Privilege In a Woman’s World [Part I]

October 21st, 2010

It’s not easy to get women.

Last week, I had the distinct privilege of serving as a faculty member for Darden’s inaugural Women Emerging in Leadership executive education program.  The brainchild of my colleague Erika James, this first installment of the program brought together women from a variety of companies from all over the world to learn together with faculty colleague and leadership negotiations expert Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Erika, and me.  I was, as Erika introduced me, the “token male” on the team and in the program.  It was a funny and unsettling moment to hear myself described that way and, as the week unfolded, I really decided to pay attention to my role in the program.  I had been the token many times in my life—the first and only black person on my faculty or work team or social gathering.

But, being black and token is not the same as being male and token.

Now, this is almost self-evident to me.  I and many others before me have written about how being a token who is part of a society’s minority group (thus making token status pretty common) is different than being a token who is a part of society’s majority group (where token status is mostly just an indicator of a having a pretty weird day).  But it occurred to me that by virtue of its rare occurrence, I had not paid close attention to what it was really like to be a male token.  After all, I teach and consult with managers and executives in a markedly male business environment, both in terms of demographics (the Bureau of Labor statistics reports that about 63% of management positions are occupied by men) and broader masculine business culture.  I have had the luxury of operating in a predominantly male environment, a luxury that affords me, as a diversity scholar and professional, the opportunity to focus my interest on issues like race without having to worry quite as much about gender.  Since I’m not a woman, understanding women and gender wasn’t really the place where I could add the most insight, I told myself.

But, I came to realize that there was a lot for me to learn during this week.  Interestingly, just before I taught my first session in the program, I had an email exchange with a female colleague about women’s experience in organizations. We were lamenting the fact that in her organization, the focus of diversity this year was on increasing the representation of people of color because, at about 25-30% representation, they had taken care of the gender issues. This is, by the way, a hallmark of Managing Diversity organizational mindsets; to think that you focus on different types of identity in a piecemeal fashion, rather than looking holistically at the organization’s ability to deal with difference.  But more to the point, my colleague and I were agreeing that it’s pretty common to think that because a near critical mass of women have been recruited to a company, that it has solved its gender problems.  This delusion is appealing, but in my work in organizations, I often find that the cadre of disaffected women who are part of this so-called “satisfied” minority is sometimes just waiting to explode.

When I worked with the extraordinary group of women in the program, I began to understand even better both frustration of their experience and, more importantly, the power of their resolve not to be taken down by it, whether here in the U.S. or abroad.  That was very cool.

In Part II of this series, I’ll talk about what part of the experience wasn’t so cool.

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