I was recently asked to join a progressive online community called MARC, which stands for Men Advocating Real Change, and to be a contributor to the MARC blog. MARC is made up of professionals committed to achieving equality in the workplace. It empowers community members to engage in candid conversations about gender, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through member-generated advice, insights, and best practices.
It seems like this would be the perfect forum for me to contribute to the conversation, especially with the focus of my work being on “leveraging difference,” which includes gender difference. So, I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to start my first blog post for MARC until I realized that I don’t really like MARC. As a man, it can be difficult and unpleasant to deal with gender dynamics and to have to talk about issues like the challenges of colleagueship with women. I’m reminded of my days in graduate school when I decided to join a men’s awareness group. I wanted to better understand women, gender, and myself. (Actually, in retrospect, the biggest reason was that I was dating this remarkable woman who I wanted to get to know better, and I was looking for anything that would help).
I joined the group and it seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t belong in the group. Not because I was somehow more enlightened than the other men in the group—I most certainly was not. But because what they talked about didn’t really resonate with me. The topics of discussion too often felt like a personal attack. It wasn’t that other guys were attacking me, but more that the subject matter was offensive. I felt like I was being blamed just being who I was, for being a man. The mannerisms, language, and behaviors that were a part of who I was were being talked about as though they were wrong. Moreover, as a man of color, I was not sure that this gender work was not a distraction from the “more important” work of fighting racism. And to top it all off, I thought the men in this group were a little too self-reflective, a little too self-righteous, a little too sensitive and a little too, well, white. I soon drifted away from the group—other more important activities just took precedence.
My experience nicely illustrates a trap that ensnares many men when it comes to doing the work it takes to create a community and society in which gender diversity truly enriches everyone. The kinds of negative reactions I had to that men’s group are both legitimate and common. And those very same legitimate reactions create the smokescreen that prevents men from experiencing both the costs of the status quo as well as the benefits of something better.
I understand some very clear realities about gender at this stage of my career and my life. On the cost side, my sexism—especially the unconscious, unintentional stuff—harms my women colleagues. Maybe they are mostly small slights, but inflicting many small abrasions is the stuff of torture. Moreover, my sexism harms me personally. I can’t be fully productive and fully collaborative (and those two are critically important career competencies in the 21st century economy) if I am hindered by my gender bias. That bias can take many forms: feeling uneasy with a female boss, or being uncertain about how to give feedback to a woman direct report, or being pre-occupied by sexual attraction to a colleague, or just being frustrated about having to walk on eggshells when it comes to women and gender. All of these feelings drain time and mental energy from a man in a gender diverse workplace. That is time and energy that is better used for accomplishing the work of one’s organization. An added cost for me as a black man? I can’t fully address and redress the dynamics of racism if I am myself at the mercy of my own unconscious gender biases. Gandhi and King among others have made the point eloquently that all of these biases and injustices are fruit of the same tree.
The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging. If we can really make substantive headway in breaking down the bias and dysfunction related to gender, there is the possibility of experiencing a truly energized, dynamic and diverse workplace and community. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from interacting with the multiplicity of women colleagues when I can do so skillfully, and free from anxiety and self-consciousness that I will mess up or be offensive. I am much better at accepting and learning from women who are smart, resourceful, aggressive, quiet, feminine, tough-minded and all manner of other traits. And, by the way, I’m also better at connecting with other men who share exactly the same qualities. Engaging gender is not just about understanding women—it’s also about understanding the range of maleness that is present in our workplaces, communities, societies, and in ourselves.
I don’t like MARC because from moment to moment, it is challenging to really roll up my sleeves and work on making myself better; looking critically at myself is not an especially fun activity for me. But I will be better for doing the work. And I will help others in my life—both women and men—if I can fully embrace the insights, dialogue, and learning that can come from a forum like MARC. So I’ll work on it—maybe not every day, but most days—and see what happens.