Last weekend I went to a conference and found myself in small conversation–just me and three other men. I very quickly noticed that they were only making eye contact with each other–and even more frustratingly–one of them even had his body turned away from mine–effectively closing me out of the conversation.
I was so frustrated and angry. I wanted to rant and rave. I wanted to jump up and down like a child screaming, “But I’m an empowerment coach! I teach women how to hold power.”
“I have alpha-body language! I’m doing everything right!
You can’t do this to me!”
But there’s the rub. Women’s power is not just dependent on us doing our part to move past the internalized barriers that hold us back–it’s also dependent on the world we operate in and the unconscious bias that everyone carries.
These guys were not trying to be sexist–conversely, they are part of a community that was founded in part on gender parity. But they also live in a world in which a man’s opinion is worth more than a woman’s. We all unconscionably perform these assumptions–like the time I automatically complimented a female friend on a dish, and didn’t even think to compliment her male partner. (He had, in fact, actually been the chef.)
I was so pissed off last weekend that I walked off in a huff–something I’m not proud of. But in a situation like that, what do you do? Do you explicitly call someone out and say, “Can you please change your body language, it expresses your unconscious belief that I’m less worthwhile because I’m a chick?” Do you avoid these groupings all together (“If they don’t need us, we don’t need them!”) or is there another answer?
In truth, it’s complicated, and there are different answers for different situations.
It’s hard to rise at a company that structurally and intractably doesn’t value women, but most of the time, there are ways through.
And I’m on a mission to find those ways out.
The next day I ran into a wise-woman at the same conference. This sixty plus-year old woman fits the classic typology of sassy lady. She’s been leaning in her entire life–running a business and making big decisions for her family. She regularly gets mistaken for a secretary or aide at the industry conferences she goes to, even though she’s the big boss.
“I would have just said, ‘Excuse me, can you turn a little bit? I’m having a hard time seeing the other guy,'” she said when I told her about my experience. Brilliance!
Sometimes the simplest approach is the best, and sometimes we let ourselves get distracted, and a small moment can blow up into the overwhelming feeling that we’ll always have to work twice as hard as the guys to get anywhere, and the futility of it all can be demoralizing. But don’t let that happen. Stay the course because you will get there, and there are always chinks and cracks in the walls ahead of us.