re all in.
Men: Mentor women.
I’ve been very lucky to have had some amazing women mentor me. But as someone who began her career in the 1990s, I have to say there is no way I’d be where I am today without the support of the many phenomenal men who championed me.
I’d like to say that times have changed, but the numbers don’t lie. Even in 2022, 90% of the world’s executive leaders and corporate board members are men, and only 5% of the world’s CEOs are women.
If we women are going to rise through the corporate ranks, we need mentors. And we need mentors who are at the top of the food chain. Most of the time, those people are still men.
And right or wrong, a lot of them are afraid of their female co-workers. After the #MeToo movement began, men started shutting women out — 60% of male managers said they didn’t feel comfortable participating in work-related activities such as mentorship with their female colleagues.
Yes, this is mind-blowingly depressing, but there are signs of hope. In 2021, WE Communications and YouGov conducted a survey of organization leaders (who were mostly men because … well, see above) and found that the majority said the social unrest of our times was causing them to reflect on their own limitations and defenses. They also said they were more eager to build strong relationships with people who have backgrounds different from their own.
Okay, guys, good start. But this is still just the beginning. Sisterhood alone won’t shatter the glass ceiling. We need you to start swinging your sledgehammers too!
Everyone: Build a foundation of trust.
Recently, I got into a very strong disagreement with another EVP who happens to be male. In a meeting with several others present, we had a fierce tug-of-war. Some of our colleagues found it uncomfortable, but it was extremely productive. We found a creative solution that was much better than the ideas either one of us had initially brought to the table.
The thing is, my colleague and I don’t have any ill will — we’re actually good pals who have dinner with each other’s families. We can have these intense exchanges because we have a foundation of respect and trust.
Building a good collegial relationship, especially with someone who has a different background, takes time and effort. Whether you’re seeing each other in the hallways or over a screen, you have to connect on a personal level — for example, by scheduling virtual coffee catch-ups — with pockets of unstructured time when you just shoot the breeze about what’s happening in your lives. Times when you ask, “How are you doing?” — and it’s a sincere question.
When you get to know each other as humans rather than identities, you have space for generosity. Nobody has to be perfect; you just have to listen.
Remember: Change is possible.
I definitely don’t want any women to experience the kind of grotesque harassment I endured when I was young. But I also don’t want them to miss the opportunities I had, the ones that came from building rapport with male colleagues who invested in me and elevated me. If we’re going to move forward, men and women need to work together. Men in power need to smash the glass ceiling from above, and women need to be willing to reach for the arm looking to pull them up — to accept the help that men have been providing each other for eons. We need to be able to recognize allies (even when they aren’t always perfect) and create cultures of understanding and forgiveness — cultures where bullies know they’ll never win.