I think I was part of the problem for longer than I realized.
As a man, I simply assumed everyone got treated the same. Got paid the same. Was listened to equally – because I sure was listened to. And they paid me well for what I did and said.
And then I started to feel naïve. At first it was noticing that the women on my teams seemed to be paid less than the men, for the same positions. Then I began to notice women get talked over. I began to see women apologize for voicing an opinion in a meeting. I saw men look right past women’s ideas and contributions. Rarely out of malice. Worse — out of blindness.
I’ve come to realize that women do have a more difficult journey in society today, if they want to have the journey of opportunity and acceptance that men do. Society treats women differently, has different expectations of them. And generally speaking the ones who notice this are women. Men mostly glide through their careers, like I used to. Thinking everyone is treated the same, with the same access to opportunity.
And I grew up in an era where the term “feminist” was synonymous with “radical” — a fringe viewpoint. A crazy, minority voice. But the more I noticed, the more it became urgently clear to me that “feminist” is not a fringe response to how women are treated in our society, it’s a sane, measured, reasonable response.
The more women outnumber men in education, the more they aspire to secure leadership positions and positions of authority. “Feminist” describes the moment of truth in society as it makes room for them. Learns to respect them, adjusts to following their lead. So yes, I am a feminist.
When I look back on the journey to this realization, it’s punctuated with some specific experiences. Sources of inspiration and heartbreak. But they share a common theme: an injustice.
THAT’S NOT MY IDEA
I was on a volunteer board almost a decade ago. It was for a public/private partnership where the other board members were the city manager, the chancellor of the local university, the head of the local community development authority, and others — staff from the city and university, local business leaders. The tone set by the city manager and chancellor was open and welcoming.
We were focused on building a business incubator facility. At the time we were in the early stages of site selection, budget sizing, and developing fundraising strategies.
There was one meeting I will always remember. We were in the midst of a fairly strident discussion of two different site alternatives and approaching an impasse. One of the city staff members spoke up and proposed a novel, creative third alternative. No one picked up on it. She suggested it again, no one picked up.
I spoke up, and said “Susan (not her real name) has a really good alternative” and I summarized it. Engaged conversation ensued. I was more than taken aback. When more than one person said “Let’s go with Pete’s idea,” I had to stop the conversation to remind everyone that it was not my idea. It was Susan’s.
I was flabbergasted. Susan and I exchanged glances. Hers one of hurt and appreciation. She was a thoughtful, insightful human. Well versed on the pragmatics of city mechanics and finances. This was the first time I’d personally witnessed what I now know to be a common experience for women.
TRUE-ING UP SALARIES
In every role I have had as a manager, I’ve had to tackle the same problem. The women on my teams were generally not paid the same as the men. And I’ve worked for some of the most progressive and technologically advanced companies in the world. I know there were no overt intentions to pay women less than men for the same jobs, but it happened. Every time.
I coined a term for this: “true-ing up salaries.”
Today I am fortunate to work for a company that shares my values and vigilance. We do examine pay by role and gender to ensure people are paid the same regardless of gender. And I am fortunate to have a role as a senior executive to be able to set a tone and effect policies to ensure we have equal pay for equal roles, that regardless of gender your career path is based on the merits of your contributions. Making this real requires both awareness and action.
SHERYL SANDBERG AND THE MISTAKES I’VE MADE
When my wife and I met we both had career-track jobs. Me in technology marketing, and she in textbook editing. Within two years of getting married, we had the first of our four children (we would have four children in five years), and without either of us really thinking through the implications, my wife decided to quit her job and become a full-time mother — trading a professional job for a 100+ hour per week job with no pay while also squeezing in 5-10 hours a week of freelance editing.
It’s not so much that we talked much about it, it’s just it was the easier, more obvious choice. I made a lot more money than she could. It just made sense. It was expected. And no one at my office ever asked me if I was coming back to work after the births of any of our children. But that question gets asked of pretty much every pregnant mother. It’s this unspoken societal set of norms that make it easy to not question assumptions. To not think through the alternatives, and the consequences. That’s what we did.
It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later, when during the Great Recession my wife needed to go back to a full-time job, that we realized how much a price that decision had cost her. She was able to resume her editing career — right where she had left it. Meanwhile, I had continued to progress far ahead in mine, further exacerbating the gap between our careers and earning potential. And the fifteen years were spent. She couldn’t get those back.
Some years later, reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was a revelation to me. Here was a woman brave enough to share her personal journey through this landscape, to call out just how hard it is for women to travel the same path men do. Social pressure, income inequality. I read Lean In with equal measures of excitement and shame. How could I have been an enabler to the outcome of my wife’s career path? How could I have not done more to think through the implications, to be a better partner? We both made decisions informed by culture, momentum and inertia. Easy at the time, costly in hindsight.
And when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned “Women Can’t Have It All,” it felt like I’d read something written by a soul looking over my shoulder during those decision moments — someone looking over both of our shoulders.
As a husband, I let my wife and our family down by not taking a more active role in questioning assumptions, understanding the need to think about consequences of choices — whether intentional or choices made by a lack of an act.
DREAMFORCE EQUALITY SUMMIT
This past October I attended the huge Salesforce.com conference, Dreamforce, and witnessed a session in the Women and Equality Leadership Summit. It was phenomenal — Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sarah Kate Ellis (CEO of GLAAD) spent more than an hour discussing the challenges (and opportunities) women have pursuing leadership roles in business and society. Frank, honest conversation. I found it illuminating, inspiring, and urgent.
But in a room of about 1,000 people, I was one of maybe 100 men. That was profoundly disappointing and frustrating. Women already know about the challenges they face. While it surely was valuable for them to be there together, where were the men? Men need to be actively engaged in this conversation. A disproportionate number of them in the very positions that can effect change, and they’re not even participating in the conversations.
I HAVE THREE SONS
My wife and I have four children: three sons and a daughter. I am so tired of hearing men called out for gender discrimination verbalizing platitudes of support for women and bringing out the “well of course I’m opposed to discrimination, I have a wife and daughter(s).” That so, so disgustingly misses the point. You should be vigilant because you have sons. The behavior and values you live inform your sons about what equality looks like and feels like, because inequality affects them, not just your daughter(s) and your wife.
WHY I AM A FEMINIST
I am a feminist because I want to create an environment where women and men get judged equally on their merits, and I want my sons to be fully engaged in creating that world. Where men and women have their ideas heard. Where men and women get paid equally for the same roles.
I am a feminist because I don’t ever want another woman to have her idea appropriated.
I am a feminist because I don’t want to “true-up” salaries for the rest of my professional life. I am a feminist because I want women to have the same opportunities as men.
I am a feminist so that society encourages and makes it possible for men, and women, to be equal care givers.
I am a feminist because I want my sons to be active and engaged in creating the environment and “normal” I strive for. Where men and women make their way through their lives and careers based on the quality of their thinking and their merits. A ‘normal” where men and women have their ideas heard. A ‘normal” where men and women get paid equally for the same role and same contribution.
And I am a feminist because I want my daughter and my sons to see how men can be a part of the change, become leaders, and be blind to gender in the decisions they make and the actions they take, as they live their lives.