Women and men, we are more alike than we are different but our differences have impacted our lives both personally and professionally. When I began leading the diversity and inclusion efforts for my company I was very focused on gender. For starters, I’m a woman and like many women, I’ve been working in a male-dominated field for over 22 years. As a technical recruiter that was recruiting IT professionals, I was very familiar with being one of the only women “in the room”. As a leader in D&I many of my efforts focused on underrepresented populations in the workforce. Women made up almost half of our workforce but very few women were making it to executive levels in the company. As I started to explore why this was happening and how we start to correct it I started to learn more about the differences between women and men. The reality was, we are living in a modern society but we had not evolved based on old societal norms that are still dictating “our place”. Both women and men are suffering tremendously from these old ways of behaving but it’s taking us centuries to correct it.
Let me first call out that there are, clearly, some biological differences between women and men. The most obvious is that women can build a human, right inside of our bodies. Crazy stuff! Men, they cannot do this. This very obvious difference is the crux for many of the challenges that we face as we work towards equality for women in the workplace. Because we spend 10 months carrying a child and have “tools” to provide for that child in the early stages of life, women are the default caregiver most of the time. There are only a few exceptions of abandonment or death or a very progressive man stepping in early on. Women are seen as the natural caregivers and men are expected to get back to work protecting and providing for their families.
There is also a difference in hormones for men and women. Men naturally have more testosterone than women, 7 to 8 times as much, and it’s this hormone that supports men in their ability to take risks and “protect” what is “theirs”. This hormone is also linked to having more confidence. There are a lot of studies on this, here’s just one article on How Testosterone In Men Can Help With Confidence. Men needed this confidence hundreds of years ago so they could make very quick decisions about life and death. At any moment a saber tooth tiger could be threatening to eat their family and it was their job to fight this vicious predator off. What an amazing thing to provide men with this injection of invincibility to take on risk. It’s truly fascinating and I see it play out to this day, but we don’t need men to fight off vicious animals, at least not the likes of a saber tooth tiger. But they still hold the keys to confidence in many situations; whereas women were needed to “hold down the fort”. We were back in the hut nurturing our children and our communities. And we needed to have lots of children in order to work the land or hunt or protect. So we had a lot going on. We also would spend days making food and fetching water from water sources that could be miles away. It was a team effort and everyone had a part to play. But over the years innovation and technology changed the game. We figured out how to build wells for water and then there’s that whole indoor plumbing thing. We also discovered electricity so we could make and heat food without a fire. Boy how times were changing. When I was a kid it was a big deal to have a microwave; just minutes for a full meal to go from packaged and frozen to hot and ready. Amazing stuff! But here in lies the problem. The world around us was changing so fast. We now had weapons that anyone could use like guns to protect ourselves and we eventually had conveniences that made working all day to support the community much more efficient. So why do we continue to normalize men protecting and providing and women supporting and nurturing for so long? Well, maybe because it worked and it’s really only been the last 100 or so years that technology has come so far so fast. How could the evolutions of our bodies catch up? They haven’t so we have to talk about how to shift while we still have a lot of natural and societal norms playing against us.
In Dr. Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly she talks about how shame impacts men and women differently. The short summary of her research says that everyone has worthiness issues and worthiness is about shame. Men feel shame when they feel weak (can’t kill the saber-tooth tiger) and women feel shame when they aren’t doing everything perfectly (managing the community and nurturing everyone sufficiently). So who wants to feel shame? Not me and I imagine not you either so we desperately avoid shame at all costs. This means that men can never appear weak and women feel the need to “do it all” and to do it perfectly….yeah for us.
After decades of watching women and men in the workplace, I saw this playing out time and time again. Once I started to take note and talk openly about the different behaviors The Wall analogy struck me. It’s very personal to me as I’ve avoided many walls, run through a few and was pushed over some. I’ve been using this analogy for several years to describe how men and women approach challenge or risk and here’s how I describe it…
When we hire young men we ask them to run through walls. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically do. Then we point at another wall and they do it again. They do this over and over again because they can’t imagine what would happen if they didn’t just plow through that wall. Now, let’s look at how women approach this wall. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically don’t. You see, us women have a few questions. What’s on the other side of the wall? Is it worth running through? Will it hurt? What’s it made of? Is there another way to get over the wall? A window, a door? Can I use a tool? What do I have to leave behind if I run through it? Why am I running through this wall again? And if you’re in an industry like I am the men that are in leadership positions and making decisions about who gets the next opportunity can be like, “seriously, if you can’t just run through the wall I’m not sure I know how to help you. I can’t want this more for you than you want this for yourself!” Sound familiar? So it took me a while to connect the dots but it’s so clear to me now. Men don’t feel they have a choice. It starts when they are young and they hear things like, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Or even better, “don’t be a pussy.” If you want to watch a fascinating documentary on the impact of societal expectations that we put on our boys check out The Mask We Live on Netflix, it explores masculinity in today’s world. I have two little boys and I’m determined to find some balance for them so they can be themselves and maybe ask a few more questions before running through certain walls without feeling shame.
As for women, much of my work has focused on empowering them and building confidence so they can feel more prepared to run through walls when they are presented to them. We’ve also focused on advocacy because I’m sure, like many other executive women, I did not always run through the wall. Other people pushed or carried me over the wall and they believed enough in me to help me get to the other side. There are countless books for women focused on helping them be more prepared for The Wall but some of the best clarity came to me through an organization called Linkage. Susan Brady, Senior VP at Linkage, has done a great deal of work helping women to overcome the hurdles that they typically face in the workplace. Check out this video on the 7 Leadership Hurdles Women Face in the Workplace. If you would like to learn more about the hurdles Susan has a book coming out in November called Mastering Your Inner Critic and the Other 7 Hurdles to Advancement. I was honored to contribute to Susan’s book with some of my own hurdles and there have been many. I believe this work will be impactful for women and help us become more aware of what, we ourselves, could be doing to get in our own way. Do not hear me wrong here. There are a lot of societal implications impacting women in the workplace but the fastest way to see improvement in your own life is to get clear on you first.
Women will need to stay intentional in their efforts to face The Walls. This will continue to be a challenge for many of us and there will be times we do not run through them and it will be the right thing for us at the time. There will also be times that Men will run through too many Walls and this will create long-lasting damage. Running through The Wall can be devastating to middle-aged men as we see heart disease, addiction and the highest suicide rate across the US for men. Women continue to struggle to rise in leadership at the highest levels with still more CEOs named John or David than women. We may all need to evaluate the impact of The Wall for both men and women. And I’m sure some of you reading this feel like you may be on the other side of this stereotype and that’s cool but it’s an entirely different discussion. What happens to men that won’t run through The Wall and what happens to women that run through without question? It’s not easy for either one of them. I have been criticized for running through The Wall. I was seen as too focused on my career and in it for myself. It was uncomfortable for my male counterparts to witness my ambition, it wasn’t very ladylike. Ugh! But the more clear I’ve become on my purpose the easier this has been to overcome.
So I say we focus on what we can control and that is to get more grounded in ourselves through focusing on our strengths, prioritize more effectively, begin to gain clarity on what we enjoy and what we want to do, and give ourselves a little room to learn and grow. Failing is a must for both men and women. When we fail we learn to get back up to realize that it’s not that big of a deal. I find that surrounding myself with trusted advisors has helped me make better decisions that work best for my life. I have the right support around me to take the risks and to get back up when it doesn’t work out the way I’d hoped, and it often doesn’t work out. These are both personal and professional relationship and I am grateful for them all. I am still struggling to make the right decisions about which Walls to run through so I’m in this with you. It’s one more part of my journey and I suspect that it always will be.
So I say make some choices about what Walls you want to run through (guys) and then when you decide, run through it without looking back (ladies)! For on the other side may just be our next great adventure and most certainly will be progress!